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Threads of Innovation: Harita Choudhary Kaul, Chief Product Officer, Benetton India

Fashion retail is by definition, a rapidly evolving industry. Embryonic consumer preferences, changing trends and technological advancements have led to the market witnessing significant shifts in design, production, and marketing strategies.

To succeed in this dynamic, fashion retailers need to turn profitable and at the heart of a profitable fashion business is the product. The simple equation therefore is – the better the quality of your product, the more profitable your business. But managing a product is no simplistic task.

Product management – with an Apparel Product Manager at the center of operations – typically brings together the work of the design studio, pattern cutting and production departments, ensuring a fashion collection achieves the required style, production standards, price points, delivery dates and points of sale.

The job is so advanced that more and more fashion retailers – small scale and large scale – are hiring Product Managers.

IMAGES Business of Fashion brings to you, a series on skilled Product Managers who handle a wide range of responsibilities at various stages of apparel’s life cycle from buying to final delivery. These accomplished experts develop a roadmap for products based on their company’s vision, customer and market research and industry insights.

This week, the spotlight is on Harita Choudhary Kaul, Chief Product Officer, Benetton India.

As Head of Design, Buying & Merchandising and Visual Merchandising, Harita’s role entails defining product strategy from concept to consumer, ensuring that the product offering is aligned with brand’s vision and market needs. This includes the end-to-end product development cycle, new category launches, trend analysis, store buys and visually appealing in-store display that showcase the product effectively.

Harita, who spent her early working years with Shopper’s Stop as buyer for womenswear and with TCNS during the initial phase of launch of W, says, “As CPO my focus is on bringing Brand appropriate, commercially, and financially viable collections to the Indian consumer across channels. It’s a skill where art meets science as design aesthetics, in-depth knowledge of fashion trends, data driven approach of current market trends, cost focus, cross functional collaboration and innovation is at the heart of delivering a collection that is customer centric and unique.”

Design & Product Development Process

Benetton’s process begins with receiving global themes and colour palettes from their headquarters. These are then attuned to India-specific needs and weather right proposals.

“From hereon, creative ideation leads to detailed design development. Simultaneously we do a thorough analysis of current selling trends and define product strategy,” says Harita.

Throughout the development process designers and buyers work closely to ensure that the new collection resonates with consumer preferences.

Harita says her biggest source of inspiration is Benetton, the brand itself. It has a rich heritage of colours and sport. “For seasonal creations my inspiration comes from varied sources like art, culture and travel. Watching people all over the world and observing their lifestyle shift inspires me to create new products. Prevalent music and street trends influence the creative style that is distinctive and in tune with new trends,” she states.

The Balancing Act

Adapting to lifestyle changes and international trends along with maintaining timeless classics is key to long term success of fashion brands.

Towards this, Harita explains that every season’s collection is segmented into 3 categories at Benetton – Core / Classic Pieces that are always available, Updated Basics that are easy to wear pieces with seasonal updates of colours, fabric textures or trims and Fashion / Thematic Collections that are completely built around brand appropriate seasonal trend to offer monthly freshness to consumers.

“We top this up with a small capsule of iconic pieces that are distinct to the Benetton ‘Style and Colour Philosophy’,” she says.

Being an Italian brand, Knit is one of the strongest brand pillars for Benetton, and Harita has consciously introduced this in even unexpected categories like shirts, jackets, trousers and denims.

“Besides this, the materials being used should be weather appropriate and of good quality both in terms of hand feel and durability to last in our consumers’ wardrobes for years,” she says.

Product Heads for the Environment

Environmental impact matters to Benetton and hence Harita is constantly on the lookout for sustainable options.

“We have a multifaceted approach throughout the product creation chain. Use of eco-friendly fabrics, dying with green chemicals and dying methods that consume less water are prioritized,” she says.

Harita also ensures that the sampling to selection of styles ratio is closely monitored to reduce waste.

“For packaging, we use 100% bio-compostable polybags and 65% of the cartons used are reused cartons,” she says adding, “A large part of our collection is based on sustainable fabrics like Tencel, linen, bamboo, hemp, BCI cotton, eco gold (bio degradable poly). We also use eco wash and laser wash in denims that reduce water consumption.”

All Benetton vendors are Higgs compliant, an index that measures and manages sustainability and ethical performance in alignment with best industry practices, which covers a vast base of evaluating water use, energy consumption, labor conditions etc.

Passing the Vibe & Quality Checks

Harita says choosing what products and designs to churn out season after season is no easy task.

“One must stay updated on trends and so we study WGSN forecasts coupled with social media content to stay updated on current and future trends,” she explains.

“Market research of is pivotal to creating a product line that maximizes profitability and competitiveness and is relevant in constantly evolving market. Both internal research of desired styles, colours and fit preferences alongside understanding of competitive landscape helps us launch a distinct product line,” she adds.

Aside from this, frequent international exposure as well as comprehensive research of buying patterns from historical and current sales data helps her team identify the pulse of the new-age consumer.

Once the designs are finalized and produced, the QA team steps in with regular fabric, stitching and fit evaluations. They also determine the colour consistency and fastener evaluations through rigorous testing procedures and regular audits during and post production. All of this in turn helps Harita’s team achieve the desired quality and consistency of the end product.

Harita’s Top 3 Technologies

  • 3D designing is evolving fast. For now, we use it for most of our shirts and it helps reduce sampling wastage.
  • Innovation in the field of sustainability from recycled fiber usage to dying technologies to reduce carbon footprint.
  • Immersive experiences to build brand experience, and Augmented Reality that helps consumers see how garments would look on them without using the trial room. They can even style their outfits virtually by exploring different products offered in collections.

Top 3 Challenges in Product Development

  • Fashion trends evolve fast, keeping up with them and predicting the ever-evolving tastes and lifestyle needs of the consumers eight months in future can be challenging. Constant freshness and introduction of distinct and innovative products is complex.
  • While increasing sustainable options, managing local sourcing that has transparent supply chain and is cost effective is difficult.
  • Managing right inventory through prediction of stock needs and fashion trend sales is the most challenging. Working closer to season and being agile is the key.

Favourite Benetton Collections

“The Iconic Collection launched in 2019 and Roots 65 limited edition collection based on the F1 heritage of Benetton are two of my all-time favorites. Both these collections define Benetton’s unique and vibrant colour play and sports heritage,’ says Harita.

“Benetton is one of the most iconic brands with a very rich history. It believes in the philosophy of spreading joy through colour and inclusivity since its inception. This legacy gives me design freedom and an opportunity to create products with artistic expression that resonate with people from different cultures and backgrounds. It’s young and vibrant,” she concludes.

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