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Meet the people who drive the Indian luxury market

Last updated on: February 20, 2012 14:19 IST

Meet the people who drive the Indian luxury market

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Veenu Sandhu, Bhupesh Bhandari in New Delhi

Tikka Shatrujit Singh's great-grandfather, Jagatjit Singh, the Maharaja of Kapurthala in Punjab, was a Francophile and an avid traveller. He owned over 60 large trunks that would hold his clothes and paraphernalia -- swords, turbans, suits and shoes, and elaborate traditional dresses.

Some of these were steamer trunks which could be turned into wardrobes when on a ship. Now his great-grandson's job has something to do with those trunks; he is the chief representative of Louis Vuitton in India and advisor to its chairman, Yves Carcelle.

As the Indian face of Louis Vuitton, Tikka Shatrujit Singh has no choice but to exude luxury. He is dressed for our meeting in a crisp dark suit and a Louis Vuitton watch.

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Image: Tikka Shatrujit Singh


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The room, painted red with red-and-gold furniture, has a portrait of Jagatjit Singh. There's a Cartier tiara on the Maharaja's turban. In the next room hangs a portrait of Singh's grandmother, Maharani Brinda Devi of Kangra; she has a Cartier necklace around her neck.

Singh is one of the small tribe of Indian luxury merchants -- their numbers don't add up to more than a dozen. These people help luxury brands connect and sell to well-heeled Indians.

Before Independence, the Maharajas were huge patrons of luxury brands like Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Mauboussin, Jaeger LeCoultre, Louis Vuitton and Rolls Royce.

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Legend has it that Bhupinder Singh, the Maharaja of Patiala, was so incensed with Rolls Royce in the 1930s that he converted his fleet of Rolls Royce cars into garbage trucks!

For almost 50 years after Independence, socialist India cut all ties with luxury. It's only in the last few years that the romance between India and luxury has been rekindled. And it is upon Singh and the others to make the match happen.

It's a closed club. No real estate developer or retailer who may have made serious money recently can get into luxury. The domain is reserved for those who are exposed to these brands and understand their finer aspects.

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Image: Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala with his Rolls Royce
Photographs: Courtesy: bhp.com

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Kalyani Chawla of Christian Dior, for example, comes from a family of industrialists. Along with her mother, Alakananda Saha, she has been an avid art collector. Her farmhouse in south Delhi has Jamini Roys, a Souza and a Tagore all in one room.

Chawla calls the wall with the Jamini Roys a "national treasure". She has exported stuff to brands like Zara, Harrods and Jimmy Choo for 14 years (she shut her export business one-and-a-half years ago).

And her ex-husband is Vishal Chawla of Ravissant; this gave her insights into the world of luxury retail. "This job is so me," she says. "Most of the VIP clients in Delhi are my friends."

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Image: Kalyani Chawla of Christian Dior


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Chawla was initially reluctant to work for Dior but changed her mind when she saw John Galliano, then the chief Dior stylist, at work in Paris.

Sitting in a members-only club of a Delhi 5-star hotel overlooking the swimming pool, Ankur Bhatia of the Bird group, which has under its wings BMW, Porsche Design, Bally and German luxury shirt-maker van Laack, was also born with a silver spoon.

His family has been in the aviation business for long. "We do everything except fly planes," he says. Exposure to luxury came at a young age. "You see my glasses? These are from Porsche Design. I have been wearing Porsche Design glasses for about 20 years now."

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So when the opportunity came to become the franchise partner of Porsche Design, Bhatia went for it.

For Porsche Design he was a good fit -- the family's connections in the corporate world would help it cross-sell its merchandise.

A BMW customer, for instance, could be sold a Porsche Design wallet.

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Dilip Doshi, former cricketer and now counted among the pioneers of luxury in India, handled Canali, Burberry, Wedgwood, Baccarat and Girard-Perregaux.

And then gave them all up for Montblanc which, apart from pens, also offers leather goods, watches, jewellery and cuff-links. It was a connection forged in childhood when his uncle gave him a Montblanc pen which he treasured for 15 years and was dismayed to lose.

Ashish Chordia, who has brought to India Ducati, Ferrari, Maserati, Porsche, Van Cleef & Arpels and Fendi, too comes from a business background and was exposed to the world of luxury at a young age.

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Image: Mirko Bordiga (rider), Ducati Asia Pacific CEO and Ashish Chordia (pillion) Ducati India CEO


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The only outsider in the pack is Sanjay Kapoor of Genesis Luxury which represents Canali, Tumi, Bottega Veneta, Etro, Paul Smith, Jimmy Choo and Burberry in the country. Kapoor gave up his "secure" Citibank job when he was in his early 20s, much to the concern of his family which had never produced entrepreneurs.

As the India reps, these people have to live their brands. Chawla wears Dior when she knows she will be photographed, though she says "nobody will sue me if I were to wear anything else".

When we meet, she is dressed in a powder pink Dior jacket and black pencil heels, though her shirt, she reveals, is Zara.

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Image: Sanjay Kapoor of Genesis Luxury


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Bhatia on weekdays prefers to wear Bally shoes and van Laack shirts. When we meet on a Saturday, he is casually dressed in denims, sneakers and a woolen pullover.

"Working days are different," he says. Kapoor too swears by the brands he represents. "I love wearing Canali. I also like Etro shirts for evening wear, and Burberry trenches, especially when I travel overseas into the colder climates."

So how do they spend the day? Singh often takes key patrons, celebrities and friends to the Louis Vuitton workshop in Paris. "They get completely converted and can understand and appreciate the brand better."

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Photographs: Alessia Pierdomenico/Reuters
Tags: Laack , Burberry , Etro , Singh

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India, he adds, continues to be the biggest destination for special orders like watches and iPod cases, sitar containers and medicine boxes. He would, however, like to see someone order a Louis Vuitton case for a cake! Yes, there is one.

Luxury also has its tricky side. When the stakes are this high, the rules are also strict. The most important one being that you cannot upset your buyers.

"Being in this business has taught me to be more humble and caring. It has taught me to listen better," says Singh, narrating an incident where a woman walked up to him at a party and said, "Tikka Shatrujit? Or Louis Vuitton?" Then she went on to complain about one of his stores.

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Photographs: Heinz-Peter Bader/Reuters

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Not only did Singh apologise to her, he also sent her flowers and took her out to lunch. Singh passes on all feedback, good or bad, to the stores.

Singh often visits luxury stores abroad, observes the salesmen and then hands over tips to his people in India. He, of course, gives contacts of prospective customers he meets to his store managers.

Chawla's job requires her to liaise with film stars and their stylists so that they wear Dior at mega events.

"I have got A-listers like Aishwarya Rai, Priyanka Chopra, Anushka Sharma, Kareena Kapoor, Frieda Pinto, Shah Rukh Khan and Ranbir Kapoor to wear Dior," she says.

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Image: Freida Pinto in Christian Dior
Photographs: Mohammed Dabbous/Reuters

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Chawla keeps a calendar of public events in India and abroad where the film stars could wear Dior.

The dresses come from the "celebrity wardrobe" in Paris and go to a "celebrity archive" once it has been worn. The film star neither gets to keep the dress nor gets paid for wearing it. Some, of course, call Chawla for dresses at very short notice.

"Babe, I need something to wear tomorrow," she mimics. But she also turns down requests from film stars frequently.

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Tags: Babe , Chawla , Paris , India

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"I said no to somebody this morning. You may be a National Award winner, but if you don't have the body for a Dior then you don't get it." Was the one with the non-Dior body Vidya Balan who put on a lot of weight for her last film, The Dirty Picture? "No," says Chawla. "I would love to dress her."

Bollywood has become the biggest friend of the luxury market. "The Bottega 'knot' has gained huge popularity with almost all Bollywood divas carrying it to red-carpet events. The Canali Nawab jacket has been worn by top Bollywood stars such as Shah Rukh Khan, Amir Khan and Arjun Rampal, and is one of the most sought after bandhgala jackets in India today," says Kapoor.

Singh adds: "Some of Karan Johar's movies, like Kal Ho Naa Ho, have used our bags and accessories.

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Image: Actor Saif Ali Kahn, right, carries a Louis Vuitton briefcase in Kal Ho Naa Ho
Photographs: Courtesy, Dharma Productions

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Dressing up stars for events like the Cannes festival also leaves an impression." Actors such as Deepika Padukone, Lara Datta, Sonakshi Sinha, and sisters Kareena and Karishma Kapoor have practically become ambassadors simply by carrying or wearing the brand which includes, apart from bags and suitcases, shoes, accessories, sunglasses, jewellery, and women's ready-to-wear.

Suraj Mehra, one of the newest entrants in the business of luxury retail in India, believes that it's important to be connected with the brand's factory to stay aware of what's going on.

His children, too, visit the factory sometimes. Mehra, who returned to India in 2005, has been associated with French luxury crystal brands Lalique and Daum for the last 30 years, but has only just opened a store at Delhi's DLF Emporio mall.

These brands, he says, have a long list of Indian collectors. "There are over 1,000 for each brand."

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He keeps them updated through email and, at times, calls them personally. He recalls the time he called up a collector in India when Daum had launched a particular limited-edition crystal sculpture.

"The collector told me that if I could manage to get the first piece of the edition, he'd buy two." Usually, Daum keeps the first piece it produces. Mehra succeeded in getting both No. 1 and No. 11 for the collector.

Among the things that Mehra learnt early enough was that in India there are certain areas where all business strategies come to a naught. Daum had recently unveiled 88 pieces of a Shiva sculpture.

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Tags: Mehra , Daum , India , Shiva

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"A particular collector from Mumbai wanted me to get him only number 8. I couldn't because an Indian in Singapore had got it," says Mehra with a shrug and adds with a laugh, "We have lost some good business to Vastu Shastra and numerology."

Another peculiarity which Bhatia has observed is that when people in India spend on a luxury brand, they want to show it off.

"So while Bally, with its very prominent crest, does well, high-end lingerie simply won't sell."

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Bhatia travels to Milan, the world's fashion capital, at least four to five times a year to hobnob with the top brands. He finds them well informed.

"They know who has vacated which shop at the DLF Emporio." He has in the past said no to four or five brands. He has also spoken to brands like Prada and Dolce & Gabbana but found India low on their priority lists.

Still, luxury merchants like Bhatia are busy.




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