A few months ago, Corneliani SpA, an Italian maker of svelte $2,000 suits, noticed it was losing some business in India. Then it realized why: It wasn’t catering to overweight customers, especially those with pot bellies.
So, in April, it began a made-to-measure service that includes options for shoppers seeking “odd”-sized suits, overcoats or trousers, said Prem Dewan, who oversees Indian retail operations. Businessmen, celebrities and politicians have come calling.
“It’s specially the Indian belly -- that is the issue and that’s why we have started this made-to-measure service,” said 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 created dozens of billionaires, fueling a rise in obesity, heart disease and diabetes in the biggest cities. That has brands rushing to win over a swelling population of heavier customers with luxurious tailor-made suits and plus-sized dresses.
India’s branded apparel market is projected to more than double to $18 billion in 2017, according to consultant Technopak Advisors Pvt, encouraging brands from from Ermenegildo Zegna Group to Corneliani to expand. As economic growth slowed to 5 percent last fiscal year, the weakest pace in a decade, more retailers have targeted niche shoppers, such as those buying large sizes, said 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, India’s rates remain low compared with countries such as the U.S., where 69 percent of adults over 20 were overweight in 2008, or the U.K. at 62 percent, according to WHO data.
Increased prevalence of obesity and diabetes may have roots in deprivation that goes back centuries. Poverty and food shortages primed Indian bodies over generations to get by on less, favoring individuals with genes that made them more efficient at storing fat.
A study published yesterday by the journal Diabetologia found that South Asians need to hit the treadmill and exercise more than Europeans of the same body size to reduce their risk of diabetes.
During a decade of economic growth averaging almost 8 percent a year, diets turned fattier and lifestyles more sedentary, leading to a surge in obesity in a population more genetically predisposed to weight gain than the West, said Nikhil Tandon, professor of endocrinology and metabolism at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.
“The amount of fat is inevitably more in Indians” than in Westerners of the same body size, said New Delhi-based Tandon.
Indians are eating more meat as they get wealthier and developing a taste for fast food as international chains from Domino’s Pizza Inc. to Yum! Brands Inc.’s KFC and McDonald’s Corp. add new restaurants. Among emerging markets, India has the third largest number of U.S. fast food establishments, according to Bloomberg Rankings.
“When these genes hit the wrong environmental cues, that’s when things begin to unravel,” said Tandon.
Online clothing retailer Myntra is ordering more large size apparel to meet demand, said Ganesh Subramanian, chief operating officer.
“Particularly in dresses for women, there is propensity for large and extra large,” Subramanian said.
About 20 percent of men and women’s clothing made by retailer Zovi.com is for XL and XXL sizes, compared with 15 percent six months ago, said founder Manish Chopra.
“I think it was a latent demand and we were not addressing it,” said Chopra.
South Asians have a greater propensity to store fat around the waist, according to a review published in the International Journal of Obesity in February 2011. That means obese Indians tend to have a “disproportionately large” belly that makes tailoring essential, said Shivank Aggarwal, head of marketing at Shiva International Apparels, which runs a chain selling plus-sized clothing.
“Indians have a different body structure, so we have to design the product in a different manner,” Aggarwal said.
A large swath of the population still goes hungry each day. More than three-quarters of the country’s 1.2 billion people eat less than minimum targets set by the government. For every obese man there are 26 others who are underweight, a ratio second only to Ethiopia, according to Bloomberg Rankings.
New migrants to cities and the wealthy have a higher risk of being overweight, according to at least four peer-reviewed studies published between 2008 and 2012.
While made-to-measure businesses have surged, not all of it is for heavier builds. Indians are also demanding more elegant fits as they get increasingly affluent and travel overseas. Custom-tailored suits reflect their growing sense of sophistication and a desire to stand out, said Surabhi Negi, head of marketing in India for Italy’s Ermenegildo Zegna. Large people constitute a “small” proportion of the company’s made-to-measure business, she said.
Italian luxury brands Canali SpA and Giorgio Armani SpA also offer made-to-measure suits in their stores, and Gucci began the service in November.
Corneliani says made-to-measure already contributes 15 percent of its total business and demand is poised to pick up during wedding season. 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,” said Dewan.