Ritu Kumar
India
Ritu Kumar
  • Ritika Private Limited (Fashion, textiles, retail)
Born Amritsar, India, 1944. Lady Irwin College, Delhi (1964); Briarcliff College, N.Y. (1966).
“[W]e took our first stall in Paris at the Prêt-à-Porter. This was in the early ’70s [when it was] unheard of for India to take a set of scarves and just go and display them in Paris…”

Summary

Ritu Kumar is an Indian fashion designer and a pioneer of boutique fashion culture. Kumar is founder of Ritika Private Limited, a firm that includes four fashion brand portfolios. In this interview, she explains the trajectory of her career, initially starting out with a small handicrafts business in the 1960s to eventually playing a major part in the development of the Indian fashion business through the revival of traditional handicrafts.

To begin the interview, Kumar describes becoming interested in the fashion industry by accident. After receiving a degree in art history, which focused heavily on European art, Kumar was eager to learn about Indian art and joined a museology course in Kolkata. The museology course took her out into old archaeological sites, through which she discovered a village called Serampore. Here, villagers who were well-versed in the art of hand-block printing were out of work. These villagers inspired her; she began a small enterprise, giving the villagers designs and having them reprint them on block tables and embroider saris. Initially, Kumar started selling these saris at a grocery store in Kolkata and eventually expanded into Delhi.

Kumar explains that when she started her first business, India did not have a retail infrastructure. She describes that under British rule, India’s crafts and textiles industry was essentially halted for more than a century, as many of the designs were taken to Britain, reproduced there, and then brought back to the South Asian subcontinent to sell. Even though India’s independence happened in 1947, by the time Kumar opened her first shop, no real progress had been made in reviving the industry. Kumar describes that there was a loss of sustenance, a loss of patronage, and a loss of the memory of their ancestors’ crafts.

In this interview, when reflecting on additional challenges she encountered when she started her business, Kumar explains that at first, she found limited success selling the saris because people had grown accustomed to wearing rose-printed chiffons from Paris and found ethnic designs to be outdated. Further, she describes how she was able to begin her enterprise with a loan of only 5,000 rupees. Kumar explains how she was able invest that amount of money into the proper fabric which she sent to the villagers to print on, and the investment regenerated itself. When business picked up and she began selling more saris and opening more businesses, the banks then gave her loans against shipments.

After receiving and fulfilling a large order of 1,000 scarves for Trade Action, an Australia-based NGO, Kumar suddenly found her business operating on an international scale. From here, Kumar went on to open stalls in Paris and New York in the early 1970s. In this interview, Kumar compares her experience in international markets to the Indian market, describing that the Indian market is significantly different due to the need to innovate from within when the Indian government tightened import controls in the early 1970s, the excitement around reviving old crafts that had nearly been lost, the government funding that was poured into this revival, and the huge demand for bridal and festival wear – making the Indian market uniquely resistant to Eurocentric fashion.

The interview continues as Kumar discusses how she started some of her fashion lines including Ri (a high-end bridal line) and LABEL (ready to wear fashion for young adults). She also discusses the importance of having confidence in the high quality of your work, the ability to identify market need, and the importance of investing not only in infrastructure but also in people.

To conclude the interview, Kumar explains how she thinks the Indian fashion business will evolve over the next two decades, describes how there is still room in India’s fashion market for designers to thrive even with the arrival of big international brands, discusses the reasons for the very small number of women who are running large businesses in India, and gives her opinion on what the role of business should be in society.

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Ritu Kumar is an Indian fashion designer and a pioneer of boutique fashion culture. Kumar is founder of Ritika Private Limited, a firm that includes four fashion brand portfolios. In this interview, she explains the trajectory of her career, initially starting out with a small handicrafts business in the 1960s to eventually playing a major part in the development of the Indian fashion business through the revival of traditional handicrafts.

To begin the interview, Kumar describes becoming interested in the fashion industry by accident. After receiving a degree in art history, which focused heavily on European art, Kumar was eager to learn about Indian art and joined a museology course in Kolkata. The museology course took her out into old archaeological sites, through which she discovered a village called Serampore. Here, villagers who were well-versed in the art of hand-block printing were out of work. These villagers inspired her; she began a small enterprise, giving the villagers designs and having them reprint them on block tables and embroider saris. Initially, Kumar started selling these saris at a grocery store in Kolkata and eventually expanded into Delhi.

Kumar explains that when she started her first business, India did not have a retail infrastructure. She describes that under British rule, India’s crafts and textiles industry was essentially halted for more than a century, as many of the designs were taken to Britain, reproduced there, and then brought back to the South Asian subcontinent to sell. Even though India’s independence happened in 1947, by the time Kumar opened her first shop, no real progress had been made in reviving the industry. Kumar describes that there was a loss of sustenance, a loss of patronage, and a loss of the memory of their ancestors’ crafts.

In this interview, when reflecting on additional challenges she encountered when she started her business, Kumar explains that at first, she found limited success selling the saris because people had grown accustomed to wearing rose-printed chiffons from Paris and found ethnic designs to be outdated. Further, she describes how she was able to begin her enterprise with a loan of only 5,000 rupees. Kumar explains how she was able invest that amount of money into the proper fabric which she sent to the villagers to print on, and the investment regenerated itself. When business picked up and she began selling more saris and opening more businesses, the banks then gave her loans against shipments.

After receiving and fulfilling a large order of 1,000 scarves for Trade Action, an Australia-based NGO, Kumar suddenly found her business operating on an international scale. From here, Kumar went on to open stalls in Paris and New York in the early 1970s. In this interview, Kumar compares her experience in international markets to the Indian market, describing that the Indian market is significantly different due to the need to innovate from within when the Indian government tightened import controls in the early 1970s, the excitement around reviving old crafts that had nearly been lost, the government funding that was poured into this revival, and the huge demand for bridal and festival wear – making the Indian market uniquely resistant to Eurocentric fashion.

The interview continues as Kumar discusses how she started some of her fashion lines including Ri (a high-end bridal line) and LABEL (ready to wear fashion for young adults). She also discusses the importance of having confidence in the high quality of your work, the ability to identify market need, and the importance of investing not only in infrastructure but also in people.

To conclude the interview, Kumar explains how she thinks the Indian fashion business will evolve over the next two decades, describes how there is still room in India’s fashion market for designers to thrive even with the arrival of big international brands, discusses the reasons for the very small number of women who are running large businesses in India, and gives her opinion on what the role of business should be in society.
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Video Clips by Topic

Global Expansion

Ritu Kumar, the pioneer of boutique fashion culture in India and head of Ritika Private Limited, describes how, operating from India, she first broke into the Paris and New York fashion houses and department stores in the 1970s.


Social Impact

Ritu Kumar, the pioneer of boutique fashion culture in India, describes how her bridal business helped to revive the traditional craft of embroidery in India.
Keywords: Social Impact, India


Corporate Social Responsibility

Ritu Kumar, the pioneer of boutique fashion culture in India, argues that every business in a highly unequal India has a responsibility to help society; Kumar's business does so by providing employment to many traditional craftspeople.


Full Length Video (login required)

Additional Resources

Additional Resources

  • Ritu Kumar Company Timeline
  • Ritu Kumar, Costumes and Textiles of Royal India. Antique Collectors’ Club, 1999
  • "Ritu Kumar Bets on Label to Take on Fashion Brands," Businessline, August 4, 2014
  • "Everstone Buys Minority Stake in Fashion House Ritu Kumar for Rs 100 Crore," Economic Times, April 3, 2014
  • "Ritu Kumar at World Fashion Week," Hindustan Times, October 21, 2011
  • "‘India Is an Unusual Market’; Says Designer Ritu Kumar about the Extraordinary Scope in Indian Fashion Wear," Daily News & Analysis, July 31, 2011
  • In Conversation with Ritu Kumar, uploaded November 10, 2010
  • "French Award for Fashion Designer Ritu Kumar," The Press Trust of India Ltd., December 5, 2008
  • "Indian Designer Ritu Kumar Opens first U.S. Store," India Abroad, October 19, 2007
  • "Ritu Kumar to Open Fashion Outlet," Asia Africa Intelligence Wire, October 15, 2002
  • Hindol Sengupta, foreword by Ritu Kumar, Indian Fashion. Delhi: Pearson Education, 2005
  • Parminder Bhachu, Dangerous Designs: Asian Women Fashion, the Diaspora Economies. New York: Routledge, 2004
  • "After Manish Malhotra, Reliance acquires 52% stake in Ritu Kumar," Times of India, October 21, 2021
  • Video file of this interview available at Baker Library Historical Collections, histcollref+hbs.edu. Harvard ID holders can access the full-length video above.

Interview Citation Format

"Interview with Ritu Kumar, interviewed by Henry McGee, January 14, 2015, Creating Emerging Markets Project, Baker Library Historical Collections, Harvard Business School, http://www.hbs.edu/creating-emerging-markets/."