The Republic of Luxury

On the 1st Anniversary of LuxuryFacts, we reflect back on India and the luxury that has seeped into the landscape over the past few years. Conversations with discerning luxury consumers, who have emerged from this very soil, are astounding as to how much luxury has seeped into our minds and hearts!

By: Salman Z Bukhari

Posted on: April 10, 2011

We have come a long way from what we were, that is for sure. A country which got clothes tailor-made, wore quartz watches by HMT, slipped into Bata shoes and applied Fair & Lovely cream, has undergone a massive transformation. India has woken up and taken her rightful place on the global luxury stage. Gone are the humble darzi made shirts and salwars, making way for bespoke and Parisian ready to wear. Decadent Swiss timepieces have made local watches folklore. Indian feet are adorned in the finest Italian calfskin leather and the faces are lit with the finest concoctions conjured by mankind.

DLF Emporio mall New DelhiToday, major Indian cities boast of luxury retail destinations, be it the UB City in Bangalore or DLF Emporio in the capital. International luxury brands had nervously entered this mainly agrarian and closed economy. Now, they are walking out of the plush hotel corridors where they first opened and entering malls, high streets and the digital space. They find confidence in the growing luxury connoisseurs who are multiplying as the country’s wealth booms. As per the CII-AT Kearney Luxury Report 2010, the industry’s size is estimated at $4.76 Billion, which according to Genesis Luxury’s Sanjay Kapoor, has grown at 26 per cent over the last year. At the heart of this exciting luxe-whirlwind is the Indian consumer.

“Growing up in this country in the 80s, you were still a part of a simpler society. Any ostentatious purchases were frowned upon, after all Laxmi (wealth) was precious and had to be spent carefully,” says Archit Kulkarni, a consultant from Mumbai. Gandhi’s nation, which relished its austerity, is now a contradiction to the very idea of India of the past.

The Identity Crisis
“A few years ago, I considered Tommy Hilfiger or Benetton as luxury,” says Kavita Singh, an advertising professional turned banker. But then, she is not the only one. Many Indians had the faintest idea about brands that make luxury or even the prices they demand for the utmost quality they offer. Today, Kavita has abandoned her Swatch and Maybelline cosmetics and replaced them with an Omega timepiece and a Chanel lipstick. “I had no idea how high-street these brands were, but the experience they offered was so premium, it was a luxury in comparison to the Indian outlets and brands I patronized earlier.” The flooding of the market with luxury brands, foreign travels and the internet have collectively changed her perspective, introducing and helping her re-evaluate her own definition of luxury.

The Price Struggle
For those who are making a shy crossover into this world, the prices are an initial deterrent and the sparse yet aesthetic stores a bit intimidating. “When I got my first Gucci wallet, I struggled with my conscience on the big dent it would cause on my bank balance. But once I had it, instantly I knew it was meant to be mine,” recounts Gavin Fernandes, a software engineer on losing his virginity to luxury. He hasn’t looked back since then. He is your ideal Indian entry-level consumer who will splurge on small accessories, perfumes and cosmetics to partake in the big luxury dream.

Reasons Behind It
Royalty and the traditions of custom-made are a natural part of the Indian society, yet the concept of luxury is very different to the new Indian. For some, it is the tried and tested ‘investment and appreciation’ model. For others, it is ‘utilitarian and versatile’ route and then there are those who cannot do without their ‘it’ luxury.

Bottega Veneta Knot clutch for IndiaI spoke to two sisters - each one, despite the similar upbringing, shared a differing view of luxury. Nidhi Multani, married to a Cannes winning filmmaker, calls herself ‘the sensible luxury consumer’. Each of her purchases has an underlined ‘investment’ theme and runs in to rather dizzying figures as long as their value appreciates. “Real-estate and jewellery” is her two-point luxe-plan. Her sister Deepa, who is married into a family of building contractors, is at the other end of the spectrum. She finds her luxury-fix in Vuitton stoles, My Ferragamos, Dior handbags or anything which looks and feels beautiful.

“Classics never fail” is the motto of Alishka Anand, fashionista and daughter of a popular Bollywood director. She understands the fast pace of fashion and how short lived trends can be. “Why buy an INR 50,000 worth DVF dress which you cannot wear to more than a couple occasions before the style runs out of vogue?” she reasoned. But she is a firm believer in the more reliable and versatile luxury segment – accessories. “A Bottega Knot can be carried to a brunch or dinner, for a get together and even a party, giving me so many occasions to carry it and complete the look.” Versace, Vuitton and Ferragamo, among other brands, had entered the Indian market sans their ready-to-wear collections, concentrating only on accessories. ”The market is not ready to take that leap” says a manager of a popular Italian luxury label.

“What is luxury when you cannot show it?” asks Dr. Soham Bhattacharya, a dermatologist with a leading skin clinic in Kolkata. Indians, like any other luxury aficionado, love assuring themselves of their new ‘status’ and thrive on letting others know of their fine taste.

At the CII Luxury conference held in New Delhi last year, Ram Iyer, the then COO of The Collective has similar observations. The best selling pieces at The Collective are the ones with the most identifiable logos, prints and iconography. At Louis Vuitton stores, the best sellers remain anything with the hard-to-miss Monogram Canvas. As for their pieces in Epi Leather with a discreet LV logo engraved at the bottom, there are not many takers. This story resounds through the Gucci, Chanel and Dior stores across Indian metros.

For brands like Bottega or Hermès, which do not have any logos or markers splashed over themselves, the identifiable shape of their objects or the distinct materials make for great announcers. “The Intercatio screams Bottega and the Birkin’s shape is uniquely Hermès, just like the trinity ring is only Cartier,” explains Rajesh Varma, brand manager of a popular Indian jewellery brand. “These brands’ pursuit for discretion ironically becomes the loudest identifier!”

The luxury watch industry is by far one of the most profitable categories. Walk into boardrooms across the country and you will spot Patek Phillipe, Rolex or a Longines peeking out of the well-tailored sleeves. “Our customers don’t mind spending. They view it as a long term investment and an heirloom they can pass on,” informs Devika Shahani, a store manager who heads a fine watches store in Pune. “The men, however, are the bigger spenders here, because this is one of the most traditionally male luxury domains. The Indian man prefers his watches with metal bracelets and not leather, mainly because of the tropical climate.”

Collective luxury purchases were a rage in the automobile industry last year when hundreds of people in small cities made bulk bookings of Mercedes, BMW and anything, which is German and on four wheels. Aurangabad and Kolhapur, both cities in the state of Maharashtra, western India, began an alarming new trend in conspicuous consumption which is extraordinary even by the profligate standards of India’s new urban rich. India is witnessing a mass luxury movement which is spreading from one town to the next.

Scarlett Johansson for Moet & ChandonThe Wedding Dream
Radhika Gupta is a very happy girl these days. She was proposed with a heavily studded diamond ring over an intimate dinner at Private Dining Area in Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Palace recently. The meal was handpicked by the head chef and the champagne was strictly Moët & Chandon. India is celebrating in the lap of luxury. The many fine dining destinations, customized meals, vintage wines and exotic locales are thrown in for a good measure.

Last year, Moët Hennessy’s Gaurav Bhatia spoke to a handful of Unilever managers on the topic of luxury. He narrated tales on how he is inundated with requests from smaller cities and beyond for the rarest champagnes packed exclusively in Louis Vuitton trunks, as take away gifts for the wedding guests. Mr. Bhatia’s revelation on the country’s propensity to spend was a revelation to many listening to him that afternoon.

Travellers’ Tastes
Reshma Shaikh, who works for a leading travel agency, handles Luxury Travels exclusively with her large team of agents. “Indians are travelling in style. Business class tickets sell out before you know it. Economy is always on a waiting list for popular destinations. There is no cost cutting when it comes to accommodations. Only the Ritz and Four Seasons are selected by these travellers,” she says. Although Ms. Shaikh admits Gujarati’s are the most travelled Indians, other communities are not far behind. “Thailand, Dubai, London are now passé for this new age traveller. They want custom- made trips to St. Moritz, Monaco, Bora Bora with varying themes, like adventure, cultural exploration, or just detoxification,” she quickly adds before attending to a client on a World War trail calling in from Berlin.

Recently, I went out to the sea to catch up with the luxury yacht segment’s growth along India’s coastlines. I wasn’t surprised to notice the mushrooming high-end vessels floating along the Arabian Sea, some hosting parties, others holding high profile business meetings. I met Mr Giuseppe Zecchin of Ferretti Group, a market leader in the yacht business, who believes in the mammoth potential of the Indian luxury market.

Near the pier, I observed a ‘Kelly carrying Stella McCartney resort dress sporting lady’ hop gingerly into a speed boat which then zoomed into the horizon. I couldn’t help but agree with Mr. Zecchin. India’s affair with luxury is a new reality and it is making ripples in the otherwise steady ocean right in front of our very eyes.

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