The Chennai conundrum

Why the southern metro remains sceptical as a market for global luxury companies


The Bergamo mall in Chennai.
The Bergamo mall in Chennai.

On a balmy Sunday afternoon, the Starbucks outlet at the Bergamo luxury mall in Chennai is packed. Entrepreneurs-to-be stare intently at their laptops, immune to the whoosh of steam; a gaggle of young girls in skinny jeans walks past balancing precariously on stilettos, clutching tall glasses of cold coffee; green-aproned waiters dole out large mugs of foam-topped cappuccinos and lattes.

Step outside the coffee shop into the mall and a slice of Europe greets you. Sculpted on the lines of the Italian city after which it is named, the mall is replete with gilt trimmings, crystal chandeliers, baroque sculptures and black marble. Yet, it is also somewhat sparsely populated: the air is sepulchral, and boarded-up shop windows greet you everywhere.

When the 40,000 sq. foot mall opened over five years ago, it wanted to offer an ultra-luxurious experience and wooed some of the most prominent luxury retail brands to it, including Louis Vuitton, Jimmy Choo, Bottega Veneta and Canali. But it proved to be a hard nut to crack, according to Ajay Agarwal, managing director of Bergamo. “We brought in all these luxury brands but we didn’t find the market to be deep enough,” he says, adding that all these stores soon shut shop because they could not generate the revenues they expected.

“Chennai is a conservative market and brands need a lot of patience here. They cannot expect a quick turnaround,” says Agarwal.

Conservative is an often-bandied-about term when describing Chennai, a claim not completely unfounded, especially when it comes to luxury retail. People in the city have deep pockets and are brand-aware but it is still a relatively sceptical market when benchmarked against cities like Delhi, Mumbai, even Bengaluru, he adds.

According to an Assocham (Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India) study conducted in 2015, Delhi ranked first in spending on luxury brands, followed by Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Pune and Bengaluru. Chennai did not make it to the top 5 despite it being a rapidly growing city that made it to the Forbes list of the fastest growing cities of the next decade in 2010, ranking fourth in terms of hosting Fortune 500 companies in India and estimated to become a $100 billion economy by 2025.

Sharan Apparao, a well-known art curator and founder of Chennai-based Apparao Galleries, believes it is partially because of what the brands have to offer. “These brands give Chennai stepmotherly treatment. They send rubbish here,” she says, adding that the presence of online retail portals and more travel opportunities make these offerings completely redundant.

Arindam Kunar, general manager (south) at the InterContinental Hotel Group, refuses to use the term “conservative”. “I would call it discerning. Brands that have understood the expectations of the people and those that are tailor-making experiences targeted at them are doing exceedingly well,” he says, adding that the city’s sensibility has always been understated, discreet and low-profile.

The sight of women carrying Louis Vuitton bags or slipping on a pair of red-lacquer-soled Louboutins is admittedly a somewhat rare in the city. And that is unlikely to change soon as Chennaiites believe that this narrow definition of luxury is limiting.

“We need to get over this monolithic idea of luxury,” believes dancer and choreographer Anita Ratnam, a long-term resident. “By seeing it as only luxury brands, we have ghettoized it.”

Apparao agrees. According to her, luxury brands are often coveted because they are seen as status symbols. That itself can prove to be a crutch of sorts—a crutch people in Chennai can do without. “People here have very fine minds that extend beyond materialism. We don’t need foreign brands for justification,” she says.

Traditionally, luxury the world over has been synonymous with certain words: exclusive, exorbitant, branded or monogrammed, even a little ostentatious. And these brands are possibly the embodiment of all this.

Yet, luxury is evolving along very different lines today. “Spending is shifting from stuff to experiences to personal transformations, where a better you becomes the product,” according to a May article in the Business of Fashion, a leading digital authority on the global fashion industry. Luxury also factors in diversity, sustainability, heritage and craftsmanship today.

And in an almost paradoxical way, Chennai, which struggles to retain international luxury brands, has always had an ethos that mirrors this new definition of luxury. “You see some of the best vintage cars, high-end cars and bikes in the city; you notice women wearing heirloom jewellery; there has always been a keen formality and sophistication in the demeanour of the people of this city. While not keeping pace with the likes of Mumbai, Delhi or even Bangalore, the awareness for all things luxury has always been around in this city,” says Kunar of the InterContinental Group.

The culture the city nurtures; its music and dance; the traditional weaves and the omnipresent glitter of gold; and beautiful homes filled with heirloom furniture are Chennai’s nuanced nod towards luxury.

Chennai-based designer Ahalya S., head of apparel and jewellery brands Kanakavalli and Ahalya, for instance, sees the quintessential Kanjeevaram sari, a garment that almost every woman from Chennai probably owns, as an embodiment of true luxury. “Great luxury brands are almost always built on stories and a handwoven garment carries one of the oldest stories in the world,” she says. “It is an exploration of time and space that goes hand in hand with the idea of luxury.”

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