New Delhi: An old woman with her upper front teeth missing holds a child in rumpled clothes—who is wearing a Fendi bib (retail price, about Rs4,400). A family of three squeezes on to a motorbike, the mother riding without a helmet and side-saddle in the traditional Indian way—except that she has a Hermes Birkin bag (usually more than $10,000 (Rs4.4 lakh) if you can find one) prominently displayed on her wrist.
Elsewhere, a toothless, barefoot man holds a Burberry umbrella (about Rs8,000). Welcome to the new India—at least as Vogue sees it.
Vogue India’s August edition presented a 16-page vision of supple handbags, bejewelled clutches and status-symbol umbrellas, modelled not by runway stars or the wealthiest fraction of Indian society who can actually afford these accessories, but by average Indian people. Perhaps, not surprisingly, not everyone in India was amused. The editorial spread was “not just tacky but downright distasteful”, said Kanika Gahlaut, a columnist for New Delhi-based Mail Today, who denounced it as an “example of vulgarity”.
Mass appeal: Marketers pushing luxury products are often challenged by the in-your-face poverty in India, but Vogue India editor Priya Tanna says the message of images such as these — from the magazine’s August edition is that fashion is no longer a rich person’s privilege and anyone can carry it off.
There’s nothing “fun or funny” about putting a poor person in a mud hut in clothes designed by Alexander McQueen, she said in a telephone interview. “There are farmer suicides here, for God’s sake,” she said, referring to the debt-ridden farmers who have killed themselves in the last decade.
Vogue India editor Priya Tanna’s message to critics of the shoot: “Lighten up,” she said in a telephone interview. Vogue is about realizing the “power of fashion” she said, and the shoot was saying that “fashion is no longer a rich man’s privilege. Anyone can carry it off and make it look beautiful,” she said.
“You have to remember with fashion, you can’t take it that seriously,” she said. “We weren’t trying to make a political statement or save the world.”
Nearly half of the country’s population—about 456 million people—live on less than $1.25 a day, according to World Bank figures released last week. But, as many know, India also has a fast growing wealthy class and an emerging middle class that make it one of the world’s most attractive new places to sell high-end products.
The juxtaposition between poverty and growing wealth presents an unsavoury dilemma for luxury goods makers jumping into India: How does one sell a $1,000 handbag in a country where most people will never amass that sum in their lives, and many are starving? The answer is not clear cut, though Vogue’s approach may not be the way to go.
Marketers need to “create brand awareness” in India, said Claudia D’Arpizio, a partner with consulting firm Bain and Co., who is based in Milan, Italy. She recommended the approach some consumer brand companies took in China, opening big flagship stores and trying new forms of advertising such as television.
As population in the country becomes more affluent, luxury goods manufacturers will “create aspirations,” D’Arpizio said, and people will buy their products to show their pride in their prosperity. However, she said, it would not be prudent for marketers to open luxury stores on “streets where people are struggling for survival”.
Brands such as Gucci, Jimmy Choo and Hermes have been bunking in high-end hotels or banding together in new superluxury malls, where guards are often stationed at the doors to keep the destitute outside. One new mall coming to south Delhi, the gold-leafed and marbled Emporio, even features a spa and a members club, developers say.
For now, the Indian middle and upper class—and the companies that aim to cater to them—are getting used to having new money, said V. Sunil, creative director for advertising agency Wieden and Kennedy in India, which opened its first office here last September. “No one thinks they need to do something deeper for the public,” such as addressing India’s social ills, he said.
The subjects of the Vogue shoot are the people that luxury goods manufacturers might hope to one day become their customers. Firms are attracted to emerging markets such as India because of the millions of people who are “coming from no income and rising quite fast”, said Nick Debnam, chairman of KPMG’s consumer markets practice in the Asia-Pacific region. The idea of being able to afford something but not buying it because you do not want to flaunt your money, reflects a “very Western attitude”, he said. In other emerging markets, “if you’ve made it, you want everyone to know that you’ve made it”, and luxury brands are the easiest way to do that, he said.
Still, the in-your-face poverty of India does present challenges that firms do not face in other markets. In China, most of the very poor live in rural areas, he said. “Most of the luxury companies don’t consider these people” when they’re thinking of selling products, he said, “and even the consumer product companies don’t look at them.” Not taking a close look at the “real people” is drawing criticism for Vogue. “The magazine does not even bother to identify the subjects” of the photos, said Gahlaut. Instead, Vogue names the brands of the accessories in the captions, and says they are worn by a woman or a man.
©2008/ International Herald tribune