Talking numbers with the founder of Purple Style Labs, India’s biggest fashion conglomerate
It has been less than 10 years since Abhishek ‘Monty’ Agarwal founded Purple Style Labs (PSL) with a small start-up funding of Rs 3 crore. His company is on its seventh round of funding as I write this, and has become India’s first Indian fashion conglomerate.
Agarwal, 34, is a fashion outlier. Raised in Rourkela, Odisha, he came to Mumbai’s IIT Bombay as an engineering student. He loved fashion and he loved wearing suits. So much so that he was the only one wearing a white linen suit on Fridays at his first job for Deutsche Bank. When everyone began talking about start-ups, he wanted his own too.
“I wanted to build India’s equivalent to LVMH,” he says. The Louis Vuitton-Moet Hennessy group is the world’s largest luxury conglomerate, its founder Bernard Arnault, is currently the richest man in the world, ahead of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. “But LVMH had a Christian Dior deal, when I launched I had nothing.” Agarwal started an office with 20 fashion graduates and began by distributing 30 small fashion designers.
These were unknown names who worked with one or two tailors from home or a garage. He told them they should handle production while he would handle everything else. Several of these designers sold at Pernia’s Pop-up Shop, stylist and entrepreneur Pernia Qureshi’s ecommerce venture which was the biggest fashion e-tailer in the country then. But Qureshi had run into capital issues and her payments to designers were delayed. “I called her and made her an offer. It was either that or she would have ended up shutting shop in three months,” Agarwal explains. He acquired Pernia’s Pop-up Shop for 12 crores in 2018. In the financial year 2022-23, it generated gross sales of Rs 500 crore, and is estimated to reach Rs 750 crore this year.
Pernia’s Pop Up Studio Mehrauli Store
Rourkela is a rich little town in Odisha. Out of India’s top 10 taxpayers, two hail from here. Their pet pastime here is collecting fancy cars and bikes, and several of these new money men are Agarwal’s friends. Acclaimed filmmaker Mira Nair, incidentally, is also from here.
In my two decades in fashion, I’ve seen enough men with stars in their eyes show up in the fashion industry with a lot of money and a promise to scale. None have lasted after their initial cash burn. How did Agarwal get lucky?
“I studied business models extensively, and tried to understand what works and what doesn’t. Brands need time and effort to build. Farfetch is an example of making a lot of noise at the start, and now the stock is biting dust. Compare it with Netaporter, which grew organically. Brands are not built with money, they need to grow via their products and services. That is how you last decades,” he reasons. “There was no brand in 2015 that touched Rs 100 crore, even though the industry was worth Rs 10,000 crore. This means no one had even one percent of the market share. I came in to solve this problem,” he smiles.
Agarwal’s next purchase was a stake in Masaba Gupta’s label, Masaba, as it was the only brand he thought had potential to scale. “She was the only designer who told me she wanted to build a Rs 1,000 crore brand, everyone else was aiming at Rs 100 crore,” he says. Agarwal bought Masaba for Rs 7 crore in 2019, and sold it to the Aditya Birla group for Rs 130 crore valuation. Masaba still owns a 49 percent stake in her business, now making her the richest Indian designer in terms of actual value. “Tarun Tahiliani has the potential to be India’s Ralph Lauren, he’s such a brilliant businessman. But I don’t see anyone else doing that.”
In 2020, just a few months after designer Wendell Rodricks died, Agarwal bought out his label for a meagre Rs 1.5 crore. “I think Wendell and Manish Arora were by nature international brands at the time, the rest of the Indian labels cater to Indian buyers and Indian weddings. We were talking to Wendell about onboarding him for Pernia’s, but once he passed, and Covid had arrived, there was no production. Historically, his annual sales were around Rs 1.5 crore, so that’s what we offered. Today, the Wendell Rodricks label makes us Rs 1.5 crore each month. But I have to say the great intangibles of a designer like Wendell, what he created as a brand I could not be able to create even with Rs 100 crore.”
Abhishek Agarwal with Jerome Marrel
Agarwal is clear he wants to scale businesses 100 times over, not just two or three times. “I got Tarun to make printed lehengas for Rs 50,000. I told him India’s uber luxury market is selling to 1,000 people. But the next market size is 10 lakh customers.”
Tarun paid him back with some luxury advice instead. “He said my stores looked shabby. So I decided to build a flagship,” Agarwals says of his 50,000 square feet Pernia’s Pop-up shop that opened at the Qutub in New Delhi, where the Indian Handicrafts Emporium used to stand. “It was just such a beautiful location, I had to build a beautiful store.”
Each year, the parent company Purple Style Labs (PSL) has offered some exciting news. Next up are mega stores in Hyderabad, Chennai and Surat. After that PSL will open Pernia’s Pop-up Shop in Dubai and New York (it already has a space in London’s Grosvenor Square). By 2026, Agarwal is planning his IPO.
Agarwal says he’s a workaholic. He only goes home to Juhu to sleep, lives alone and has no immediate plans of marrying. He barely takes holidays but loves long drives. He famously owns a Mercedes Maybach S680, a Maserati Levante, and an Aston Martin Vantage. “This year I plan to go to the Silverstone F1 race in the U.K., and maybe the Wimbledon too,” he sheepishly says.
Namrata Zakaria is a seasoned writer and editor, and a chronicler of social and cultural trends. Her first book, on late fashion designer Wendell Rodricks’ Moda Goa museum, is due to be published shortly. Zakaria is especially known for her insider’s take on fashion, luxury and social entrepreneurship in India. Her writing is appreciated for shaping opinions, busting myths, making reputations and sometimes breaking the odd career. Zakaria is also involved in putting together philanthropic efforts in the field of economic and environmental sustainability.