SHE IS, IN EVERY WAY, the grande dame of Indian fashion. She’s the designer’s designer; her eponymous label is what India’s Who’s Who wears. With all the hype, it’s easy to believe that her label began life fully grown.

Except, says the inimitable Ritu Kumar, it all started in a one-room makeshift store in an apartment near a railway crossing in 1969. Its only nod to snobbery was the fact it was in South Delhi. And where is that store today, I ask, hoping to go there and feel some of the history. “It has become a flyover in Defence Colony,” says Kumar, smiling at the thought. In many ways, that defines Ritu Kumar the designer. There’s the gloss of the high-profile designer, sure, but under it is a definite connect with ground realities.

The accepted Western notion of designer fashion revolves around signature products: Coco Chanel’s little black dress, Giorgio Armani’s classic business suit, Valentino’s red dress, Burberry’s trenchcoat, or Christian Louboutin’s red-soled shoes. Those works represent an emulsification of design, the totality of which can manifest in a single product.

In Kumar’s world, however, fashion is multiple chapters of the 12th-century poet Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda infused onto fabric. It is the painstaking construction of geometric patterns on Ikat-style sarees. It is the block printing done by skilled thirdgeneration craftsmen from villages near Howrah. “Fashion,” says Kumar, “is almost organic.” And that’s why a Ritu Kumar piece is different things to different people; it could be a block-printed saree, a satin lehenga, or a ghagra with zardozi embroidery. A Ritu Kumar piece, in many ways, is a state of mind.

KUMAR IS AN INSTITUTION. A self-described art history student who began her adventure as a textile researcher, Kumar is aware that she is widely acknowledged as being the pioneer of women’s fashion in India. Her design philosophy is based on preservation and sustainability— on rediscovering and restoring lost Indian craftsmanship then reverse integrating it into apparel.

It’s well documented how Kumar studied prints and textile history, visited museums in Britain, took photos of what struck her, brought them back home, and translated those into fashion history. Well before it became a political statement, Kumar pushed her idea of ‘make in India’. Everything about Ritu Kumar is fiercely Indian. Her idols are freedom fighter and socialist reformer Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and cultural activist Pupul Jayakar. Ask her what skills she admires and she waxes eloquent about the embroidery of Varanasi and the handprinted block designs of Bengal.

Beneath the nationalism, however, are the strong bones of a sustainable business. Kumar hasn’t got to where she is (33 on this year’s list of Most Powerful Women) without having taken some shrewd business calls. Whether it has to do with expanding her retail network, creating brands to appeal to different sections, or knowing when to say yes to smart money, Kumar has managed to sew together a pretty solid outfit .

From that tiny room in Defence Colony to 65 stores spread across the country (with a couple abroad as well), from four or five block-printers in Calcutta and one designer (Kumar herself) to more than a dozen designers in the country plus more from abroad, from one eponymous label to three... Kumar has left her mark on Indian fashion.Over the years, she has also collected many awards, including the Padma Shri. Pretty much everybody who is anybody has worn a Ritu Kumar; that includes royalty from India and the world (Princess Diana included), Miss India contestants, film and theatre personalities, and many more besides.

Harshbeena Zaveri, vice chairman and managing director of NRB Bearings, (15 on this year’s Most Powerful Women list) says she got married in a Ritu Kumar ensemble some 30 years ago. When her daughter got married a few years ago, she was dressed in Ritu Kumar as well. “The thing about a Ritu Kumar outfit is that it’s classic to the point where you can wear it to your own wedding, someone else’s wedding, as well as at your daughter’s wedding,” says Zaveri. Few brands are tailored that way.

Zaveri is not alone in thinking that. Designer Tarun Tahiliani remembers his sister wanting to buy a Ritu Kumar outfit when he was getting married 32 years ago. He says his father threw a fit because it cost over Rs 1,800, which was a price to balk at back then, particularly for just one outfit!

Tahiliani is not the only designer with Kumar tales. Designer Wendell Rodricks recalls the first Ritu Kumar fashion show he attended in the late 1980s, in Mumbai’s Fort district.

Then a rookie in the fashion world (he had just returned from Paris where he had studied fashion designing for two years), Rodricks remembers being fascinated by Kumar’s Tree of Life show, which included the history and technique of crafts like kalamkari and chikankari. (Unlike fashion shows these days, which are largely 15 minutes of loud music and movie stars, shows then ran for as much as 90 minutes.) “You walked away having learnt something,” says Rodricks.

It’s rare to see competitors and peers praise one of their own, particularly in an industry that’s not really known for its friendships. (At least that’s the impression given to the world outside.) But again, that’s perhaps what sets Kumar apart.

Designer Anita Dongre recalls the time when she was still new to the fashion scene and had come to Delhi to open a new store at Square City Mall (now shut) in Gurugram. She invited some designers, but says the only one who came for it was Ritu Kumar. “I had never met her personally before that but she was still encouraging, supportive,” recalls Dongre.

THE HALO EFFECT IS a term that’s used in marketing to explain why customers choose a particular product because of a good experience with another product from the same company. In many ways, Kumar is the halo for Indian fashion design; hers is the name most people think of first when talking of Indian couture. Equally, the Ritu Kumar tag is what Kumar is banking on to draw customers to her other two brands, Ri and Label.

Ri seems to be more niche positioning than anything; it’s the bridal line of Ritu Kumar. Label is the breakout, catering to a more modern aesthetic with clothing that includes T-shirts, embellished bomber jackets, and jumpsuits. The prices are also more in tune with the younger crowd, starting at Rs 900. (A “classic” Ritu Kumar outfit could cost anything from Rs 3,000 to Rs 25,000, while Ri bridal wear starts at Rs 25,000 or so and goes up to close to Rs 5 lakh.)

To be sure, prices don’t define Ritu Kumar. The House of Anita Dongre, for example, sells bridal wear starting at Rs 7,000 going up to close to Rs 10 lakh, catering to a far wider audience. Kumar also has far fewer stores—65 to Dongre’s 291. But, as Tahiliani says, “You cannot judge her [Kumar] just by the size of her business because as the first great revivalist designer of our times, she’s had the most impact and is a person driven by a very different purpose of craft and more—not just numbers.”

That may well be the case, but the fact is that Kumar is well aware that she is a businessperson as well as an artist. She’s bullish about the prospects of her business: “There’s no limit to how much people now spend on clothing, and regularly,” she explains when I seek reason for her optimism.

SINCE 2014, SHE along with son Amrish Kumar (now CEO of Ritu Kumar) focussed on expanding reach and depth. In the past couple of years, they have added manpower (eight management-level professionals, including the COO and head of online business), upgraded processes, expanded to 65 stores (from 34 before), and boosted revenue by an average of 25% annually to Rs 200 crore this year.

A lot lies behind this growth spurt, but chief among the reasons is a Rs 100 crore infusion that happened because the Kumars sold a stake in their company to Everstone Capital in 2014. “We believed the time was right for the company to move to a faster growth model,” says Kumar. “India’s retail environment was in the right place for us and we decided to raise capital. Without capital, growth in retail is much slower due to the capital-intensive nature of the business.”

The sale, while it netted Kumar a good chunk of change to play with, also brings its own concerns. Mainly, after decades of having nobody to answer to but herself, Kumar has now saddled herself with other stakeholders. That means needing to have an eye firmly on profit and margins.

 THE SON RISES; Amrish Kumar, CEO, Ritu Kumar, is focussedon expanding reach, and on making the brand appealing to the younger generation . Photo by Narendra Bisht
THE SON RISES; Amrish Kumar, CEO, Ritu Kumar, is focussedon expanding reach, and on making the brand appealing to the younger generation . Photo by Narendra Bisht

The problem with the Ritu Kumar brand is that it’s not a big draw for the younger crowd. This is where Amrish Kumar comes into his own. At 40, he has a finger on the pulse of the new generation. “Of course, we have different views and we come from different generations,” he says, when I ask if his ways are vastly different from his mother’s. “It would be weird if we saw things the same way.”

Sample some of the differences. Where Kumar focussed on natural fabrics and handcraft, her son pushes predictive analytics and man-made fibre. She is all about deep relationships cultivated over decades; he wants footfalls and store count and presence in the right malls. Despite it coming with all the trappings of a family business (Kumar’s husband helps run the export business), Amrish Kumar sees it as a thriving commercial enterprise that he has to grow.

In the last six months alone, there has been an aggressive push to grow, with eight new franchise appointees in places as diverse as Dubai, Mauritius, Siliguri, Ghaziabad, Guwahati, and Vadodara. Amrish Kumar is clear that much hinges on the Label brand. He’s growing new sales channels for it while pushing the needle on marketing and brand-building.

The company’s choice of its latest brand ambassador, Nimrat Kaur, the 35-year old award-winning actress who found fame in the critically acclaimed film The Lunchbox, is telling. Kaur is inherently Indian in her background and upbringing, but is also a name in the American entertainment world, where she has found roles in shows such as Homeland. She’s exactly what the Ritu Kumar brand is about. “It’s embedded in the psyche of how Indian women dress to some extent,” says Darshan Mehta, president and CEO of Reliance Brands. He says there have been tectonic changes in women’s wear in India in the past two decades, caused by socioeconomic progress. Think of it like this. To a certain generation, the one that grew up when Ritu Kumar was a fledgling brand, an expensive saree or designer outfit was meant to last. To the generation growing up today, once an outfit has been worn and Instagrammed, its shelf life is over. Yet sensibilities steeped in Indian design, ethnic wear and women’s wear run deep. Mehta underlines his point by saying that any large city would have its share of Ritu Kumar stores because, despite the changes sweeping across the country, India is still conservative in terms of what is deemed appropriate for young women to wear.

Rodricks believes that this is something Kumar realised early on; that however “modern” their thoughts and behaviour, Indian women, largely, do not experiment with outlandish looks or styles. “You won’t see Indian woman in India donning Goth or punk rock fashion styles,” he says. He explains: The Chinese and the Japanese to some extent may have abandoned their ethnic fashion roots in exchange for a slew of grey and black suits made by European labels but that is not true of India. Step into any Indian wedding, or formal event, and almost everyone will be dressed in traditional outfits. It’s the same on festival days and other celebrations.

FASHION FOR WOMEN in India is somewhat fraught. On the one hand, there’s Western designer wear, which comes with a somewhat alien aesthetic. But if the designer name is big enough, there are takers despite prohibitive price tags. On the other hand are Indian traditional outfits, equally expensive, but without the “designer” tag. Mehta says there are only two Indian designers who have risked filling the void in women’s fashion: Ritu Kumar and Anita Dongre. He says they have managed to create a supply of products that are aspirational without being intimidating, and at a variety of price points .

Dongre gives full credit to Kumar. “She’s the first to have done pret bridal wear; to bring craft to the cities; she is an inspiration.” Rodricks echoes that. He says that Kumar, when she started out, “was the only woman addressing the practicalities of what other women want as opposed to men catering to women’s fantasies”.

The praise continues. Roshini Bakshi, managing director of Everstone Group, says the private equity player bought a stake in Ritu Kumar because the brand has solid historical equity and is immediately associated with a designer halo that catapults it over all international street brands.

And what about the woman causing so much talk? She’s busy writing a new book, and spends more time painting. She doesn’t talk of building an institution or of the legacy she wants to leave behind. “I see myself as an editor of new collections,” she says. “I’m a designer of textiles.” Obviously she’s way more than that—but I’m not going to argue with the first lady of Indian fashion.

(The article was originally published in the November 2017 issue of the magazine. )