One evening not too long ago, India's top fashion designers, Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla, invited 35 members of the country's moneyed class over for dinner at their home in a posh suburb of Mumbai.
The affair was elegant and understated: The guests sipped a 1999 Dom Perignon as they were served home-cooked Goan fish curry and rice. "We are the present-day maharajahs -- in thought, at least -- so we reconnected with friends from all walks of life over a luxurious meal," says Khosla.
The sumptuous repast was one of the eight organized by Moet Hennessey over the past year to give potential customers a taste of its wine and spirits in an exclusive setting.
For Moet and other luxury purveyors, India is a land of enormous promise. Sure, two-thirds of India's 1.1 billion population lives in the hinterland with little access or means to such luxury, but there are almost 100,000 dollar-millionaires in the country.
American Express predicts that India's millionaire brigade will balloon by 12.8% a year for the next three years. Its nouveau riche could spend $30 billion on high-end goods by 2015, according to consulting firm A.T. Kearney. They now spend about $4 billion, while the Chinese spend more than $5 billion. A survey by by A.C. Nielsen early this year shows that India is the third most brand-conscious place in the world after Greece and Hong Kong.
Money to spend
Some of the desire is mixed up with India's royal past, and the tradition of luxury that was the culture of the maharajas, who would commission Hermes or Vuitton for bespoke products, like Hermes saris. But a lot of it is simply the exuberance of a new, economically and culturally open India with some money to spend on high-quality foreign items perceived as unique, sometimes for the first time in generations.
What Moet and the others are discovering, though, is that the most effective way to reach India's increasingly aspirational middle class is customer by customer.
"Indians love to be served," says Vijay Murjani, managing director of the Murjani Group, which for the past year has been selling items from Gucci, Jimmy Choo, La Perla, and Bottega Veneta in a boutique in Mumbai's five-star Trident Hotel.
The marketing executives are doing what they usually do to get attention: They hold their glittering store launches, which are largely in Mumbai and New Delhi, and only now opening in other Indian metros like Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai.
They negotiate with socialites and celebrities for endorsements, and pamper their regular customers, and advertise in glossy fashion magazines.
In India, though, they have found that nothing works as well as intimate consumer contact. As Mumbai-based image consultant Chaya Momaya, dressed for work in a Roberto Cavalli shirt, Dolce & Gabbana jeans, a Valentino belt, and Stuart Weitzman sandals, says: "I like to be fussed over."
Such pampered clientele is still limited to the rich, who in the past made their luxury purchases while traveling to the brands' home markets of Paris, London, or New York. But the market is gradually opening up to the aspirants and the middle classes, who may not wear the brands every day, but yearn for bespoke Louis Vuitton luggage for trousseaus, Dom Perignon at wedding receptions, Hermes scarves, Boss suits and Jimmy Choos during honeymoons.
So the stores are adapting for India. The Moschino store in India, for instance, displays both the top end Moschino brand alongside its less expensive variant, Cheap and Chic. In all the big markets, the Moschino brands are housed in separate stores.
A big middle-class favorite at the Murjani store is Gucci. While $5,000 bags get the big displays, there are also small-ticket items like $50 mobile-phone straps and key chains, and $200 ties for the aspiring middle class.
Whenever Hugo Boss boutiques receive new suit styles, the staff call on their clientele of businessmen and upwardly mobile professionals at their homes and offices. Salespeople help the customers select styles and colors while expert tailors make adjustments then and there.
"The Indian luxury market is not yet mature, so we still need to seek customers," says Harish Chandra, country head of Hugo Boss in India. He claims that the consumer insights that arise from such encounters are useful to source fabrics and styles, further enhancing the client relationship.
When Hugo Boss entered India in 2003, it got a set of suits from each of its 15 international style cuts. It soon realized that the average Indian male is heavier than his overseas counterpart, and does not fit into most cuts. Boss now imports about nine styles including the much preferred two- and three-button, double-vent suits.
It also began with cashmere suits for people in both Delhi and Mumbai. It has now restricted cashmere for the colder Delhi, with lightweight fabric for tropical Mumbai.
The Swiss skin-care company La Prairie organizes ladies-only lunches to show its products in women's homes. And every couple of months, La Prairie invites regular shoppers at a department-store chain in Mumbai to receive free facials. "We are constantly working at ways to get closer to our consumer," says Beena Patel, the director of La Prairie India.
In some cases, that means traveling to small, wealthy towns far from India's massive urban centers. Fashion brands are organizing trunk shows where people of means in places such as Jallandar and Chandigarh in northern India can try on the latest designs.
Mercedes takes road trips, too, regularly dispatching invitations to the elite in towns around the country to attend local car meets. There, would-be buyers can test-drive Mercedes' entire portfolio of cars, ranging from the C-series to the top-end $1.7 million Maybach.
Moreover, they can ask questions of Mercedes executives -- all in one go. "You build a rapport with people and find out what they need and want," says Manas Dewan, deputy general manager of Mercedes. He's been to five cities in the past eight months.