India has had a stellar contribution in the history of cotton production which goes back around 5,500 years to the Mohenjo Daro and Harrapans civilisation.

It is a known fact that the Indian subcontinent was trading cotton cloth to Europe and China for spices and other goods. When Alexander the Great came to the region in 325 BCE his soldiers started using cotton cloth for padding their saddles. Probably that is how the cloth travelled to Greece and thereon to Europe for the first time.

By the 7th century, cotton products were considered high-end and luxury in Europe. Arab traders grabbed the opportunity around the 7th century AD and started trading cotton to Venice. Instead of its Indian name, Karpasi, the Arabs named it Qutun, which later became cotton.


It is also documented that when Vasco da Gama came to India in1498, he took the muslin and ordinary calico back to Europe. This caught on with the Genovese navy and the garment for boiler-suits of its sailors was sourced from Calicut in India. This was named calico after the place. With another lobby suggesting that the fabric used was hemp, we are only half sure that the sails of Columbus’ ships were also made from thick cotton.

The dungaree, a  popular denim attire, is named after the Dongre fort area in Bombay, (known as Mumbai today) and finds its originals during the16th century, It was a thick Indian cloth and popularly purchased by Portuguese. Even today, in India, ‘dongree’ is synonymous to thick cotton cloth.

Dungarees were dyed blue and that perhaps was the birth of blue jeans. So it is no wonder that India is also globally credited for painting the denim blue.

The indigo plant was used to source the dye that gave the fabric its classic blue tone. The Greeks called it Indicon and in Latin it is called ‘Indicom’, which means a product from India.

Glazed Indian cotton, also known as chintz, was the first fashion item that became a rage in the northern Europe. The colourful cotton added the charm to household as home furnishings.

It also replaced scratchy wool as underwear and summer garments. To meet the increasing demands, the British India Company was trading over 250,000 pieces of calico and chintz from India. By the 17th century the popularity of cotton was peaking.

This led to a weaker phase for silk and wool industries and the European cloth producers demanded to put a ban on the cotton imports. Later, the governments replaced it with duties, however, by that time European producers had successfully copied the techniques of Indian dye and design.



The Indian misery really began as a result of the domestic British East India Company inspired policies in which one half of the crop was taken as revenue and the other half by sovereign merchants at a cheaper price than market. The entire process was systematically taxed from farmer’s plough and bullocks to charkha, bow, loom, dye and cloth. Of particular note is the greater Bengal area. After the battle of Buxar in 1764, the British East India Company became de-facto rulers of Bengal. The Bengal famine of 1770 which saw the death of 10 million between 1769 and 1773 occurred, or was made more severe, largely due to the British East India Company’s policies. The mandate of the British East India Company was to maximise its profits. With taxation rights, the profits to be obtained from Bengal came from land tax as well as trade tariffs. As lands came under company control, the land tax was typically raised fivefold. Additionally the destruction of food crops in Bengal to make way for opium poppy and indigo cultivation for export reduced food availability and contributed to the famine. The company also forbade the “hoarding” of rice. This prevented traders and dealers from laying in reserves that in other times would have tided the population over lean periods.

Another nail in the coffin for the Indian cotton industry was when American cotton entered the competition in 1786. In net result, many Indian artisans and craftsmen were forced to leave this business and the entire Indian textile industry was captured by the company.


Indigo, was also one of the factors that sparked the Indian independence movement. The Champaran farmers were forced to grow indigo and other ‘cash crops’ instead of food crops and sell at a fixed price. This took them to the verge of starvation. This resulted in the situation growing progressively worse until in 1914 and in 1916 the farmers revolted. In 1917, Mahatma Gandhi visited the region and began the non-violent mass civil disobedience movement. His arrest and subsequent release lead to all parties signing an agreement granting more compensation and control over farming for the farmers of the region, suspending revenue collection until the famine ended, releasing all prisoners and returning confiscated property. Indigo thus played a role in the early years of the movement and of Gandhi becoming the leader of Indian nationalism.

However Indian production continued in pockets with hubs specialising in certain aspects individually.


In India, Bollywood and fashion share a strong relation. Movies not only forecast fashion but also create chic statements. Bollywood stars in fact began wearing denims on screen well in advance to the development of Indian brands. Some were seen even around the 1970s. Today, it is difficult to envisage a movie without actors wearing denims.

Arvind Mills had been exporting indigo-dyed blue denim to a number of global jeans manufacturers. And then in 1980, Sanjay Lalbhai of Arvind Limited led the Reno-vision Commission and implemented the first denim plant in India and issued debentures. In 1986 India was introduced to the denim fabric. After a couple of years, in 1987-88, Arvind entered the export market for two sections -denim for leisure and fashion wear and high quality fabric for cotton shirting and trousers. By 1991 Arvind was the third largest producer of Denim in the world.

Branded jeans wear expanded in the late 70s. Jeans also brought in greater focus on the design phenomenon in India as the manufacturers had to pay great attention to workmanship.

Soon after some jeans brands were brought into India by different Delhi- based exporters—Avis, Wings and FU’s gained popularity. Wings Wear Private Limited started “Wanted” and later “Blue Lagoon.” Regional poularities were attained. Avis, FU’s, Apache, Double Barrel, Ware, 2Y were popular in north and west and Jeans Junction & Jeans Care in Kolkatta. Of these perhaps the most popular was Avis which was founded in 1964. Avis also went on to become one of the first companies from India to be exporting to many parts of the world. Intercraft Limited launched the first international jeanswear brand FU’s in India. Its campaign, the ‘FU’s or Nothing’ featured a naked child and then a nude female model hit the Indian media. It was first-of-its- kind campaign in the Indian clothing advertising. After performing well in the MBOs, the company opened India’s first chain stores in clothing with the name Intershoppe and FU’s Exclusif at Hauz Khas Village in Delhi and Warden Road in Mumbai. After a few years, Creative Garments, a Mumbai-based exporter introduced the American jeans brand UFO in India. During eighties UFO brought distinct American attitude to India. At that time its ad set one of the best examples of clean and sharp baselines, ‘If it doesn’t fit you, we’ll eat our words’. After this, the homegrown brand such as Avis, Wings and Flying Machines also started working on the aggressive brand promotion strategies.


Flying Machine from Arvind Group became one of the most iconic Indian denim brands. After its launch, the brand enjoyed cult status for the next 10 years. Even now, it’s really hard to find a fashion conscious Indian male who has never worn denims made by Flying Machine. Recently, in 2007 Flying Machine was revived and re-launched in a new avatar with a new logo, placement and philosophy. Then came Numero Uno in 1987 one of India’s first indigenously denim labels. Initially it started manufacturing denims for men and gradually tapped the women’s market too. It emerged as a dynamic and responsive brand for the youth. Today the brand does the complete wardrobe for both, men and women.

Most of the brands were creating denims for men but soon a few womenswear brands emerged that not only created denims for women but also established it as a niche category. Jealous was launched in 1988 as women’s casualwear brand in India that was offering jeans, pants, coordinates and more. It gained popularity with its hipsters for Indian women. The brand also introduced fabrics like Modal, Tencel and polynosics. Around the same time more womenswear brands emerged. One of them was Base. It had orthodox and designer denims as well as cotton blends. Base targeted the upper middle class women between the age groups of 16-25 years. Another brand called Upper Class made womenswear even more appealing with its product category comprising capris, shorts, skirts, skorts, bermudas, dungrees and embroidered jeans. It gained popularity for its creative denims. Nirvana, launched in 1993 focused on fits, styles and pricing. Targeting at mid-segment consumers, it was offering jeans, denim jackets, tops, skirts, capris and cotton pants for Indian women.

In 1989, the Kewal Kiran Group launched Killer targeting the 16-25 age group. It had an elaborate portfolio of denim and non-denim casuals. Incorporated into a public company in 2006, it is today a 300 crore conglomerate with four iconic denim brands—Killer, Integriti, LawmanPg3, Easies, and two fashion retail destinations – K-Loungeand Addictions. In the same year Spanish denim brand, Pepe Jeans London also made its debut in India which was a wholly owned subsidiary.

Another iconic Indian denim brand Spykar made its entry in 1992 as a venture by Prasad Pabrekar into fashion apparel segment to make use of his repertoire of technical knowledge in processing of denim garments. In 1993, Arvind Brands Ltd, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Ahmedabad-based Arvind Mills was established. The company was mandated to set up branded garment business lines in India. Arvind Brands Ltd went on to become the licensee for Arrow, Lee and Wrangler in India. It also owns domestic brands like Excalibur, Newport, Ruggers and Bay Island. In the same year another brand Chelsea jeans created a strong campaign but also is own attitudinal creativity. The bold homosexual connotation struck and generated tremendous interest in Chelsea among the Gen-X crowd. Another brand that was launched in 1993-94 was Charlie Jeans that went on to have a great run for the next 15 years or so.

So by the early nineties denims had begun to do quite well in India but the Indian customers was accustomed to traditionally stitched and tailor- made pants. Hence, Arvind Brands introduced the Ruf & Tuf jeans ready- to-stitch kits in the 1995. Later, Arvind Brands tied up with Pantaloon Retail to retail Ruf & Tuf through the latter’s Big Bazaar outlets across the country. The venuture sold close to 100,000 pieces per month. Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar was the brand ambassador for Ruf & Tuf. However, the brand started losing its vantage place in the market due to both the entry of new brands and the fact that the Indian customer had by then got accustomed to jeans and started exploring other brands. In 1995 Levis too had entered India with its vast legacy, technical excellence and unique craftsmanship.

By this time the country had opened doors for international denim brands to venture into the Indian market.

Planet Retail Holdings licensed Guess’s entry in 2005. In 2007 four international brands, Calvin Klein, Dolce & Gabbana, Replay and Miss Sixty entered India. Calvin Klien, popularly known as CK was an American designer label that made its entry with Brand Marketing India. Italian designer label, Dolce & Gabbana was a joint venture with DLF brands. Replay from Netherland was brought by Future Group with franchise/ distribution structure. In 2010 Italian denim and fashion label Diesel too came into India with Reliance Brands. The brands Lee and Wrangler which were brought into India by Arvind in a joint venture with VF now operate under the VF Brands India umbrella. India has seen the denim industry evolving at a brisk speed.

The industry looks forward to a better future which also ensures that none of the miseries such as exploitation of farmers, unsustainable farming and influence of monopolistic lobbying are not repeated.

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