As sari usage waned, so did the need for branding.

For many in India, especially in the younger generation, sari has become an outfit to be worn on special occasions and not on a daily basis.

Divya Trivedi

Think sari brands, and you would have to wonder where they all went. Go to a Bombay Dyeing showroom in Andheri and ask for a sari, and you’re told they will be available only during Diwali – for the past couple of years, it has been making saris once a year and selling them till stocks last. The Vimals, Varelis and Vipuls of the sari world of not so long ago are but specks on the sari scene today.

“Customers do not ask for a particular brand of sari when they come to my shop. They ask for either a chiffon or a cotton or a silk variety,” says a salesman at Urvashi Saris, a retail outlet in South Bombay. According to him, branding a sari is a wasteful exercise as women are not brand-conscious as far as a sari is concerned.

Names such as Garden Vareli, Bombay Dyeing and Vimal, most of them primarily in menswear, took the sari from the local retail shops and gave it a brand identity in the ’90s through television advertising. Vipul and Parag saris followed suit and attained relative popularity for their brands. Their signature tunes on television helped in creating a mass appeal. But today, no manufacturer/ seller of saris is spending as heavily on advertisements as they might have done till a few years ago. Naina Shah of Vasai in Mumbai wonders, “I hardly see any sari ads on TV nowadays. Where have all the players gone?”

With the well-known tagline of “A woman expresses herself in many ways, Vimal is one of them,” the Reliance group’s Vimal shone on the sari scene. “The Reliance group company, once a leading player in the branded sari market, is re-launching itself as a complete family brand by next year and saris will be a part of its portfolio for Indian wear,” says Chetan Desai, Vice-President (Marketing), Vimal. It is not clear as to how the company will tap the market, but a company spokesperson said that it needs to research the unexplored market before launching its lines.

Garden Vareli invested heavily in marketing its saris during the mid-’90s when it became synonymous with the most popular Indian fashion wear brand. But today, even as it comes up with innovative designs once in a while, its focus is on backward integration.

The reason for this is, according to a company official, the more profitable garment export line and advent of malls. “There has been a shift in the market. The sari market is stagnant, or even decreasing by two to three per cent, I would say,” said the official. He added that the focus is shifting from saris to salwar kameezes, and companies which used to specialise in saris are creating more of dress materials. This view holds correct as far as the metropolitan working woman is concerned, say observers.

Sumona Lakha is a case in point. A working professional, she is currently busy shopping for her wedding to be held in December. “I am not buying too many saris since I generally wear salwar kameez to office. I am buying only a few heavy saris for formal occasions,” she said.

Like her, for many in India, especially in the younger generation, sari has become an outfit to be worn on special occasions and not on a daily basis. Calling the sari a cumbersome garment, brand consultant Harish Bijoor says, “It’s an older person’s garment, moving out of the workplace in a big way. A functional garment like a kurta or trousers is preferred to the sari, largely a cosmetic garment today.”


Recognising this challenge, the Chennai-based RMKV is innovating and making reversible saris. “Our biggest challenge today is retaining the younger generation’s interest and bringing them into the sari-wearing culture,” says K. Sivakumar, co-owner, RMKV. The innovative saris are priced at the higher end, but serve to create a brand image for the company and attract customers. This helps attracting customers in a big way.

Designer Johnny from Chennai feels this is a clever way of marketing a product like a sari, which still commands a majority of the Indian womenswear market and has many takers. “Today, the customer wants the same silk sari at a cheaper rate. It’s more about quantity than quality.” He thinks most customers visit the shops out of curiosity to see a sari with pockets and eventually end up buying other saris from the shop. The takers for ‘innovative saris’ are a handful as the concepts have not gained much ground. Again, he says, mass produced saris will be cheap, but of a poorer quality.

Says Prasad Shetty, Vice-President (Sales & Marketing), Oxemberg (which belongs to the Siyaram Poddar group which specialises in menswear), “The biggest difference in marketing for the different sexes is that men do not mind going to a party and seeing others wearing the same shirt as they are wearing, but a woman wants exclusivity in her purchases. It makes the production of saris a very different ball game altogether.” “Brands are all about cloning, and have a homogenising appeal to them. Today, women want variety, and they will take it from whoever offers that,” says Bijoor.

In attestation, Anjou Giri of Darjeeling says, “We get a lot of saris at affordable prices and great prints from China, which is a huge supplier of Indian saris.” Their supply is indistinguishable from the large unorganised market of saris in India, made up of thousands of wholesalers and retailers present in virtually every village, town and city.

Due to the vast and fragmented presence of small retailers, it is impossible to arrive at reliable data on the sari market in India today.

Nevertheless, companies are trying to create a brand for saris, like the Pioneer group with Hakoba. Offering a wide range of Indian and Western womenswear in traditional work such as chikankari and kantha, saris contribute to 33 per cent of Hakoba’s revenues.

“Our loyal clientele comes from the 35-plus category of women, but since we introduced partywear and newer fabrics, we have managed to attract a small number of the younger crowd too,” says Harsh Bassi, executive director, Pioneer Embroideries.

Nevertheless, there is a market for branded saris among older women in the smaller cities and towns of the country. Lakshmi, a professor of Economics in Erode, is constantly on the lookout for smart dailywear saris whenever she goes to Chennai or to a bigger city. “About 15 years ago, I could easily find a Garden sari, I just cannot find them nowadays,” she complains, adding that she has to spend much more on similar saris today that are unbranded. However, her colleague, Stella, is happy that she can find saris that reproduce designer prints on cheaper material, branded or unbranded.

Changing consumer needs

The consumer of today is different from yesterday’s, and her needs have changed. “In a cluttered market, people are not looking for clones, which a branded sari implies, but exclusivity, which excites people,” says Bijoor. And this is where designers come in.

Celebrated designer Ritu Kumar admits that she did not consciously create her brand. When she started off 30 years ago, she researched the Indian lexicon of prints and designs and hand printed them on chiffon and silk saris.

“Since the saris were hand printed, they cost more. Slowly, they gained exclusivity and evolved into a brand in themselves,” she said. Calling the branded sari market in India niche, Kumar says, “Ethnic branding is a new concept in India and so we do not know how it will evolve.”

All said and done, offering exclusivity and a rational price is something of a pipedream. Till then, women who desire saris must adjust to the idea of clones or making a drastic shift from saris to salwar kameezes or Western wear.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated August 23, 2007)
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