Zegna’s Indian Ambitions

Raghavendra Rathore, the Indian designer known for his ability to translate his country’s traditional men’s wear for a global elite, was on top of a mountain in his native state of Rajasthan when his phone rang. Ermenegildo Zegna, the Italian men’s wear and manufacturing behemoth, wanted to purchase a minority stake in the business.

“You could say it’s a metaphor,” Mr. Rathore said during an interview in November at his store in New Delhi. He was referring to the mountain (which also happened to have the best cellphone reception in the area) and his dreams for his company. But you could also say it was a sign of where, exactly, Zegna’s ambitions lie.

Almost a year and a half ago, when the Italian group bought a majority stake in Thom Browne, the disruptive American men’s brand, it also expanded its global footprint further by partnering with Reliance Brands — part of the largest publicly listed company in India, Reliance Industries Group — to each purchase a 12.5 percent stake in Mr. Rathore’s Future 101 Design, the parent company of his Raghavendra Rathore Jodhpur brand. Multiple news reports in India said the deal was the first time a European luxury group had invested in an Indian men’s wear brand.

“Quality craftsmanship, luxurious fabrics and a refined aesthetic are qualities appreciated globally,” Gildo Zegna, chief executive of Zegna, wrote in an email in December, “and I think RR’s sophisticated sense of style makes it appealing. He takes inspiration from — but is not constrained by — a regal ethnic ethos.”

The fact that, according to the market research consultancy Euromonitor International, men’s wear continues to outperform woman’s wear in India and is expected to grow 8 percent in 2020 to an overall value of $ 19 billion also might have had something to do with the decision.

Along with men’s formal tailoring worn by celebrities like the actor Saif Ali Khan and Virat Kohli, the captain of India’s national cricket team, Mr. Rathore, 52, is known for his signature bandhgala (a closed-collar jacket) and jodhpur breeches, both items closely tied to the royal history of the Rajasthan city of Jodhpur — which also happens to be Mr. Rathore’s history.

The designer is a descendant of Rao Jodha, the founder of Jodhpur. “I grew up with a strict code of conduct,” Mr. Rathore said. “My father was a typical Rajput man, known for their handlebar mustaches twirled to a fine point at the ends. There was always lots of pomp and show. I remember everyone getting dressed for the royal ceremonies: gold sashes put on, turbans being tied, horses being readied.”

Mr. Rathore’s grandmother, Sajjan Kanwar, was the rani, or queen, of Jodhpur. He said she lived in the palace’s zenana, the women’s quarters, in strict purdah, or seclusion. “When I was a small boy,” he recalled, “I would run for all I was worth between the guard’s legs just so I could visit her. She was the Maharajah of Jaipur’s sister, and brought that city’s heritage of crafts with her to Jodhpur.”

“She would sit me on her lap,” he said. “There would just be my grandmother and her ladies there, surrounded by jewelry, bangles and silk saris that traders brought for her to select from. It was like her own couture salon. All around the room were hung paintings by traditional Indian artists like Raja Ravi Varma alongside Lalique glass from France, she mixed the Indian and European styles beautifully.”

In 1986, he went to the United States to study art and design at Marlboro College in Vermont, and then to Parsons School of Design in New York. He spent the early 1990s working in women’s wear for Donna Karan and then for Oscar de la Renta, whom he credits with teaching him “the fundamentals of how to run a successful fashion business.”

In 1994 Mr. Rathore was in Jodhpur visiting his father when his cousin, Maharajah Gaj Singh, asked him to put on a fashion show at the Umaid Bhawan Palace (a wing of which is now leased to the Taj chain of luxury hotels). The show was a success, producing orders from boutiques in Mumbai and Delhi, and he decided to stay in India to start a design label for women and men. Ten years ago, fed up with the opulent Mughal-influenced wedding market, he decided to focus primarily on men’s wear.

Mr. Rathore describes his designs as “classic with a twist of Indian heritage,” informal but elegant styles shaped by memories like riding with his father in a Jeep out into the desert landscape of Rajasthan to meet people, playing polo and that code of conduct. His formal wear is anchored by opulent iterations of the bandhgala jacket, including silk velvets with handmade buttons and brocade linings.

The Zegna investment, he said, already has allowed him to open more stores across India (he now has eight, and 50 employees) and to consider international expansion.

“My team were mesmerized when we visited the Zegna factories in Italy in 2019,” he said. “It’s incredible how they manage customization for production. Also having Reliance as a partner means we have access to their data management systems, so we get a bird’s-eye view on what’s selling.”

But the benefits are not just his. Zegna has been gaining greater insight into the lucrative but tricky Indian market, where it has only three stores despite its 10 years in the country.

India has been in many a luxury brand’s sights over the past two decades, but its lack of retail infrastructure, high import tariffs and the unique cultural demands on men’s wear have proved difficult for many European brands. Alfred Dunhill, for example, left the country in 2012 after six years.

“India is a market of great potential and unique such as in dress codes for celebrative occasions,” Mr. Zegna wrote. “While Ermenegildo Zegna approaches the market with some distinctive clothing models and materials, I recognize the limits to which a ‘foreign’ brand can fully appreciate and address some of these specific demands.” Clearly he is hoping that, with Mr. Rathore’s help, Zegna can transcend them.

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