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The unique story of India's luxury market

November 21, 2013 16:28 IST

The unique story of India's luxury market

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Kanika Datta

The real talent for purveyors of luxury goods and services will lie in training Indians to serve them, says Kanika Datta.

Earlier this week, the Confederation of Indian Industry and market research firm IMRB released a report titled “The changing face of luxury in India” that spoke about the unique characteristics of the luxury market in India, yet another comment in a raft of studies. 

The fact that the Indian luxury market has become a vibrant subject of research and at least one major annual summit says it all.

The ability of Indians to buy the world’s most expensive and luxurious goods and services is well established.

Rich Indians are courted in the glitzy shopping arenas of global luxury, no longer the reviled forex-starved desperados of yesteryear from one of the world’s poorest nations.

But the real challenges of this explosive growth are yet to come. Earlier this year, Luxury Society, a Paris-based website, published a study on the status of luxury talent in India. 

The broad finding was mostly in sync with what’s happening elsewhere - a chronic shortage of trained talent. But the striking point about it is its prediction: by 2022, India will need 1.76 million people to handle luxury brands and services, a little over five per cent of the total retail human resource requirement, according to the National Skill Development Corporation.

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Those numbers, obviously predicated on the current market, mask the real issue purveyors of luxury are likely to face. And that is keeping abreast of the rapidly evolving perceptions of luxury in a country quite as uniquely unequal as India.

Consider that in 1970s Calcutta, anyone with a telephone and car qualified as a “bodolok”, literally “big man” but more accurately “rich man”. 

Anyone who also owned a cooking gas connection plus a refrigerator qualified as a beerat bodolok (very rich man). In a city with its ingrained faux-left philosophy, this label bore a certain envious derision.

To paraphrase Deng Xiaoping, to get rich was inglorious, making a virtue of a reality ensured by the Left Front in West Bengal and the licence-permit raj elsewhere in India. Access to basic amenities that even Southeast Asia, then swiftly plugging into global supply chains, took for granted qualified as a luxury in India.

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Image: Kolkata.
Photographs: Reuters

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That was also the age of innocence in terms of what Indians considered luxury. A fridge was so rare that the fixture for it was invariably in the living room, so that it could be an object of neighbour’s envy.

The opulence of indigenous royalty had long been jettisoned after Indira Gandhi sensibly scrapped the Privy Purse - it was to the West that people looked for swanky lifestyle models.

But exposure was limited, so the lucky few who went abroad returned with “designer labels” that rarely went beyond Christian Dior and Gucci. One index of how insulated we “bodolok” were from the global economy: I thought the latter was pronounced Gucky for years, not least because the branded handbag a cousin sported was singularly hideous.

Some bodoloks were inclined to patronise the services of a smuggler for Black Label whisky and occasionally awful French wine that would pass muster only as the lowliest plonk in its land of origin. A little later, anyone who owned a Maruti had “arrived”.  

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Image: US socialite Paris Hilton poses for photographers inside a shopping mall in Mumbai.
Photographs: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

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Then Rajiv Gandhi liberalised the economy a smidgeon in the mid-1980s. Basic amenities remained in short supply but India’s precious foreign exchange was spent on, among other things, licensing technology for “luxury” cars.

These were the Contessa from Hindustan Motors, the II8NE from Premier Automobiles, a dead ringer for those boxy models beloved of Iron Curtain countries, and the low-slung Standard 2000, a car built with such defunct technology from Rover that both it and the Chennai-headquartered company that made it rapidly went out of business. And if you owned a Titan watch instead of one from public sector HMT, you were considered pretty fashionable.

Then came the feted end to the licence raj. A different concept of “luxury” made a tentative debut in anticipation of the emergence of the high-spending Indian consumer: such as the Daewoo Cielo from the DCM group, and, touchingly, Arrow shirts, Benetton, Baskin-Robbins ice cream and McDonald’s food chains. 

These were basically mass brands using their novelty value to price their products higher to give the Indian consumer the illusion of globality amid the appalling state of public amenities.

But by the 2000s, when Louis Vuitton opened its first outlet at the Oberoi, Delhi, with rubber flip-flops priced at Rs 24,000, I predicted that it would beat a rapid retreat. Not only have many Louis Vuittons bloomed, it’s one of hundreds of tony brands that now confidently flaunt themselves in a country that has “ultra high-net worth individuals with a net worth of over $600 billion”, according to A T Kearney. 

Even so, as India’s nouveau riche alight from their Mercedes in their spine-distorting Jimmy Choos, swill single malts and weekend in an Aman resort, the real talent for purveyors of these goods and services will lie in training Indians, many of whom continue to lack basic amenities such as toilets and electricity, to serve them.  


Photographs: Courtesy, Louis Vuitton

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