It is hard to describe what luxury means in the Indian context. Until 2003, when international luxury brands started coming to India, we were a society with our own refined notion of luxury. A lot of things in India do not follow norms set by other countries—we create our own definitions and parameters. For me, personally, that is luxury. Not something that comes with a label or logo stuck on it which, in all probability, says, “Made in China”.
Luxury is how you feel, and hence very personal. For me, it is the pure essence of jasmine or handmade sculptures and oil paintings, or eco-friendly cotton wool fabrics that feel terrific in summer, just like a Marks and Spencer cotton lycra T-shirt.
For any luxury brand to be successful, it is important that the product represent a degree of refinement, elegance and finesse in its home market. That makes the product relevant as well as aspirational.
That’s the reason home-grown luxury brands have a chance of scoring over international brands in the long run, because they cater—or should cater—to specific cultural lifestyle needs of customers in their home countries. My favourite Indian luxury brands are Kotharis for jewellery, The Oberoi and The Park hotels, and my own brand.
Although many foreign luxury brands have entered the market, they don’t have a complete product range to fulfil our local needs and wants. Most of the fashion accessories and clothing available in these stores are either too expensive or not sophisticated enough for us.
So when international luxury brands started flooding the Indian market from the early 2000s, it actually worked as a boon for local designers. Suddenly foreign brands were perceived to be ridiculously or prohibitively expensive, and works of designers such as myself began to be viewed as much more cost-effective options. The prices for our designs were much more in tune with the times, without compromising on their aesthetic value.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
In a store or mall, a buyer would spot a dress for Rs3 lakh, then come and see a beautifully made Indian dress for Rs25,000—the perception of our home-grown brands was bound to change. The originality of design and quality of our work was also appreciated much more after comparison with international brands.
When it comes to handbags and shoes though, we are not really competing with price points of the Western brands. An average Dior shoe costs Rs40,000-50,000 and from what I hear, a lot of Indian shoes cost Rs8,000-10,000. A woman who buys Dior will continue wearing that brand, and probably buy their chappals as well. In fact, I spend my money on brands such as Prada, Gucci or Armani—and that’s what I wear—because I find them very comfortable. So it doesn’t really matter if they have a store here or not; I buy them in India or when I am travelling.
Due to the recent financial meltdown, Indian consumers might turn to Indian luxury brands, but I don’t think the kind of customer who has access to everything is really concerned about the Indian versus Western debate. Indian consumers are sophisticated and they choose their needs according to their pockets. The downturn affects the middle market more. The rich elite will always live the lifestyle they are used to. Couture caters to them—their needs for specific occasions depend on high-end designs and are not affected at all by changes in the economy.
Indian fashion designers will survive by paying closer attention to their customer’s needs, by improving the service and training of their staff, paying careful attention to purchase patterns in seasons such as Diwali, the wedding season and also keeping in mind the local needs and the climate.
For the Indian luxury market to grow (like maybe the Italian or French ones), I think we need cohesive, progressive policies. There are many odds against us, including the fact that retail spaces have become so much more expensive all over the world. Till very recently, the only retail options in India were five-star hotels. The government has to understand that fashion needs central locations. Instead, designers have been thrown out of the city—most Delhi designers have their workshops and studios in places such as Gurgaon, Noida and Ghaziabad. It would be great if the fashion industry could come together to address its concerns and needs. Too many cliques and factions mean that we are not getting heard as an industry, which reduces our ability to negotiate together in order to redefine the luxury market and take it forward.
Tarun Tahiliani is a Delhi-based fashion designer.
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