Darshan Mehta walks into Frangipani restaurant, at Mumbai’s Hilton Towers, in a well worn, green rugby tee and jeans with embroidered pockets and fashionable grease stains. Regular weekend wear for the chief executive officer of Reliance Brands Pvt. Ltd?
Once we settle down to chat it becomes clear that for Mehta— who headed VF Arvind Brands Pvt. Ltd before he joined the newly set up entity under Reliance Retail Ltd to acquire/partner with apparel, footwear and lifestyle brands in the premium to luxury space—nothing is standard issue.
Rubbing the edge of his collar between two fingers, he describes the Rs4,000 Rugby line T-shirt in loving detail, drawing my eye to the herringbone canvas twill on the placket, mouldable buttons, the nice woven collar “which, by the way, is very hard to execute”. We traipse through the fit of the armholes; then his “thanza” fit Euro 300 Diesel jeans which, he says, are a derivative of the dhoti cut: roomy at the seat and narrow from the thigh.
In his jeans: Denim and health food are Mehta’s pet obsessions
And these are not the only objects of Mehta’s affection.
The last time we met we had a similar conversation about what was probably another $400 (about Rs16,000) jeans and T-shirt combo. He has more than 100 pairs of jeans, 50 pairs of shoes, more than 100 suits and a 25ft long wardrobe that has a separate section for winter wear. It is not surprising, then, that most of his marital disputes are over his encroachment of the family wardrobe space.
Although Mehta is a trained chartered accountant and worked as a finance person at the Lalbhai Group—Arvind Brands’ parent—for 23 years, eventually he found his way into their brands business. The new role was a perfect fit. He helped clinch winner joint ventures with companies such as VF Corp., the US apparel company that owns brands such as Lee, Wrangler, Nautica, Jansport and Kipling, premium fashion brand Tommy Hilfiger, denim brand Diesel SpA, Gant and US Polo Association. All of this made Mehta one of the most sought after executives in the booming retail sector. Wooed by many, Mehta was rumoured to have joined the Future Group before he actually signed to start a brands business for Reliance.
Mehta, a health freak, has steered me towards the healthier options (broccoli salad) in the restaurant’s elaborate buffet. He eats healthy, treks the Himalayas often, plays squash or runs everyday, and is currently training for the Mumbai marathon.
At Reliance Brands, which is only three months old, Mehta is setting quite a pace. I heard voicemail messages in half a dozen assorted languages while trying to set up this meeting. He travels often, seeking brands primarily in spaces which include premium denim, women’s lingerie and contemporary brands, a premium clothing line for mature men and a high-end, multi-brand retail environment. Recently, the firm announced it would partner with the Italian Sixty Group, which has brands such as Miss Sixty, Energie, Killah and Sixty. While the early announcements suggest Reliance’s plans for the brands business will match the company’s ambitions in its other businesses, Mehta does not talk much about his employer. He will look at private equity stakes in some Indian or international brands and, of course, tie up with more.
Given that this is at least the fifth denim brand he has been associated with, I ask Mehta about the way the business has changed. “Five years ago, the costliest pair of jeans available here was in the Rs2,000 range. Today, that has gone up to Rs10,000, and the premium consumer in India is willing to pay anything between Rs5,000 and 7,000 for a pair of jeans.” As the customer moves up the ladder, there is awareness about the fit, materials and washes, he says.
Versatility is also something Mehta acquired a reputation for at Lalbhai Group, where he often juggled several jobs running finances and operations at advertising firm Trikaya Grey Advertising (India) Pvt. Ltd, a brokerage, a radio trunking business, and real estate, apart from the apparel brands business. What is it like going to work and having a new business to run all the time, I ask. “I’m open to change,” he says, narrating the time he was put in charge of the group’s stock broking arm, Anagram Securities Ltd. “It was a 60-member team and I didn’t even know how to distinguish between a NSE and BSE screen,” he says. It worked out okay. Anagram Securities is now a 1,300-member team with a daily turnover of Rs1,000 crore.
Mehta seems to deal with change well because it has been a constant in his life. “I went to 14 different schools,” he says. “My mother sent me to whichever playschool or nursery would have me,” he says. It’s hard to imagine the impeccably put together man, not a strand of salt and pepper hair out of place, as a boisterous kid.
The lunch-hour crowd is thinning, and our leisurely conversation has meant that the buffet is nearly packed up by the time we go for seconds. Convinced I have deprived my skinny guest of food, I quickly suggest we make up with dessert and coffee. He picks chocolate dessert and masala chai, no sissy tea-bag tea for us.
We discuss whether Indians are getting more brand conscious as they get wealthier and are better travelled. He looks around the restaurant and points at linen shirts and jeans and says that while the growth of the market has been fastest in semi-formal clothes, people are much more brand and fashion conscious now.
But young India does leave him a bit bewildered. “Honestly, my son scares me. Not just him but his entire generation is so oblivious to clothing. Aakash and I are the same size; of all the hundreds of pairs of jeans I own, he picked an old pair of boot-cut Wranglers which went out of style a long time ago. I keep telling him that a few more kids like him and we will be out of business,” he laughs.
Then he says his son is hopefully an exception. That could well be because India’s Rs1,200-1,500 crore premium denim market is growing at 37% every year. But that still leaves the question of his 100 or so pairs of jeans and 100 suits. Like most fathers, he can only hope that his son will be happy to inherit his collection, from the regular Marks and Spencer stuff to his most prized possession, a green Armani suit.
That, and hundreds of books which speak volumes about his interest in religion, art and travel, some biographies, a few fiction titles and comic books, all stored snugly in a library with a ladder on casters to navigate the floor-to-ceiling bookcases.
I finally ask why he left Arvind after 23 years? He takes a long minute to reply. “I love a challenge and that is what Reliance is giving me. I feel 10 years younger.” Though I have a sneaky feeling that the treks up and down the Himalayas, running a few miles every day and eating fresh vegetables have lots to do with that.
Birth: 31 July 1961, Mumbai
Education: Fellow chartered accountant, in 1984
Work Profile: Articled with PricewaterhouseCoopers Pvt. Ltd. Joined the Lalbhai Group in 1984 as CFO. During the next 23 years at this group, Mehta was also appointed CFO of Trikaya Grey Advertising (India) Pvt. Ltd; in 1998, he handled the merger of group company Anagram Finance Ltd into ICICI Bank Ltd; from 1998 to 2007 he was CEO at Anagram Securities Ltd; from 2001 to 2007 he was CEO, Arvind Brands Ltd, and in 2006-07 he also served as CEO VF Arvind Brands Pvt. Ltd. In September, he joined Reliance Brands Ltd as CEO and MD
Favourite Gadget: Nike+iPod Sport Kit—a bluetooth-enabled device that syncs a sensor attached to the shoe
Recently Read: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini