The suitings segment today is nothing like it was three or four decades ago. Lifestyles have changed drastically, as have tastes and requirements. Top officials of three major brands speak their minds out about what it now takes for the segment to stay suited for the times.

The suitings segment is one that remains small-almost niche, in a way. It has been so since, say, the 1970s. It has also seen a considerable amount of turbulence-many of the well-known brands that often saw film stars and cricketers endorsing them had almost disappeared a few years ago, as have some companies. But let's leave names aside, for they are not germane to the discussion here.

What is, nevertheless, pertinent is how players in the suitings arena are dealing with changes in lifestyles, tastes and requirements in an era where fast fashion rules, when clothes are throwaways. Smart casuals first filled that gap between the formal and the informal, and with Friday dressing becoming first the norm and then spilling over into other days of the week in corporate settings, formals-particularly the suit kinds-seem to have become an endangered form of dressing.

Certainly, on the face of it. Yet, it shows no sign of disappearing under the onslaught- something like that tiny, ebullient Gaulish village that would never bend or yield to the mighty Roman invasion. Moreover, film stars and cricketers seem to be making a comeback as suiting ambassador.

Small Size, Big Impact

The first element that would catch anyone's sight is the almost minuscule size of the suitings segment. Most market research studies put the number at roughly 3-4 per cent of the overall apparel market.

Ajay Agarwal, executive director of Donear Industries Ltd, agrees that the 3-4 per cent may be low numerically, but "it has been strong and constant as the textiles industry in India accounts for 24 per cent of the world's spindle capacity and 8 per cent of global rotor capacity. Textiles contribute 5 per cent to the gross domestic product (GDP). Given the shift in consumer behaviour in terms of preference for convenience and quick purchases, the suiting fabrics' share is on the lower side. I don't see this dropping further-in fact, I see the percentage being on the rise. The need for wellfitted apparel and customised clothing is coming back and this will definitely convert into higher demand for suiting fabrics."

Most of consumers now lead a fast-paced life, points out S Krishnamoorthy, managing director of GBTL Ltd (formerly known as Grasim Bhiwani Textiles Ltd). "With barely any time to purchase fabrics and give them for tailoring, it is an easier and convenient option to buy readymade apparels. The whole fabric, ready-to-stitch (RTS) industry is shrinking. But I see that wave changing, given the fact that the need for well-fitted garments are on the rise and that can only be achieved via tailored suits for the consumers. In addition, custom fit suits give a broader range of shades to the end consumer to choose from."

Vikram Mahaldar, managing director of OCM, contextualises the subject, "Although the advent of off-the-counter retail and e-commerce is steadily taking up a larger percentage of the pie; the pie itself is increasing and therefore the suiting fabric space too. The pie is increasing because of the number of young customers increasing in our target group year-on-year."

Mahaldar too believes that suiting fabrics will continue to increase. He gives two reasons: "With respect to trends, this customer is more aware and attuned to trends and heavily influenced by Bollywood. Customers prefer customisation in this segment because of limited designs and availability in the ready-to-wear (RTW) segment. Take ethnicwear as an example-designer suits and Indianwear are looming large with new boutiques mushrooming to fulfil the need of the customer. The customer demands customisation and variety in colour/design/price/silhouette-and is a very large segment for the RTS space. Second, in India, there is no dearth of tailors/skilled labour. Customised suiting will remain an affordable category in the times to come and will not reduce to a small niche like in the West."

But, is there a possibility of that happening? After all, suiting fabrics are under threat from RTWs/RMGs.

Agarwal sees the RMG market relying on consumer purchase patterns revolving around convenience and feasibility. "I doubt this would result in any brand getting phased out because at the end of the day, a lot of RMG brands also source fabrics from textile brands. Indian brand names in the suiting category provide fabrics for both-RMG and OTC (over-the-counter). Hence, we will see them around for quite some time! India is the second largest exporter of textiles with exports of $40 billion in FY2015-16."

Krishnamoorthy agrees: "All RMG brands need fabrics; so, I see fabrics brands just shifting trade equilibrium in the future. All the Indian brands, from the suiting category, mostly cater to brands as well as consumers- and these two markets will ensure sustenance and growth."

Moreover, most brands in this space have a rich heritage-many of them close to a century old. Mahaldar underlines, "They are entrenched in the minds of the customer who subliminally attests to their product quality and credibility. Their appeal cuts across a diaspora of people and demographies. RMG will not affect these players. It is possible though that these brands themselves have product extensions to enter the RMG space and occupy a share of mind and wallet for younger customers.

"That said, I doubt that suiting fabrics will be phased out, especially since most big brands, even in the RMG category, get their fabrics from us and today's customers are aware of this. If there are time constraints, customers prefer OTC apparels; if they have time on their hands, they buy fabrics and get them stitched according to their requirements. RMG players will still need fabric and end-customers will still buy a quality product. It's a win-win situation."

Small Towns, High Demands

Till the turn of the millennium, the biggest spends for suitings happened in the tier-I cities. But the tier-II and tier-III towns of the last century have since morphed into overflowing cities-urban hubs that are teeming with millions who have much more money at their disposal than their parents ever had. And they are aspirational too. No wonder, the suitings segment sees a considerable spend there.

Agarwal notes that today India stands third in purchasing power parity (PPP). "Thus, tier-II and tier-III cities have also woken up in terms of spending power on several things. This is helping the ROI (return on investment) to a great extent, coupled with add-on marketing efforts like brand ambassadors who are aspirational to these markets, which is in turn helping the brands."

So, on the basis of consumer insights, brands can drive up their ROI in such a market scenario. According to Krishnamoorthy, "These insights enable one to (i) create relevant price categories; (ii) find ways of reaching the said tiers' consumers via marketing initiatives; and (iii) understanding the true consumer need with their pulse on designs and colours, and filling up this gap."

Increasingly more people want to buy 'branded products', and they associate quality with the brand. As Mahaldar reasons, "Therefore, a shift from unorganised markets/unbranded products to organised markets/branded products is under way-so much so that the entire segment of 'branded retail' is increasing because of this customer psyche. Consistent brand pull, suitable price points, creating excitement in the trade and choosing brand ambassadors that the people like and identify with- these are some of the ways one can further drive the ROI in an upward manner."

The Luxury Angle

Within the suitings market itself, there are two segments, with one being skewed in favour of the other. Well, considerably. In India, the lower-end polyviscose (PV) segment occupies a 70 per cent share with the rest belonging to the luxury segment. It is indicative of both preferences as well as budgets. So, will one see more brands moving into the PV segment? Or, maybe, even the other way around?

Krishnamoorthy admits that a number of synthetic blends are dominating the space due to their price points and availability. "The time has come for all brands to offer the consumer a diverse product basket to ensure that every customer is catered to-from luxury to value-for-money. The breadth of their offerings can be reflected in their distribution mix," he says.

Agarwal foresees more brands moving into the PV segment: "Growth in viscose fibre is expected with improved per capita GDP and subdued cotton demand in India. Cotton production is also expected to be lower than the expected consumption in the next five years due to reducing acreage and unsuitable climate for the cotton crop. As a result, the demand of viscose will increase in India and globally."

There is more to it than meets the eye, as Mahaldar indicates: "Over the span of a customer's lifetime, and with the uplift in social hierarchy over this period, discerning customers make discerning choices, and will traverse various segments. There are a couple of segments at play here: (i) the entry point segment, i.e. 'masses': unbranded/entry-level PV; and (ii) the mid-segment i.e. 'mass premium': branded/premium PV. For (i) and (ii), PV will continue to straddle the mass- mass premium segments and command the larger share by pure volumes.

"Then, there is (iii): the top of the pyramid i.e. 'luxury segment': branded/wool and wool blends. Wool and wool blends will be reserved for a niche segment that is scaling up from mass premium to affordable luxury and then to luxury. Since there is a requirement for both kinds of fabrics (entry point-mass premium, and affordable luxury-luxury), I don't see the demand declining for any."

The Europe Benchmark

There was a time when Europe was considered the benchmark in the manufacturing of suiting fabrics. With only a brand or two from India competing with the European companies, the question that crops up is: how can more Indian brands rise up to their levels?

Agarwal disagrees. "Given our constant innovations, especially with the use of technology, Indian suiting brands are at par with European ones. In India, we have the best skilled workforce which makes the difference-they are young and energetic. Our indigenous manufacturing processes also go a long way in creating high-quality products. Environment-friendly fabrics are on the rise and keeping these factors in mind, I'm sure this will rise up to the set benchmark, while creating new (and high) ones as well."

Krishnamoorthy sees things differently. He emphasises: "I feel that India is in its new level that is delightful and refreshing. Right from indigenous production to environment-friendly fabrics, technological upgradations/innovations and investment in skilled labour, we are already on our way to set a new benchmark in the world of textiles and fabrics."

Europe, contends Mahaldar, caters to only a niche space for fabrics these days. "More Indian companies are rising to their level by producing finer products and investing in exotic blends (such as cashmere, vicuna, mohair, alpaca-to name a few). There is also a conscious effort from leading textiles manufacturers to scale up and sell their exotic collections. For example, OCM Private Limited, sells its exotic collection under the brand name Ferrara-known for its luxury suitings and world-class tweeds which are certainly at par with European markets and has set a new benchmark in the industry."

Lighter Fabrics, Utilitarian Choices

Fabrics too have changed. The ones of today are usually lighter across the board than they were 30-40 years ago. One can expect changes in just the use of fabrics.

Says Krishnamoorthy, "With the advent of technology, fabric manufacturing has shifted from a craftsmanship skill to a more error-free machine-based technique. Light-weight fabrics are preferred for certain segments such as synthetics and cottons. These weight-based trends are utilitarian in nature."

Customers have evolved and are seeking finer products. Points out Mahaldar, "They are concerned about how the product 'feels'. Even heavier products-like tweeds and jacketing fabrics-have moved to finer fabrics. Brands are focused on moving from coarser to finer yarn counts with impeccable finish. With fashion cycles changing so quickly, it is essential to have an equitable mix of both coarse and lighter fabrics on board. Of late, customers have been looking for coarser fabrics especially in tweeds-based on 'vintage' being back in vogue. A right design mix will cater to both 'vintage' and 'new age'."

And, with constant innovation, according to Agarwal, "we can expect a lot of significant and positive changes to suit the environment and requirement of consumers."

Those arguments would bring one to technology, and how it is shaping fabric manufacturing today.

According to Krishnamoorthy, technology is playing a very important role in the manufacturing processes of suit fabrics. Right from combining style and comfort to ensuring utility-based qualities in textiles, it has opened up a foray of possibilities for industry. "Fabric manufacturers are currently scaling up efficiencies to invent better weaves and reduce any errors in finishing. Technology has become streamlined across the value chain to ensure this."

For Mahaldar, innovation happens through people and processes. "It is essential to produce the best quality products and innovate, to align fashion trends with utilitarian benefits. The product, designs and colours are extremely important. Products are woven to produce elegant designs in bright checks, window panes, structures, twills, subtle checks, chalk stripes, and more. Besides how it's woven, finish is also important. Grado (OCM's brand) has jumped on to this bandwagon by introducing a range of soft cottons with wrinkle-resistant finish. Besides, its existing mastery in wool/wool blends/ polyviscose/polyviscose blends come in a wide range of finishes. Having amalgamated technology into most of what we do, we find a way for trends to reach customers faster."

Adds Agarwal, "From wrinkle-free-we use specialised LA technology for the same-to stain-resistant aroma fabrics, from water resistant fabrics to absolute flexibility, and tech-infused wearables and more-these are some of the few novelties that fabric manufacturers are bringing on board these days. Technology, without doubt, is shaping the suit fabric market in an amazing way. The kind of research going into this field to make textiles catering to consumers' current lifestyles is immense."

NextGen Suits

Moving with the times very necessarily means moving with the people-be it their lifestyle choices, their quirk or refined tastes (as they may be), or even their elementary requirements. So, what does a brand do to woo the youth-call the GenY, if you wish-that is whimsical by disposition.

Agarwal feels the best way is for the brand to incorporate personality traits of GenY, which include environmental consciousness, technological innovations, oldschool factors as well as high social media engagement. "With robust design and colour palettes, GenY is sure to turn heads. Along with this, their buying patterns also will play a major decision factor."

Krishnamoorthy thinks whimsical is a great attribute. "They have the power to define, to change, to adapt, to evolve. That's what's so special about them. They sense the pulse of the market and are not afraid of taking risks. For Graviera, we have invested in understanding this generation and developing a range of comfort-driven fabrics to cater to their needs in diverse colours."

Understanding GenY and their purchase making cycle has been an important step at Grado. Reveals Mahaldar, "We have conducted a need-gap analysis and uncovered designs that they look for. Having done this, we cater to a large segment in various colours and designs, trying to strike a chord with GenY. Since their needs are driven by utility and they understand the product well, a new line of special finishes has been introduced. Another insight to GenY is that they base purchases on occasions and successfully compartmentalise them, unlike the older generation who are more reserved with their choice of fabric. Grado has successfully risen to the need of occasion-specific products-be it fabrics for travel/for a party/for a festival/for an interview."

Nevertheless, it is clear as crystal that how much suiting brands stay relevant in the days to come will depend considerably on how much they understand this generation, and how they cater to them.