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Clothing makers adjust sizes upward for affluent, hefty Indians

Adi Narayan
Brent Lewin

MUMBAI, India -- 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, especially those with potbellies.

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, encouraging brands 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 United States, where 69 percent of adults over 20 were overweight in 2008, or Britain 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 in June 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 Tandon.

Indians are eating more meat as they get wealthier and developing a taste for fast food as international chains from Domino's Pizza to KFC and McDonald's 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.

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.



Bloomberg News