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Reliance Steps Up Backing of Indian Designers With Another Deal

·4 min read

NEW DELHI Reliance Retail Ventures Ltd. is out to build the next Valentino or Giorgio Armani — from India.

Only days after India’s largest retailer invested in the brand Manish Malhotra Styles, the company on Tuesday revealed it has taken a 52 percent stake in another one of the country’s best-known designers, Ritu Kumar, with plans to take it to a new level. The designer’s company Ritika Private Ltd. owns several brands, including Ritu Kumar, Label Ritu Kumar, RI Ritu Kumar, aarké, and Ritu Kumar Home and Living, with a core focus on embroidery, artisanal crafts and prints.

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The deal certainly brings financial strength to Kumar — Reliance Retail reported revenues of 1.6 trillion rupees, or $21.6 billion, and net profits of 54.81 billion rupees, or $750 million, for the financial year ended March 31.

The way Darshan Mehta, president and chief executive officer of Reliance Brands, puts it, his eye is on a larger plan. “I have always maintained, that the next Giorgio Armani, or Valentino will certainly come from this part of the world,” he told WWD. “As players in this industry, as value creators, it is our job to spot the next Valentino.”

He describes the Ritu Kumar brand as the legacy label in India’s fashion story.

Kumar, who opened her first store in Defence Colony, New Delhi, in 1966, is as upbeat as Mehta. “I think the time has come when the world will take inspiration from us, rather than the other way around,” she said, describing her early years when it seemed that Indian aesthetics had all but disappeared.

“I was in New York studying the history of Western art at Radcliffe College and I used to read Women Wear’s Daily in the 1950s. I was very concerned about what had happened to the Indian aesthetics, what had happened to the Indian textiles, because there was none to be seen in India. I came to Calcutta [now Kolkata] and as chance would have it, I went to the districts and I realized that the printing, the weaving, the embroideries had all gone over the 200 years of colonial rule in India.”

Realizing how many people were out of work in a country with perhaps the richest textile reserve in the world, she brought some designs to the craftspeople. “This was post-independence time, we were all barefoot ‘doctors,’ we wanted to go out and do something for the country. Being a painter, a designer I wanted to contribute to the vast number of people who had craft in their DNA.”

When her son Amrish Kumar, managing director of Ritika Private Ltd., joined the company, the brand ethos and retail footprint grew substantially, along with an investment by private equity firm Everstone Capital in 2014.

The deal with Reliance Retail includes the acquisition of Evermore’s approximately 35 percent holding.

Reliance certainly has been busy: On Friday, Reliance Brands Ltd. revealed a 40 percent investment in Manish Malhotra Styles, loved by Bollywood and popular for his wedding designs, with a retail footprint of four stand-alone stores and two shops-in-shop.

“As the brand aims for international expansion, business diversification, and renewed creative growth, there could have been no better strategic partner to accompany us on this journey,” Malhotra, who will continue to lead his brand as managing and creative director, said.

Reliance Brands has more than 40 brands in its portfolio, mostly global labels that it operates locally, including Giorgio Armani, Hugo Boss, Brooks Brothers, Canali, Coach, and others. It also has the Indian brands Satya Paul, and Raghavendra Rathore, with a network of more than 1,300 retail doors.

Are these latest investments a change in strategy?

“You know we are geography agnostic,” said Mehta. “I’ve never believed that it is India versus international. It’s another part of the jingoism which was built at a time when we lacked confidence and we had to go somewhere else to prove who we are. That time and phase has gone. The diaspora of people who appreciate Indian-ness is not restricted to those who live in this country. There are enough cosmopolitan-minded people, who appreciate whether it is a craft, design, motifs, colors or weaves converted into different kinds of silhouettes or products. We clearly have a cache that is global in nature and have our own wherewithal in terms of addressing that cache.”

Indian brands are not a matter of differentiation, he said. “I can easily wrap the Indian flag around me and say I am doing this. But I’ve always believed that a true brand has a true beating heart. Which means it has a soul, it stands for something. When we partnered with Muji as a joint venture, it did not mean we would go into a zen-like state. It is really the partnership with a brand which has a powerful soul, signature and a cache.”

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