Even today, fashion junkies in Mumbai remember Andrea Bonardi quite fondly. The memory of a blood-red Valentino gown descending the 30 steps of the Asiatic Society of Mumbai, with the library’s pure white Doric columns as the backdrop, does not fade easily. Neither does the drama of sitting on the flight deck of the erstwhile aircraft carrier INS (now IMS) Vikrant, watching a model stride out in Gianfranco Ferre’s romantically ruffled muslin tunic with skintight leather pants. When Bonardi was secretary-general of the Indo-Italian Chamber of Commerce in Mumbai, he spent a year cajoling both Italian couture legends (and many other Italian labels) to show their work in iconic locations in the country, and succeeded in creating those goose-bump fashion moments.
Bonardi’s face lights up at those memories during our 10am meeting at the coffee shop of the Hilton Towers in Mumbai. “Oh, it was a lot of work to convince the designers to do a show in a country where they had no stores. And, also to convince the municipal corporation to have a fashion show on the steps of the Asiatic library was not easy,” laughs the 35-year-old as he asks for a pot of tea—presumably a habit he picked up in the five “beautiful” years he spent in India.
Inside out: Bonardi says Italian brands did make mistakes in India
Bonardi lives in Singapore these days, and though fashion fans in India haven’t had it that good after he left the country in 2006, he has found a way to give luxury lovers a little something to look forward to. Bonardi is now managing director of La Perla, Asia—the 53-year-old Italian label which is one of the best-known names in lingerie, nightwear and beachwear in the world—and is opening a store in Mumbai in October. Mumbai was also where Bonardi’s relationship with La Perla was born. He had invited the label to do a fashion show in Mumbai in 2002; he hit it off with the company’s president Alberto Masotti, and was later invited to join the firm.
When Bonardi joined the label in 2006, La Perla had a store in Hong Kong and a couple of them in Japan. “Asia wasn’t ready for a product like ours; Asian women had never worn dress bras,” he says. Now, Bonardi says, Asia is in its second stage of luxury buying. It has gone past the point when bags and shoes—the visible symbols—are all customers can think about. “Those items are of course still doing well, but Asians were earlier not keen to buy anything expensive that could not be shown. It’s difficult to expect a consumer to pay a premium price for a product that’s not on top of their priority list,” he says.
But, today, the company obviously seems to think Asia is ready for luxury lingerie. “We expect to have 20 stores in Asia by the end of 2008,” Bonardi says. The label currently has stores in China, Vietnam and Thailand; is opening a second one in Hong Kong, and will open stores in Singapore, Australia and Taiwan next year. “Everyone in Italy wants to open stores in China. They say, ‘India, maybe in five years’. I don’t agree, I was always keen to start in India,” Bonardi says.
He is not the first head of an Italian luxury group who leans towards India more than China—the third largest consumer of luxury goods in the world. Discreet, sophisticated labels that don’t splash their logos on products are not hot-sellers in most Chinese cities. “Unlike other Asian countries, Indians understand luxury because they have a history of it. They appreciate quality, not only the brand. The Chinese don’t,” says Bonardi. That is part of the reason they are not starting by introducing La Perla’s lower-priced ranges, but the most luxurious lines—the starting price for a bra will be Rs8,000.
Bonardi recalls what a task it was to sell lingerie designed for European sensibilities to Asians. “Asian women don’t like transparent bras, they prefer padded ones that sit like a tank on your chest,” he smiles. In some countries, Bonardi recalls, there were almost no takers for Black Label—the company’s sexy, avant garde line. “It was difficult to convince them it was sexy, not tacky,” he laughs. But, he is quite happy to inform, Black Label is selling extremely well now—especially to transexuals in Thailand.
Whether India understands sexy better than other Asian countries remains to be seen. But the company couldn’t have done better than Bonardi, at least where cracking the Indian market is concerned. He himself admits that Asian cultures are delicate to handle. His five years in Mumbai, and a sharp eye for observing society patterns, gives him experience not many others have. “When I was here, I saw how many foreigners misjudged India. India is beyond numbers and statistics. You have to understand its society to be successful,” he says. Choosing the wrong location and partners are the mistakes Italian brands have made in the past. “Italians are used to judging people based on how they look and by their possessions. A lot of Italian brands made the mistake of meeting rich Indian families, saw them dressed in Versace and Valentino, were invited to their big mansions and were told that they knew the Prime Minister, so the Italians were convinced they were the right partners for them, even though the Indians may not have understood the business,” Bonardi says. Incidentally, La Perla’s Indian partner is the Murjani Group, that will also launch Gucci, Jimmy Choo and other luxury brands in India next month.
Bonardi believes a lot of care has to go into selecting a store’s location as well. La Perla—as well as the Murjani Group’s other brands—will be housed at the Galleria in Mumbai’s Hilton Towers/Oberoi complex which, Bonardi says, has some social recognition in the city. “South Mumbaikars always told me that beyond Breach Candy is wilderness,” he laughs. But, he knows that if it’s not in the right area and not visited by the right people, it won’t work. “Ensemble is the only store that has beaten this trend. I can’t explain the success of Ensemble in terms of location,” Bonardi says, referring to Tina Tahiliani’s store stocking Indian fashion, located close to Mumbai’s dock area.
La Perla has got its location and partner covered, but has a problem most other luxury brands may not have faced—finding the right sales staff. “In all our stores, we have a policy that our salesgirls should not be too beautiful. It puts customers in a competitive mood. After all, we’re not trying to impress them with our staff,” laughs Bonardi. La Perla also prefers that all their sales staff be between 40 and 50 years of age. Bonardi says correctly choosing staff is the most difficult task they have in all stores. “When you’re buying lingerie, you’re opening your life to the sales assistant. If you don’t have a beautiful body, it can be embarrassing. If you’re shopping for something “hot”, you’re revealing your private life, so we need people who are soft and delicate,” he says.
Once all parts of that equation are in place, the company will target the bridal market, as well as smaller metros in the North, such as Ludhiana and Jalandhar. “And we’re also looking at communities who trade in diamonds and jewellery. They may not be the regular socialite crowd, may not even speak much English,” Bonardi says. His path to them will be through advertising in Indian language magazines and through road shows in smaller cities.
Till then, he is spending any spare time travelling with his wife Sabrina and five-year-old son, who was born in Mumbai’s Breach Candy hospital. “I like holidays that are not relaxing, so we make Lorenzo travel with us without too much care for his comfort,” he laughs. Bonardi loved Oman, Tasmania is probably his next vacation spot, but he still feels there is no place like Mumbai.
Name: Andrea Bonardi
Born: 1972 (in Milan)
Education: Advanced degree in political sciences at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore of Milan
Work Profile: Was secretary general of the Indo-Italian Chamber of Commerce, Mumbai, from 2001 to 2006. Is now MD, La Perla, Asia