The saree’s amazing comeback saga continued in 2023. In its year-end report Flip Trends 2023, online retailer FlipKart said that the most shopped lifestyle product in the year gone by was the saree. Other online retailers too reported a big uptick in saree sales. According to Meesho, it witnessed a 1.5X growth in saree orders during the 2023 festive season as compared to the year before. More interesting, it says the age barrier has dissolved as 60 per cent of the saree customers were under 30.

The ₹80,000 crore Indian saree market is booming. A whole bunch of reasons are behind the saree’s spectacular showing – but the most compelling one seems to be the way new age saree brands like Suta, Shobitam, Chidiyaa Online, Raw Mango, Byloom, Taneira and many more have made the six yards very cool through hassle-free drapes, exciting blouses and accessories, cool hashtags, and a whole new narrative that includes sustainability, support for artisans, and a big saree sisterhood. Also, new interesting brands are bursting through in this category, creating more excitement and niches, thereby growing the saree pie further. Today, if youngsters can talk knowledgeably about Dabu, Bagru, Ikat, Leheriya, Ajrakh, Uppada, Jamdani, Sanganeri, Bandhani it’s thanks to many of these brands. No longer does a saree mean a Benarasi , Kancheevaram, Patola, Kota or a Pochampally. The diversity of India’s handlooms and printing traditions are now suddenly at the doorstep of every customer.

Stylists like Dolly Jain are also playing a part, as are Bollywood celebrities who are now seen draped in Suta, Shobitam and other D2C brand creations. Ambuj Narayan, CEO, Taneira, says, “The entry of stylists in the fashion industry, has led to rise in popularity of ready-to-wear sarees, innovative draping techniques and inventive fashioning of the saree as a garment. This has elevated the perception of the saree amongst the newer generations and made it more versatile than ever before.”

Youthful styling

“It’s beautiful to see how sarees have come back. We have had a role to play,” proclaims Sujata Biswas, co founder of Suta, the brand that has sashayed into Gen Z ‘s imagination and heart with its cool weaves and funky content. “Sarees are no longer a wedding, and temple visit wear — we have made it cool for any occasion,” asserts Taniya Biswas. And, indeed, it’s no idle claim. The two sisters, who created a label from the first two letters of their names (Su and Ta) in 2016, have seen their digital first brand going places. The brand saw a big jump in festive season sales last year — it sold 1.1 lakh sarees between July and November 2023 as compared to 60,000 units in the same period in 2022. In 2023, Suta launched eight offline stores to add to the Bangalore store it opened in 2022. “We are going to open our ninth offline store in Pune,” says Taniya, pointing out how most of the stores are less than a year old but already contributing 15 per cent of Suta’s business. Suta has also made its customers bond more with its sarees by giving each of them a quirky name — for instance, there is a Bossy Caramel, a Laal Chumki, a Chandni ke Phool and so on.

The sisters say the biggest chunk of their saree customers are in the 25 to 35 age group while the second largest chunk is 18 to 25. A few years ago it would be unthinkable for anyone in this age cohort to wear sarees to casual lunches or date nights. But the starchy formality has now gone out of the garment. Messy drapes are regarded as hip. Wear it with a halter neck blouse, add a belt and style it with boots, or a short coat and you are ready to compete against the LBD at swank parties.

Taneira too is going all out to woo the young. “Our styling is focused on making the saree look conducive for the young. Today, a saree appeals to a young office goer as much as it is dear to our grey-haired grannies,” says Narayan.

Ramya Rao and Kavea Chavali have put the lustre back in the Andhra Uppada

Ramya Rao and Kavea Chavali have put the lustre back in the Andhra Uppada

Jermina Menon, a strategy consultant based in Bengaluru, and a saree evangelist, says that the garment has got a boost from two things — one, the blouses that range from styles that are backless to halter to crop tops and even shirts. Two, from different draping styles that have made sarees more contemporary and stylish. She also says that the handloom space has seen a big boost post pandemic. “I can vouch for a few weavers who went online and sold direct and I see them improve — whether it is in their communication, or websites or promotions (through influencers).”

Menon points one to Kalaneca, again being built by two sisters, twins Ramya Rao and Kavea R Chavali, that is resurrecting the Andhra Uppada. What started as a hobby for the sisters, who were working professionals and are Kuchipudi dancers, to help the weavers get more business, is now a full-fledged brand with a marketing strategy and a mission to get more consumers experience the weave. Rao has left her job to grow Kalaneca full time while Kavea, a corporate emcee flaunts the Uppada at every occasion she can. “It’s grand, yet so light and easy to wear,” extols Rao. The Rao sisters, who got interested in the Uppada thanks to their mother who would visit the weavers’ belt, are also building another brand Etram (derived from Arangetram) that would have a wider range and also do blouses.

Rao says Kalaneca has an international focus and this year they will also be trying to make one of a kind customised sarees. Through events like Sarees and Sangria — a get together of saree lovers over a drink they have done in Mumbai and Bengaluru — they have driven the conversation to the Uppada weaving traditions and created interest.

One stop shops

The growth of the saree is also because many of the pain points associated with wearing sarees – getting a matching blouse stitched (and a good fit is always a problem), arranging the falls and petticoat — have all vanished. “There was a perception that there was just too much kaam jham involved in a saree. For people to wear it instantly, we had to solve the problem,” says Taniya.

Just like other apparel, which you can wear straight off the rack, a shopper can now go to a store like Taneira or Suta and get the whole look, sarees, blouses, tailoring et al. And that has spawned a whole new profitable business for saree brands. Suta says earlier blouses were 20 per cent of its revenues , but now 35 to 40 per cent of its nearly ₹70 crore annual revenue comes from blouses.

Interestingly, many of the brands say this need came from global consumers — Indians living in the US, especially, who are big online saree consumers, who want everything taken care of. Shobitam, for instance, started by two sisters in Seattle, Aparna and Ambika, started with the promise of making Indian ethnic wear available globally.

Reviving a heritage

Reviving a heritage | Photo Credit: Kalaneca

For Taneira too, from the house of Tatas, ready-to-wear blouses category is seeing good traction. “We are expanding our portfolio of blouses and have also introduced in-skirts, aiming to become a comprehensive one-stop solution for sarees. Additionally, blouses play a significant role in attracting consumers, as there’s a growing trend of mixing and matching outfits. They serve as a great complement to existing sarees, allowing for the creation of fresh, new looks,” says Narayan. Indeed, many saree wearers like Jermina Menon now say they probably have more blouses than sarees.

Taneira, which already has 50 stores across India as well as an online presence, is targeting a topline of ₹1,000 crore by 2027. It is also doing a fair bit to grow the saree pie further by getting in new users. For instance, Taneira has launched the JAM (Just-a-minute) collection, featuring pre-styled and pre-draped sarees starting at ₹8,000. “There’s a growing inclination towards fashion that offers both speed and comfort without compromising on style. The introduction of pre-draped and pre-stitched sarees intends to make wearing them more enjoyable, eliminating any stigma associated with not knowing how to drape a sari,” says Narayan.

The outlook for 2024 — “Sarees will become the next casual wear,” predict Sujata and Taniya.