Mumbai: Duncan Mavin is a Hong Kong-based journalist and editor of the Wall Street Journal Asia’s Life+Style section, which covers food, fashion, trends and culture in East Asia. Mavin will be in Mumbai for the Mint Luxury Conference this weekend where he will be in conversation with Santo Versace of the Versace group on the developing luxury markets in Asia. He will also be chairing a panel on high-end jewellers exporting to the Eastern markets. Excerpts from an edited email conversation:
You cover lifestyle in possibly the most exciting market in the world. How do you perceive East Asian ideas of luxury lifestyle diverge from those in the West?
I think there are a lot of similarities between Western and East Asian views of luxury lifestyle. Generally, people around the world are drawn to the same kinds of things. They want the same luxuries and they enjoy similar goods and services. However, what’s different is that the ability of many in East Asia to consume luxury goods and services has risen sharply in the past decade, and even in the last two years.
Western discourse defines luxury as something that takes time to produce. Asians may be buying most of the world’s supply of Chanel and Ferragamo, but do they really access luxury at its deepest?
I think they do. Wealthy people are able to travel the world now with ease, and so their access to luxury goods is the same whether they come from China, Italy, or the US. Also, the luxury firms know that the vast population of luxury consumers emerging in Asia is not to be sniffed at. They are happy to bring real luxury to them.
You’ll be in conversation with Santo Versace on luxury in developing markets. We often hear about Western luxury brands’ exponential success in China, to a point where it sounds like the Chinese market is uncritically demanding of whatever comes its way via Avenue Montaigne or thereabouts. Is this really true?
Tough to say. Certainly Western luxury brands are expanding very fast in China. Many have been in China for years, and those are already doing quite well. For others, newer entrants to the market, they still have to build their brand presence in China. They’ve still got to persuade Chinese consumers that they should shell out top dollar for their goods. I don’t think it’s possible just to show up, put a big price tag on your dresses, handbags or whatever, and expect that people will pay for it. And I suspect, some luxury goods companies are finding it tough to turn a profit.
How does indigenous luxury fare in East Asian countries? Are there home-grown labels in China or Korea or Taiwan that can compete, on their own soil, with the big names of Europe? And do you think we might see a point where this luxury becomes exportable to other countries?
This is the big question everyone in East Asia is asking. When will a truly local luxury brand emerge. So far, there really isn’t one that has risen to the top tier, to rival the Europeans in particular. There are one or two brands that have tried and one or two that somewhat fit the bill—Shanghai Tang for instance, sells a Chinese take on luxury. But that’s actually owned by Richemont of France. It’s debatable whether a home-grown luxury brand can ever make an impact.
One of the other panels you will be chairing is on jewellery. What will you be talking about?
The panel is going to be talking about really high-end jewellers. These are people who are producing very unique baubles that are bought by the world’s most elite consumers. It’s a sector that can’t rely on the usual driver of luxury in Asia—the mass market. Instead, it’s aimed at just a handful of individuals, and that brings a whole set of supply chain, design and service issues and challenges.
What’s the most outrageously over-the-top luxury item or experience you’ve seen in your time at WSJ Asia?
There are many. One experience that is always fascinating these days is to go to a major auction in Hong Kong. They are always filled to the rafters with newlyrich Chinese millionaires and billionaires who are just throwing down multi-million dollar bids on Chinese art and artefacts in particular. Many of them look like really ordinary people, wearing sports shirts, jeans and trainers. But they’ve got so much disposable income. It’s incredible.
China and South Korea currently dominate luxury conversations. But what’s the situation in other emerging markets?
Japan has always been a strong consumer of luxury goods though the market was already tailing off even before the current tragic events hit the economy there. There’s definitely a rising middle class in South East Asia—in places like Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, you can see lots of luxury brands opening up stores, as well as new top-end hotels, luxury condos and so on. I was just in Manila where there was a new Maserati dealership, and several new stores selling top-tier European luxury goods. And then of course there’s India.