I’m uncomfortable with luxury products. Mostly, this is to do with my background (staunchly middle class) and age (we weren’t born at Independence but we heard about the sacrifices from our parents). I grew up in the days of socialist values where frugalness was the first of all virtues.
Growing up, the big luxuries were simple and, when I look back, laughable. Imported erasers (we innocently called them rubbers), Staedtler colour pencils that glided over paper and Levis jeans. Because these were so unattainable— you had to depend upon the generosity of your NRI relatives—they were so prized. The fragrance of my first perfume, Nina Ricci’s L’air du Temps still lingers. I used it so carefully, saving it for “special occasions” and no other perfume—including L’air du Temps—I’ve owned since has been able to match the sheer pleasure of that first bottle. When I wore it, I was as glamorous as the girls in Vogue, back issues of which my lending library stocked.
Looking Glass | Namita Bhandare
None of these goodies were luxuries as much as small pleasures for plebs. Luxury goods—the real McCoy—were for maharajas: jewels by Boucheron, made-to-order Reverso watches by Jaeger-LeCoultre, porcelain plates by Royal Worcester.
But the maharajas were rendered extinct in 1971 by Indira Gandhi. Today, with the Sensex flirting with 17,000, an increasing number of Indians on a feel-good high, and our very own desi Vogue launched this past month, luxury as we know it is an entirely new creature with entirely new converts. According to a 27 September story in Mint, international luxury brands are “stepping on to plebeian ground to appeal to India’s growing luxury market, which isn’t all concentrated in its top metros.”
In many ways, the democratization of luxury is a fine thi-ng: people who work hard and honestly for their money sho-uld be allowed to spend it on whatever catches their fancy.
But the first of my problems is the sheer illogic of the pricing. How do you justify spending over a lakh of rupees on a—purse? What possible design feature on a phone warrants spending close to Rs4 lakh (the limited edition 1947 Ferrari cell phone by Vertu, pegged at Rs3.89 lakh)? And a leg of ham—as in piggy—for nearly Rs85,000 (the Alba Quercus Reserve)? You’ve got to be kidding. You could argue about quality (designer bags have a way of lasting). But what premium do you place on that quality? Is luxury just a synonym for outrageous pricing?
Underlining this is the unsettling question of being ripped off. In his column for Lounge, Mint’s Saturday magazine, journalist Vir Sanghvi points out that the “juice” in a perfume accounts for only 8% of its retail price. So, the next time you spend your hard-earned money on a “luxury” product, consider the mark-ups (advertising, retail space rentals, packaging).
Second, there’s the hype and drivel. “Jacques Polge (legendary ‘nose’ for the perfume trade) reinterprets the olfactory composition of the constellation of Chance around the magical combination of the Unexpected Accord to create a fragrance full of joie de vivre.” Huh? That’s Chanel’s description of its perfume, Chance, on its website. If you can cut through the fluff, send me your interpretation in simple English.
Third, has luxury become another word for mindless consumerism? An acquaintance who works at a luxury boutique scoffed when I looked sceptically around his empty store. Where were the hordes that luxury forecasters talk about? “Oh,” he said, “we have a waiting list of clients begging to be informed about new arrivals.” It’s not enough to have one designer product. Nothing but the season’s latest will do.
Fourth, is luxury about quality or is it about snob value? What kind of person willingly buys a logo-emblazoned handbag and turns herself or himself into a living advertisement in the bargain? But that’s the genius of luxury marketing: make that logo desirable enough for everyone to want it. Can’t afford the haute couture? Go for the logo-ed sunglasses.
I’d be a hypocrite if I said I am immune to the seduction: it is much nicer to stay in a luxury hotel than a youth hostel. And if I can choose between first class and economy, I know which way I’d sway.
But luxury as we know it today is the dictionary’s most overused word, used to describe everything from condominiums to chocolates. Have we gone overboard?
Luxury was luxury when the maharajas and blue-chip millionaires bought into it. Today, when Mrs Khanna buys an LV handbag to show up her sister-in-law at a family wedding or a B-grade film actress twirls on the red carpet breathlessly pointing to her gown: “Valentino,” (your own or on loan, Madam?) luxury loses its cachet.
And finally, I’m rooting as loud as anyone else for India rising. But we remain a country where 230 million people live below the poverty line and 77%—836 million people—live on less than Rs20 a day. A little social conscience is not a bad thing; there is something grossly obscene about conspicuous consumption.
Namita Bhandare will write every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org