Back in 1997, when Arvind Mills was first moving into branded apparel in a big way, we asked chairman Sanjay Lalbhai if there was any real difference between Flying Machine jeans and more expensive brands like Lee. Is the quality of the denim different? Are the zippers different? His insightful answer: “The difference is not in the way they are made but in the way they are sold.”
Nowhere does branding pay higher dividends than in clothing. People identify closely with their clothing labels and are willing to pay a premium for brands that make them feel good. Apparel brands are the mainstay of high end-retail, since the shopping experience is a part of the lifestyle they are meant to embody.
Arvind’s first clothing brand, launched in 1980, was Flying Machine. By 1997, it had five more brands in its portfolio: Arrow, the global shirt brand; Lee, the international jeans brand; Excalibur, a home-grown shirt brand; Newport, a mid-price denim brand and Ruf’n’Tuf, a ready-to-stitch jeans kit, consisting of a length of denim, a zipper and rivets.
These brands were meant to cover the full range of the market. Ruf’n’Tuf was a mass market brand, for those who preferred to get their pants tailored. Excalibur shirts, which were launched at the same time as Peter England from Aditya Birla Fashions, were targeted at young professionals who might not be able to afford Arrow, but wanted branded shirts. Excalibur shirts were made of blended cotton-polyester fabric, which Arvind did not make but sourced from other companies like Mafatlal.
Arrow and Lee, made at Arvind’s state-of-the-art facilities in Bangalore, were the two high end brands. At a time when there were no malls, they were sold through exclusive high-street retail stores (in the 1990s, this meant CG Road in Ahmedabad and Brigade Road in Bangalore). For Newport, the mass market jeans brand, manufacturing was outsourced and the product was sold through non-exclusive showrooms. Interestingly, VF Corporation, which owns the Lee and Wrangler labels world-wide, was keen on positioning Lee as a women’s jeans brand in India.
Today, of these six brands, only Flying Machine and Arrow remain in Arvind’s portfolio. The company went through rough times when global demand for denim dropped drastically in the late-90s and consumers switched to chinos. Arvind eventually got back on track and added several new global brands to its portfolio, including Nautica, Ed Hardy, Gant and the retail brands Debenhams and Sephora.
Each came with its own lifestyle associations. Nautica is an outdoorsy brand, associated with boating. Ed Hardy, with its tattoo associations (Don Ed Hardy was “the father of the tattoo” in the USA), is a grunge brand. Gant, on the other hand, is the “ivy league” casual shirt brand for the IIM-types.
These high-end brands were housed in the new malls that had sprung up in every major Indian city by then. Today, the best Indian malls are no different from their counterparts around the world, with the same global brands on display. Competition is fierce and success does not come easy. Last year, Arvind Fashions reviewed its brand portfolio and eliminated loss-making brands like Ed Hardy and Nautica. Reliance Retail, which has emerged a major player in high-end retail, recently bought the Sephora brand.
Arvind is now focused on a few select global brands: US Polo Association (USPA), Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Arrow. Backed by a high advertising budget, USPA has emerged as Arvind Fashion’s biggest brand, with annual sales of around Rs 2,000 crore. It is a mid-priced sporty label, targeted at the family, with products for children and adults that include footwear and innerwear. Flying Machine, which has survived the turbulence, is now a Rs 500 crore brand, while Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger together contribute Rs 1,000 crore to the top-line.
To bring more focus to its apparel brands, Arvind has spun off Arvind Fashions as a separate listed company, looked after by Kulin Lalbhai, Sanjay Lalbhai’s younger son. Arvind Limited, the original textile company, is under Punit Lalbhai, Sanjay Lalbhai’s elder son.