By Adam Welsch
If you ask ten people where they think the greatest untapped source of demand for intimate apparel is based, all ten might answer, “China.” With the world’s largest population and fastest growing economy, “China” certainly seems like a good answer. But China isn’t the only developing country with enormous potential for underwear consumption. An better response might be “India.” The Indian market for innerwear, as intimate apparel is commonly referred to from Delhi to Mumbai, is set to explode due to the country’s inevitable, enormous, economic growth and the changing attitudes, demographics, and roles of Indian women.
Because of the tremendous attention devoted to China by the Western media, India’s enormous size and economic potential are often overlooked. Today, it has a population of 1.2 billion people, a total four times that of America’s and second only to that of China. Its economy is currently the world’s eleventh largest (one-quarter the size of China’s and one-eighth the size of that of the US), but its growth is prodigious. Economic forecasts currently predict that it will become the world’s fastest growing economy by 2018, will become the world’s third largest economy by 2035, and will surpass the size of the American economy by 2043.
As education has improved and become more widespread, India’s poverty has declined and its middle class has grown. Today, it numbers 300 million people, a population equal to that of the entire United States, and it’s growing by 5% per year. Since half of those people are women, it’s easy to see how companies that make and sell innerwear are drooling over the prospect of entering this market. Estimated to be worth US$2.1 billion today, there’s no telling how huge it could become in the future.
Until fairly recently, the Indian retail sector was unorganized, making distribution of innerwear highly inefficient and frustrating for consumers. Lingerie shops were traditionally staffed by men, making the shopping experience an uncomfortable one for a very conservative and modest population of female consumers. Also, a decades-old, protectionist, economic philosophy made it difficult for foreign makers of innerwear to sell their products in India, thereby limiting the choices of bras, panties, and shapewear available in stores.
All of this has changed over the past two decades. The retail sector has become much more organized, and lingerie shops have become common features of suburban shopping malls. Women are now working as innerwear sales associates. During the last decade, advertisements for innerwear have started appearing in various media, and stores have begun displaying innerwear on mannequins. And, the philosophy of economic liberalization that was instituted in 1991 has become entrenched. As a result, international trade with India has grown tremendously, and foreign makers of innerwear have been able to introduce well-established brand names into its marketplace.
The modernization and growth of the economy have been paralleled by changing attitudes, demographics, and roles of India’s women. Though traditionally submissive, modest, and frugal, younger generations now seek education, financial independence, and conspicuous material consumption. Many analysts, like Ritu Sharma, agree that it’s the combination of growing wealth, workforce involvement, and exposure to Western culture that will fuel the demand for greater numbers, greater varieties, and more functional types of innerwear in the future.
Western-style dress, complete with jeans, mini-skirts, and tight-fitting tops, all demand more from bras, panties, and shapewear than more traditional, looser-fitting clothes like the sari or salwar kameez. Whether or not a pair of panties shows lines underneath a pair of tight pants is now becoming as much of a concern for a young, urban, Indian woman as it is for her counterpart in Chicago. As a result, panties that don’t create lines or wedgies will become increasingly demanded. Similarly, tighter tops and less-traditional attitudes towards modesty will lead to greater demand for bras that enhance the bustline. Also, the increasingly active lifestyles led by Indian women, along with a growing awareness of the importance of physical fitness, will fuel the growth in sports bras. And, of course, history has shown that as all countries modernize and grow wealthier, populations tend to consumer more calories. It’s therefore inevitable that demand for shapewear will grow along with average Indian incomes and waistlines, especially given the adoption of Western-style, form-fitting fashions.
India is a vast country. While there seem to be some widely-held, consumer expectations related to innerwear, there are also some notable differences among the various regional populations. As Mr. Sharma notes, there are several things that all urban, Indian women are looking for when shopping for innerwear. First, they want to be able to find many different brands in one location. Second, they want shops to have fitting rooms so that garments can be tried on before being purchased. Third, they expect a variety of colors, prices, and sizes to be on display. Fourth, they want access to information that allows them to compare the price, quality, and fit of competing brands. And, finally, they seek an innerwear shopping experience that’s convenient and personal.
As reported in the Lanka Business Report, the regional differences across the country largely pertain to issues of fashion. In Northern India, innerwear colors tend to be bright and varied; in the West, in cities like Mumbai, where the influence of Europe is greatest, innerwear tends to be more cosmopolitan and sexier; in the South, where fashion is more sedate, the most popular innerwear colors remain black, white, and those similar to the color of skin; in the East, in cities like Calcutta, fashion considerations are dictated by concerns for value and price.
The growth in demand for Indian innerwear is already apparent in some eclectic ways. Some of the country’s popular Bollywood stars have become spokespeople for various brands and intimates products, helping to make the entire subject more socially visible in what is still a very religious and conservative country. The strong consumer bias for clothes made from cotton is starting to be relaxed, as women learn of the functional benefits of materials like spandex, nylon, and others in the design of bras, panties, and shapewear. Finally, there’s a growing call from consumers, and those in the innerwear industry, for the creation of a sizing system that better reflects the shapes and sizes typical of women of the Subcontinent. Innerwear sizing charts similar to those used in the US and Britain constitute the current, inadequate standard.
The continued growth in international stature and importance of India is inevitable. As with all other consumer goods, its population will demand an increasingly greater number of bras, panties, and shapewear in the coming decades. And who knows? Perhaps the day is not too far away when your favorite brand of bra or shapewear is made by a company based in Mumbai.CC Image courtesy babasteve on flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/babasteve// CC BY 2.0