Luxury isn’t money; it’s what you can’t have

Luxury isn’t money; it’s what you can’t have
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First Published: Thu, Dec 03 2009. 10 04 PM IST

Splash-worthy: The Louis Vuitton store at The Oberoi, New Delhi. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
Splash-worthy: The Louis Vuitton store at The Oberoi, New Delhi. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
Updated: Thu, Dec 03 2009. 10 04 PM IST
Suppose you took a high-end handbag and stood outside Kimaya or Ensemble to conduct an experiment. Not a recognizable brand like Louis Vuitton, but an underground cult favourite, like Lambertson Truex, recently bought by Tiffany & Co. At $1,500 (around Rs70,500) a pop, the brand’s Quilted Turino Gstaad Hobo isn’t cheap but in terms of style and craftsmanship, it offers more buckles for the buck than brands which cost thrice as much. Best of all, Truex hasn’t caught the eye of the Guangzhou fake handbag industry, which means that if you see someone carrying a Gstaad Hobo, it is probably an original—worth $1,500.
Splash-worthy: The Louis Vuitton store at The Oberoi, New Delhi. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
So anyway, you carry this handbag and stop every person exiting Kimaya with a simple question: How much would you pay for this handbag? You ask 40 people and then take the same handbag to Westside or Shoppers Stop, and ask the same question. Same handbag; different locations; same question. If you answer that the ladies exiting Kimaya, presumably after paying Rs1 lakh for a lehenga, would pay a higher price for the handbag than the folks exiting Westside after buying a kurti for Rs800, you would be right. What surprised me was how wide the disparity was, because I assumed that the same group of women shopped at both Westside and Kimaya. Maybe they do—mixing bangles from Colaba Causeway with blouses from Amara is, after all, the norm in India. But the women outside Kimaya mentioned a number in the range of Rs20,000, which wasn’t that far off the mark. Outside Westside, however, the same bag was valued at a paltry Rs4,000.
Behavioural economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky call this “anchoring”, which implies that once you walk into Ensemble and see clothes with a lot of zeroes in the price tag, any handbag you see, even outside the shop, is going to look like it is priced with a lot of zeroes. Behavioural economist and author V. Raghunathan calls this the “framing” effect, which means that you can influence price through body language, clothes and how you present yourself. Had I worn torn jeans, my Kimaya customers would have considered the bag a fake and me, a scalper. How you dress influences or frames what you peddle.
Luxury marketing is about framing— and I am dropping economic terms here, not making accusations. It has to do with creating a perception in the customer’s head that the bag is a status symbol. “Creating a demand out of pure human ego is what luxury branding and marketing are about,” says Raghunathan. “It has nothing to do with the cost of the product. Like they say about Lacoste, it is a $5 T-shirt with a $50 alligator.”
My question is why Indian goods haven’t become luxury products. Most designers say that our “finish” is the problem. French and Italian houses such as Hermès and Versace talk about detailing and how it takes a craftsman 18-25 hours to create an Hermès Kelly bag. Well, it takes a lot longer to create a Paithani or ikat sari, but these handcrafted items cost a fraction of a Balenciaga gown. Behavioural economist Dan Ariely calls this “relativity”, which in my mind is another word for what Indian college kids call “arbit”, or arbitrary pricing. Consider it this way: A beautifully finished blouse at the Tirupur tailor’s shop costs Rs800. The same blouse with a Pratap label costs Rs8,000. The same blouse with an Anne Fontaine label costs Rs20,000. In his witty book, Predictably Irrational, Ariely uses the example of black pearls, which, thanks to clever marketing, changed from being an unsaleable item to a must-have; and Starbucks coffee, which thanks to clever “framing”, was able to price itself at three times the market price.
That said, luxury brands touch only a tiny sliver of the Indian populace. Even Louis Vuitton’s Yves Carcelle realized this when he talked about the man who “gave his wife an Airbus”. The man, of course, is Mukesh Ambani, frequently held up as an example of today’s Indian luxury consumer in both good and bad ways. “Today’s generation (post-1991) doesn’t have any of the mental, cultural, social or economic restrictions that characterized mine,” says economist and epicure S.L. Rao. “The extreme example of that is Mukesh Ambani, who is spending $2 billion on an obscenely large home in narrow Altamount Road with a view of the slums.” Rao predicts, and I agree, that in the coming years, the ostentation that characterizes luxury spending in India will get “toned down”, now that the “shackles are off”.
The good news (or bad, depending on your point of view) is that the bulk of India, even prosperous India, doesn’t care about luxury brands, surveys by Technopak notwithstanding. Gucci and Fendi don’t feature in their lives. This was driven home at the 12th day death ceremony of a Konkani gentleman, my friend’s father. There was a banana-leaf lunch with delicacies I had never tasted before: a young cashew nut curry called bibbe upkari, five kinds of bajjis (fritters), poli, kook or Chinese potato, and other new flavours. Across the table were two beautiful Konkani matrons, Geeta and Lalita, with two grown sons each. We got talking. They wanted to know what I do. I write, I replied, about things like luxury. Jimmy Choos, for example. Never heard of them, they replied. “You know what a luxury is,” said Lalita after the kheer course. “A daughter-in-law. With all these live-in relationships, you can even get a grandchild, but not a daughter-in-law.”
We all laughed. And in that moment, I experienced the luxury of life in India: eating bibbe at a death ceremony and talking to two beautiful strangers about the demand for daughters-in-law. How can you script this? Luxury is what you can’t have. And in today’s India, it seems, a good daughter-in-law is the greatest luxury.
Shoba Narayan is hunting for Konkan daughters-in-law for madames Lalita and Geeta. And some bibbe upkari for herself. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Dec 03 2009. 10 04 PM IST