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Thursday, Jul 01, 2004

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Are you wearing SMS today?

Sravanthi Challapalli

MOST of the names sound as if they belong in a chemistry textbook but metrosexuals wear them with ease. And SMS gets a whole new definition by having little to do with mobile phones but everything to do with the management of that icky bodily exudate, sweat. Yes, there is Oxy-Rich, there is No Sweat, there is Teflon Wrinkle-free, E-Washed, odour-free and what have you. These apart, there are radiation-free trousers, sun-guard shirts, fire-retardant dhotis and more.

This summer, the Catalyst desk received a flurry of press releases announcing various innovations in clothes. If seeing is believing, so is reading, we guess. Sample this: "The oxygen ions get encapsulated inside the molecules of the fabric ... With any movement, these capsules break and the oxygen ions are released ... It makes the wearer more alert and focused." Or this: " ... T-shirts are treated with a special wash where the fabric absorbs five times more sweat than any other regular T-shirt. This is because the fabric used for the T-shirt ... has effective perspiration absorbency and improved moisture movement."

Which brought up the obvious question: Is this for real? Or is it just prettily strung bombast? Talking to the players in question threw up a variety of responses, the gist of which was that they offered much incremental value, but at the retail level, the response was pretty much that it was a marketing gimmick, which again the marketers don't seem to dispute strongly as they say they have to innovate to achieve leadership. Not only that, innovative clothing is also an answer to the growing and varying wardrobe needs of consumers today, they say.

Says Nabankur Gupta, Group President, Raymond, "The wardrobe of today's consumer has expanded. The application of apparel has changed." So, he explains, an executive would wear one kind of clothes for a not-so-important meeting, better ones for a high-profile pow-wow and clothes specifically called eveningwear. With such demand, it is natural that manufacturers try to cater to each specification and try to stay ahead of the competition. Raymond's latest innovation in clothing is its sweat-absorbent `tropical fabric', Cool Plus, which is claimed to be the only wool-blended fabric using such technology. The fibres expel sweat through capillary action and special micro-slits facilitate instant sweat evaporation that prevent the fabric from sticking to the skin, says an explanatory note.

Says Vasanth Kumar, Vice-President (Sales & Marketing), Madura Garments, "Internationally, `smart clothing' is in. It ranges from technological innovations in finishing, delivering functional benefits like `nano stain-free wrinkle-free' right up to `mood control' through `intelligent clothing' which goes beyond functional benefit." Many of these applications are derived from technological breakthroughs in Japan, Europe and the US. Madura has come out with quite a few such collections in the past few years, including Ice Touch and Oxy-Rich in its Van Heusen brand and Resista, the Nano-Care range in the Peter England brand.

Arvind Brands' Janak Dave, Business Head (Arrow), says people will always welcome a technological breakthrough that answers a consumer need. And so the Indian consumer is now offered shirts that promise to keep him cool and dry in spite of the blazing heat and pouring perspiration. Says Venkatesh Sivaraman, Managing Director, Crocodile Products, which has launched the Moman range of SMS (Sweat Management System) T-shirts, "People's awareness is higher nowadays. During their workout, they want to sweat, but they also want to keep dry." Crocodile's T-shirts are treated with pharma major CIBA Geigy's Ultraphil, a treatment for the fabric which ensures the fibres open up to absorb sweat better, speed up evaporation and keep the body cool and comfortable. "It is like a baby's diaper which can hold a lot of liquid," explains Sivaraman, adding that the garment retains its new look for a longer period as the treatment ensures that static cling is reduced. As in any category, marketers should offer consumers something more and something useful, which becomes the `extra value proposition,' he adds.

However, Suhail Sattar and Hanif Sattar, partners of the Chennai-based Hasbro which owns the Basics and Genesis brands, say there is a difference between coating a fabric to imbue it with certain properties and modifying the fibre to achieve the same benefit. According to them, longevity counts, and that gets shortened as coatings are good only for a certain number of washes. Hasbro has come out with No Sweat T-shirts which use Fortrell, a fabric made using the latest technology in `moisture management'. The coating vs modified fabric argument evokes this rather philosophical response from Raymond's Gupta: "Well, nothing lasts forever. Anyway, alternated with the other clothes in your wardrobe, these shirts should last you at least a couple of years."

Amitabh Suri, General Manager (Marketing), Indian Terrain, a Chennai-based brand of menswear, strikes a different note. "Now smart fabric is taken for granted. Style is where it's at." In other words, it's the attitude that matters, not the attribute. Acknowledging the role of smart fabric, Suri says innovative companies like his will look for such technology and employ it to make consumers feel good about the product but ultimately, it's the image a garment imparts that counts. So pockets, slot seams, collars, these are what will matter, not so much the fabric itself. Garment manufacturers are trying to move into designer terrain where there is "bad fabric and bad construction but great attitude," says he.

Question the other players and the consensus is that while image is key to sell clothes, leadership is buttressed by technological innovations and leading fashion trends. "Fashion is a given, but attributes can swing a product into your favour. The marriage of the two makes a good brand," say Hasbro's Sattars. Says Arrow's Dave, "The innovation can work only if it delivers a benefit and is in sync with the brand identity." The brand's "runaway success" with the Unstainables line of shirts and trousers clearly indicates the impact effective technology has in the market place, he adds.

Most of these technologically-enhanced clothes come at a premium, some so costly that the price can't be passed on to the consumer. Crocodile's Sivaraman, whose SMS T-shirts retail for around Rs 540, as against the usual range of Rs 500, says the company did not continue with its line of `single thread' T-shirts this year for that reason. However, its SMS shirts are doing pretty well and the company is not able to match the demand, he claims, adding that they will produce more of these next year. Hasbro, which brought out a range of nanowear last year, discontinued it as retail prices had to be doubled. "Premium need not be in pricing alone," says Suhail Sattar, "it could mean an edge in what the product has to offer."

Says Madura's Vasanth Kumar, "In the early stages these are priced several times the normal. Then they find a place where performance is paramount, like in NASA or in expedition teams, but over a period, settle down to an `affordable' premium - at around 20 per cent to 100 per cent depending upon the value benefit they offer."

Do people actually walk into a store asking for an Oxy-Rich shirt or a No-Sweat tee? Says the proprietor of a large multi-brand outlet in Chennai: "There is no specific demand. These labels are mainly meant to grab consumer attention and help in brand building. They don't really increase the volume of the business." Indian Terrain's Suri says he tends to agree with this view. This brand too is bringing out a non-staining `Teflon Wrinkle-Free' line, but "one really can't claim a USP. Everyone's selling the same promise," he observes.

However, Arrow's Dave says, "Multi-brand retailers are bombarded by a variety of offerings from brands trying to carve a niche in a highly competitive market. The market for intelligent clothing is still evolving and the consumer, as always, is discerning. A marketing gimmick launch may create initial excitement (if backed by powerful communication) but may not be effective in the long run."

Says Vasanth Kumar, "The innovations being offered by us are backed by scientific evidence in terms of performance. Every retailer is given product information explaining how it works. Every product has a hang tag giving clear details. Worldwide, great brands are built on innovation and being a leader in apparel, it is imperative we come out with it constantly."

Dave says the only yardstick of success is innovations becoming a staple part of a business offering. Wrinkle-free shirts, in which Arrow claims to be the pioneer in India, lycra-enhanced garments and Unstainables have now become regular Arrow offerings, which is indicative of the degree of consumer demand.

The next big innovation likely to stay (after wrinkle-free) seems to be that involving nanotechnology. The fabric is worked upon at a molecular level to create a wide array of performance features that become part of the material's permanent character. Technology such as moisture management, UV ray protection and stain-free will grow in demand. `Smart clothing' with advanced climatically-controlled garments are also expected to be big. Currently these are available only in developed countries, and at prohibitive costs, says Vasanth Kumar. Crocodile says it is pioneering the India launch of radiation-free trousers in August, with technology from Taiwan that promises to cut radiation by 99 per cent. The pocket linings will be made of emission shell fabric, a woven mix of cotton-polyester interlaced with titanium steel, which is capable of filtering out the electromagnetic rays cellular phones are known to emit.

To borrow from the Raymond advertisement for Cool Plus, you don't have to be hot to look hot. Stressful situations don't have to make you all hot and bothered, you can stay calm and unruffled as oxygen ions work their magic around you, not have to keep tugging at your sweaty clothes in aerobics class but jump and lunge to the maximum, and not worry about b.o. As chemistry affects physiology, man increases in immaculacy; clothes, as the adage goes, maketh the man. Or maybe, tech maketh him!

Imaging: K. Bala

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