On the face of it, Sandeep Karyotakalam, 38, is your typical IT professional. He wears navy full-sleeved shirts and speaks in precise sentences. After a stint at Infosys Technologies in Zurich, he just completed his executive postgraduate programme at IIM Bangalore, which is where I met him (he was a student in a class I taught there). Underneath his reserved but friendly demeanour is an epicurean sensibility. Karyotakalam collects high-end audio systems and speciality chef’s knives, a passion that began when he used pots as speakers for school parties. “From an acoustic point of view, earthen pots make the best speaker enclosures,” he says. “There are no parallel or flat surfaces, no standing waves, no moving joints.”
After he started working, Karyotakalam would bring back audio equipment from abroad.Today, his collection includes some of the best names in audio equipment—Bowers & Wilkins (B&W), Marantz, Pro-ject, Bose, Sennheiser, Yamaha, Sonodyne and others, which cost him around Rs 3.5 lakh. Next on his list are B&W’s Nautilus speakers (Rs 20 lakh a pair), Krell Evolution Mono amplifiers (Rs 6 lakh a pair) and a Marantz Ken Ishikawa Pearl SACD player (Rs 2.5 lakh). “High-end audio systems are quite beautiful with analogue dials, exposed valves and heat sinks. If you play Knopfler on a high-end super audio CD (SACD) system, you can close your eyes and imagine him sitting next to you,” says Karyotakalam, reeling off details about dampening and connecting equipment, D/A (digital to analogue) converters and specialist cables.
Secret pleasures: (left) A Bottega Veneta handbag with its trademark Intrecciato weave and B&W’s Nautilus speakers . Priyanka Parashar/Mint
In his kitchen are the professional knives, pots and pans that he collects. He has a couple of Kasumi knives, but he loves Zwilling, Sekiryu and Fackelmann knives as well. The best part? Few people can put a price on his passions. It is, in that sense, a secret luxury.
The bling factor: Socialite Paris Hilton with a statement handbag. Toru Yamanaka/AFP
Secret luxury is a trend that has gained ground in the US in the aftermath of the global financial crisis when it was considered obscene to be spending money on frivolous goods such as Chanel sunglasses and Dior handbags when people were losing jobs and going bankrupt. This resulted in the concept of stealth wealth or discreet luxury. The online fashion site Net-a-porter.com offered the option of sending out its purchases in recycled brown bags last year as opposed to its signature ribbon-wrapped black boxes, to take the “shame out of shopping”, as one trend watcher said. Gucci saw an increase in sales of its handbags with a toned-down logo. The Paris fashion house, Celine, under its current designer Phoebe Philo, has eschewed logos. Its Spring 2011 collection of handbags, with nary a hint of the brand name, received rave reviews from the fashion press.
Mature luxury markets such as France, the UK and US can embrace stealth wealth but India is still an emerging market and we like to flaunt it—most of us, anyway. Marketing professionals tell us that the reason we buy a Prada handbag or Bulgari shades is to “signal” to the world that we have arrived. Luxury brands are portable symbols of wealth and prestige. Yet even in India, there is a growing group of people who disdain overt displays of wealth and opt instead for subtlety and quiet pleasure.Years ago, in Manhattan, logo-phobic women would shop at the Yuta Powell Salon for unusual clothes that didn’t scream Hermès or Versace. In India, the nice thing is that logos still aren’t the norm with our fashion designers so patrons who want to wear a Wendell Rodricks blouse or a Tarun Tahiliani skirt can still do so without being labelled label junkies.
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In a study published in the Journal of Marketing last year, consumers were labelled based on whether they liked “loud” objects that screamed out their logos, or whether they were logo-phobic. The “patricians” were wealthy aristocrats who didn’t need the status that logos conferred and went to great lengths to buy discreet logo-less objects that only their fellow patricians could recognize and appreciate. In the Indian context, this would be more like Nadir Godrej, who lives in a semi-bungalow at the end of a leafy lane in the heart of Malabar Hill rather than his neighbour down the road who has erected a 27-floor tower that looks like an Ikea CD rack. Antilla’s owners might be labelled “parvenus” or nouveau riche by the study’s authors. These are wealthy consumers who are high in need of status, and who, as the study says, “use loud luxury goods to signal to the less affluent that they are not one of them”. Think of Paris Hilton and her branded handbags, or any number of socialites in India. The third category are “poseurs”, who buy fake brands and try to emulate the patricians even though they cannot afford that lifestyle. If you save up to buy a Chanel sunglass simply because of its highly visible interlocking C logo, then you are a poseur, according to the study’s authors. The “proletariats” are those who don’t care for and aren’t driven by status purchases.
Secret luxury is less about eschewing brands and more about keeping it quiet. You could buy Frette bed linen or Porhault towels for your home and the world wouldn’t know. You could place the sleek BeoLab 5 speaker from Bang & Olufsen in your den or living room and people might think it to be a space capsule. A Loro Piana cashmere overcoat will see you through the Delhi winter in style, and no one will guess that it cost $4,500 (around Rs 2 lakh). Perofil undershirts (we call them banians) and Kyle King’s bamboo underwear cost over Rs 4,000 each but customers swear that they are great value. You could carry a jute bag but rub Crème de la Mer on your skin and still pass off as a college student of poor means. Bottega Veneta, which advertises only through its Intrecciato weave, has always been a cult favourite, as are logo-less brands such as Martin Margiela.
But if I had the money, the brand I would buy is a Chanel. Not Coco, but Guy. This master craftsman made the famous Hermès saddles before starting a small line of high-quality but discreet leather goods. Check out “France”, and “Travel”, in his man-bag line; and “Duetto” from his woman-bags line. Everything is customized; the bags are supple and well made. Best of all, no one will know where they are from. The catch? They cost upward of €1,500 (around Rs95,000) a piece, occasionally going up to €50,000. Proenza Schouler’s new PS1 bags are easier on the wallet and cost only $1,995.
For all my admiration of secret luxury and discreet style, I am not there yet. I have a few of the usual suspects in my closet, which I bought for their logos, and this puts me right in the camp of what Holden Caulfield called phonies. But to understand the intricacies of objects, to learn about their provenance, and to cultivate the connoisseurship that is a component, if not the essence of style, takes time and effort. Buying a brand simply because of the logo is much easier and quicker. I still have my secret and strange walking shoes, though, made by a company called Masai Barefoot Technology. The best part? Rather than staring at my shoes with envy, the housekeepers in my building commiserate with me about my poor shoes. An expensive object sans guilt or shame; and one that puts you on par with the proletariat—that’s a luxury worth having.
Shoba Narayan’s secret luxury is an aged Pauillac.Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org