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Couturier Manish Malhotra turns his flagship store in Delhi into a virtual one in light of the changed shopping preferences and social distancing norms in the aftermath of the pandemic. LifestyleAsia catches up with the designer Manish Malhotra about going digital, the challenges that come along and staying relevant in fashion.

Ace designer Manish Malhotra has always been ahead of the curve. Whether it has been in his approach to styling Bollywood movies, introducing stars on the runways or launching his own skincare and beauty brand; it’s little wonder then that the designer picked a novel approach to digitalisation by creating India’s first ever virtual store. Even after 30 years in the industry, designer Manish Malhotra is happy to work endless hours, relearn processes and experiment to create beautiful couture collections that make regular women look like princesses (or Bollywood actresses, as they often prefer).

While Malhotra’s beautiful store in Mehrauli has been a space for myriad bridal appointments but with the new social distancing norms, the designer felt the need for a digital experience that is more personal and inviting. A simple scroll can take you between rooms, while a single click helps you look at the details in the same way you would have at a physical store making this 24 hour virtual experience an enticing one. Bollywood’s favourite stylist and designer Manish Malhotra takes us through this unique digital journey.

Tell us about your decision to go digital for your flagship Delhi store?

As shopping shifts to digital, we wanted to offer our customers an omnichannel experience. One that bridges the gap between online and in-store experience by bringing human connection to e-commerce experiences. The virtual store seems a perfect fit here.

As far as the virtual store is concerned, it operates 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, which means we’re near and available absolutely anytime, anywhere. We are hopeful of gaining stronger loyalty and better our customer lifetime value from this new interaction point.

Take us through the virtual experience that the store offers?

It was fairly evident from the appalling pandemic year that consumer shopping patterns had a paradigm shift as digital consumption continued its dominance at every step of our lives. Maybe we can say, virtual stores are another layer to our e-commerce platform, but there is a considerable difference. E-commerce is more static and gives you a shopping experience, whereas virtual stores are about the physical store’s experience and feel.

One can literally walk through the aisles of the store, and it more or less brings the serendipitous joy of shopping at our physical stores. It is definitely a far more engaging, active and immersive Manish Malhotra experience.

What were the challenges of creating a virtual shopping experience?

Executing this project amid the pandemic offered a few interesting challenges. The 360 shoots, and especially coordinating everything remotely! We haven’t had a single in-person meeting for this. But this goes ahead to show the power and newfound freedom of working virtually. After all, why should something designed for people to experience the brand Manish Malhotra from home not be built remotely after all!

Manish Malhotra's flagship store in Delhi
Image: Manish Malhotra

Was the virtual store born out of the pandemic or has digitalisation been on the agenda to cater to a larger audience, especially overseas.

If you ask me, I certainly feel that the primary driver of growth will come from digital channels and not going anywhere. In fact, it seems to be the biggest opportunity in 2021. Therefore, I would say a hybrid model is both critical and urgent. I’ve personally seen the acceptance of online consults for bridal outfits last year, which was never like this before.

Overall, digital adoption has soared, and it’s just a matter of time that we see some of the most disruptive and innovative fashion and digital innovations in the years to come. Although virtual stores transcends boundaries and navigates across borders quickly, the Middle East remains one of our top priorities considering our loyal base.

What differentiates a post-pandemic bride/MM customer? And how does the brand cater to her needs.

There is always a strategic alignment of every new business decision. Still, for me, it was to encourage our customers to interact, engage better than ever before, even though they can’t make it to our store in the lockdown.

I have got so many calls during the lockdown from the brides who wanted to meet and see their outfit’s in-person, especially in a business like ours, hyper-personalisation and immersive experience is critical. Hence, the virtual store offers that extensive reach and connects us to places from where we are not operating at present like the Middle East, Canada, and United States. Simultaneously it also makes stronger inroads into the ever-growing tier II and tier III towns of the Indian subcontinent.

Digital shopping has emerged out to be one of the most sustainable and responsible ways of shopping in the pandemic year, and from here, it only seems to grow stronger. We have been working on this since March 2020, so it’s almost a year; replicating the store takes time. Conceptualisation and design, shooting, interface development, millions of tech-runs and whatnot, this was a long drawn process for sure.

Manish Malhotra's flagship store in Delhi
Image: Manish Malhotra

In 2021 what is your approach to fashion and style?

The values and aesthetics remain the same. In fact, it’s more celebrations, more glamour. People want to live more, celebrate more.

How do you stay relevant even after 30+ years in the industry?

For me, it’s about honesty, sincerity and the willingness to give that 24 hours of commitment. At the brink of starting my label, I was offered a film to direct but I must say that I sacrificed that for my label.

When you start something you’re also experimenting but eventually you’ve to find your genre and your true calling. For me, that was the bridal couture. Also, it’s about consistent learning and evolving. Keeping abreast with times and keeping pace with it.

At times, I felt alone, very alone because of no support or critique but my idea of having a showstopper and celebrity donning designer attires is a norm today which was started by me. I was bashed for it but then, today, I get to have the last laugh when everyone, literally everyone, runs behind the celebrity with their outfits.

For me, it was in fact, very organic process, because I came from movies, I had my relationship with these actors and they were my friends. So, calling them at my fashion show wasn’t any strategic move, back then and even now.
I never dwell into someone else’s business. My greatest virtue could be me minding my own business. I’ve always been focused on my journey and my career which has helped me to cut through the confusion and stay relevant over these years. So, finally its heart + hard work and then, the economics follows.

Akshita Nahar Jain
Sr Associate Editor
Akshita Nahar Jain has worked with various publications, including Elle, Harper’s Bazaar Bride, and Time Out Delhi, and written extensively on fashion and lifestyle. A sucker for alliteration and shows with more style than script, she enjoys scrolling the web for less travelled destinations.