A few months ago, Corneliani, an Italian maker of svelte $2,000 suits, noticed it was losing business in India. Then it realized why: It wasn’t catering to overweight customers. So in April it began a made-to-measure service that includes options for shoppers seeking “odd”-size suits, overcoats, or trousers, says Prem Dewan, who oversees the clothier’s Indian retail operations. Businessmen, celebrities, and politicians have since come calling. “The Indian belly—that is the issue, and that’s why we have started this made-to-measure service,” explains Dewan. “We were losing customers because of this, and since we started this service, we’re able to cater to these clients.”
Even as 400 million Indians—a third of the population—live in poverty, a decade-long economic boom has spawned a more prosperous middle class and fueled a rise in obesity, heart disease, and diabetes in the biggest cities. That has clothing brands catering to those in need of larger tailor-made suits and plus-size dresses.
India’s branded apparel market is projected to more than double to $18 billion by 2017, according to consultant Technopak Advisors, encouraging brands from Ermenegildo Zegna Group to Corneliani to expand. Since economic growth slowed to 5 percent last fiscal year, the weakest pace in a decade, more retailers have targeted specialized markets, such as those buying large sizes, says Abhay Gupta, chief executive officer of New Delhi retail consulting firm Luxury Connect.
The World Health Organization predicts that about 31 percent of adult men in India will be overweight by 2015, up from 22 percent a decade earlier. Still, that’s low compared with countries such as the U.S., where 69 percent of adults over 20 were overweight in 2008, or the U.K., with 62 percent, according to WHO data.
Experts say the increased prevalence of obesity and diabetes in India may actually have roots in the nation’s history of food shortages, which goes back centuries. Poverty and famine primed Indian bodies over generations to get by on less, favoring individuals with genes that made them more efficient at storing fat. In the past decade, when economic growth averaged almost 8 percent a year, diets turned fattier and lifestyles more sedentary for tens of millions. That’s led to a surge in obesity in a population more genetically predisposed to weight gain than in the West, says Nikhil Tandon, professor of endocrinology and metabolism at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi. “The amount of fat is inevitably more in Indians” than in Westerners of the same body size, says Tandon.
Indians are also eating more meat as they get wealthier and developing a taste for fast food as international chains from Domino’s Pizza (DPZ) to Yum! Brands’ (YUM) KFC and McDonald’s (MCD) add restaurants. Among emerging markets, India has the third-largest number of U.S. fast-food establishments, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. “When these genes hit the wrong environmental cues, that’s when things begin to unravel,” says Tandon.
Online clothing retailer Myntra.com is responding by ordering more large-size apparel to meet demand, says Ganesh Subramanian, its chief operating officer. “Particularly in dresses for women, there is propensity for large and extra large,” Subramanian says. About 20 percent of men and women’s clothing made by retailer Zovi.com is XL and XXL, compared with 15 percent six months ago, says CEO Manish Chopra. “I think it was a latent demand and we were not addressing it,” says Chopra.
For clothiers, it’s not just a question of making garments bigger. South Asians have a greater propensity to store fat around their waists, according to a review published in the International Journal of Obesity in 2011. That means obese Indians tend to have a “disproportionately large” belly that makes tailoring essential, says Shivank Aggarwal, head of marketing at Shiva International Apparels, which operates a chain that sells plus-size clothing. “Indians have a different body structure, so we have to design the product in a different manner,” Aggarwal says.
While made-to-measure business has surged, not all of it is for heavier builds. Indians are also demanding more elegant fits as they become more affluent and travel overseas. Custom-tailored suits reflect their growing sense of sophistication and a desire to stand out, says a spokeswoman for the Indian operations of Italian luxury clothier Ermenegildo Zegna. Large people constitute a “small” proportion of the company’s made-to-measure business on the subcontinent, she says. Rival luxury brands Canali and Giorgio Armani also offer made-to-measure suits in their Indian stores, and Kering’s Gucci began the service in November.
Corneliani says made-to-measure already contributes 15 percent of its sales, and demand is poised to pick up during the wedding season this fall. Ultimately, the idea is to customize sizes, colors, and fabrics for India’s wealthiest shoppers—skinny or overweight. “The economy isn’t doing well now, but that doesn’t matter much for the rich customers,” says Dewan.