Is luxury relevant—particularly in India with all its pressing troubles and under-served population?
Like most Indians, I grew up with socialist leanings. Travelling in a second-class compartment as a child is a great equalizer and, what’s more, most of us who had the pleasure of doing so, actually loved it. A walk down any Indian street is like a philanthropist’s ‘to-do’ list: Remove beggars, educate children, empower women, improve sanitation, provide drinking water, you know the rest. So, when I meet frou-frou types who blather on and on about the tailoring and cut and detailing of something as irrelevant as a belt or a handbag, I want to stand up and shout: “Yes, but what about eradicating world hunger?”
But, and here’s the big ‘but’… these luxury articles are just so damn beautiful that even I forget my political stance. One could argue that buying a Goyard trunk or a Missoni umbrella is an obscene indulgence in the Indian context. But when I look at those objects—my God, the shape, the detailing, the handcrafted labels, the precise metal buckles that align so neatly, the colour and contrasts.
A wise musician once told me that art is something that makes you forget yourself. The big problem with art, of course, is that it isn’t functional. Paintings and sculptures cannot be put to good ‘use’ per se. To which, my sculpture professor would say: “Beauty needs no reason to exist.” Bear with my circuitous argument here. The point I am making is that luxury goods marry beauty with functionality so well that even I can con myself into thinking that the reason I am paying a bomb for a Blancpain watch, Ingo Maurer lamp or Hermès scarf is because they are functional works of art. To purveyors and buyers of these goods, this, of course, is self-evident, just as it is self-evident that John Galliano is a creative genius, while Tom Ford is a marketing whiz.
But for people like me, who enjoy an occasional dip into the luxury goods area but aren’t immersed in it, every purchase can be a guilt trip. Do I really need to spend a lakh of rupees on a handbag or can that money be better spent at an orphanage? Which brings me back to the question I asked at the beginning of this column: Is luxury relevant, particularly in India?
Well, if you go by the numbers, it certainly is. A KSA Technopak study reveals that a growing number of Indians are buying luxury goods because they can; because they perceive value in it. Wearing a brand name tells the world and yourself that you’ve arrived, that you’ve made it. I actually think that the reason why so many of us are seduced by luxury goods is because they are transformative. It’s that old cliché: When I wear an object of beauty, I feel beautiful. You may laugh at the thought that something as trivial as shoes can make a person happy, but when those shoes are Roger Vivier and you are standing in his London boutique, somehow the idea doesn’t seem so far fetched.
Luxury goods are tools of transformation. They allow you to become a wondrous being without collagen, botox or surgery. When a woman stands before her closet and thinks: “What shall I wear?” what she actually means is, “Who shall I be?”Shall I heed the siren call of my Proenza Schouler bolero with a dash of La Prairie gloss? Or, shall I glide through my day cocooned in the refined elegance of Narciso Rodriguez and Joy Jean Patou? Shall I exude edgy chic in my Helmut Lang (before he was bought by Prada) tapered pants and Gucci pumps? Or shall I be a gypsy and walk barefoot in a riotous Ungaro or Cavalli dress? Clothes and shoes let you live out your fantasies.Then how can they be irrelevant, I ask as I stare mesmerized at racks of Louboutin shoes, Lanvin tops and Ladurée pastries.
We Indians have always enjoyed certain luxuries. Tailored clothes, for instance. Your local Mohan’s Tailor may not offer the Neapolitan shoulder of a Kiton suit, but the fussing, clucking and custom-measuring are, let’s say, somewhat similar. Similarly, Verdura cuffs are reminiscent of South India’s famed temple jewellery. The pleasure of writing with a fountain- pen is still the norm for most Indians, rich or poor. Personal shoppers can learn a trick or two from the attention that a sales clerk in a Nalli silk shop bestows on favoured customers. And the designer diamonds of India could give Graff a run for its money. It seems only natural that luxury brands knock on our doors to tickle our palates with their scrumptious offerings. When viewed from that context, luxury goods are relevant because they allow you the pleasure of an examined life. God is in the details, as Mies van der Rohe said, and luxury goods are all about little details.
Now, if only I can figure out how to own these and eradicate world hunger as well.
Shoba Narayan is not a luxury goods shopper, but she likes Pierre Hardy’s label-less bag and Gucci’s amethyst horse-bit rings just the same. Send her your feedback at email@example.com