I’m expecting late afternoon champagne as I step into The Lodhi at the Aman Resorts in New Delhi. Scanning the tables for stemmed glasses and a gentleman in black, I realize that my appointment with John Hooks, deputy chairman of the Armani group, is to happen over a pot of tea.
Strategist: Hooks has been coming to India on personal visits for the last 25 years, but it was only six years ago that he started looking at it as a luxury market. Jayachandran/Mint
Hooks, 54, is the perfect specimen to dispel any frou-frou notions of the fashion industry that one might have. On the board of directors of one of the leading fashion and luxury goods groups in the world—one whose turnover reached €6 billion (around Rs 36,500 crore now) last year—he doesn’t veer from shop talk for one stray minute. In beige trousers and navy jacket, he could be any corporate big fish. Only his horn-rimmed glasses are a giveaway: shoe empresario Manolo Blahnik has a similar pair.
Hooks flagged off his career in fashion by selling fabric to tailors and dress-makers across the world. He graduated from Oxford University in 1978, where he studied English literature, and joined GFT in Turin, Italy—a parent manufacturing company for designers such as Armani, Dior, Ungaro and Valentino, among others—in the summer after graduating. What he thought would be a short stint “till he figured things out” metamorphosed into a 14-year association, during which he held a variety of positions, including that of commercial director for Valentino.
Still, Hooks will tell you that he’s not into fashion, per se, but that he’s into the context of fashion—its links and origins. “Textile has been at the forefront of every trade route and every industrial revolution in the world really,” he says, in elocutionary style, although his British accent has been worn down by the years in Italy.
When he started, the lure was travel. The fashion industry gives one access to any number of countries either as a market or as a source. Thirty-two years down the line, after steering the fashion wave to places such as Hong Kong, China, now India, Hooks is mildly travel-weary. He is now more of a strategy man. International expansion has always been his primary role though. He first took GFT to Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and China. Then, managed the global distribution networks of the celebrated German minimalist designer Jil Sander.
It was in 2000 that Hooks joined the Armani group as its commercial and marketing director, based at the company’s Milan headquarters. His first meeting with the legendary Giorgio Armani was short, and basically entailed Armani telling him that he needed to work at a hectic pace. He was put in charge of the expansion of the company’s global wholesale and retail networks at a frenetic time. They’d just ventured into Hong Kong, a region hit by the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). It was the single biggest investment the Armani group had made in a fashion store outside of Italy. At the time, Hong Kong was not only coping with the SARS outbreak but was also just recovering from the Asian economic crisis of 1997, and there was much discussion about the future of Hong Kong and the risk of Shanghai emerging as an alternative. “All these concerns, which were subsequently overcome—but they were very real at the time,” says Hooks of his first assignment with Armani.
It’s difficult to have Hooks talk anything other than Armani. Part of the reason is that he believes managers should be anonymous. “In luxury fashion, the brand is everything,” he says, throwing in a dose of semiotics: “People buy into the Armani myth and my job is to further the myth. Everything else should be invisible.”
The Italian fashion house is now present in 46 countries, and apart from apparel, it retails accessories, eyewear, watches, jewellery, fragrances, cosmetics and home furnishings, under a range of brand names: Armani Privé, Giorgio Armani, Emporio Armani, Armani Collezioni, Armani Jeans, Armani Exchange, Armani Junior, Armani Teen, Armani Baby, and Armani Casa. The group’s distribution network includes 609 free-standing shops worldwide.
Still, identifying and launching operations in new markets continues to be a challenge. As Hooks puts it, it’s because he’s selling a product that nobody needs but everybody wants. Timing is everything. And China is a fabulous case in point. When Hooks was in China in the late 1980s to open the first Pierre Cardin store there for GFT, people were just getting out of their Mao suits. “The luxury market in China started with a clean slate. The cultural revolution had wiped out everything,” he says.
India makes his job far more challenging with its sedimented wealth and sedimented history. “The luxury fashion market will take time to take off in any real sense but we’re here to stay,” says Hooks, who was in the country last month, incidentally, to attend the Luxury Goods Forum in New Delhi. When asked about India vis-à-vis China, a question that he presumably gets asked often, he says flatly: “The only similarity between India and China is that they’re both big places with lots of people. That’s where the similarity ends.”
Hooks has been coming to India on personal visits for the last 25 years. But it was only six years ago that he started looking at it as a luxury market, launching two stores in New Delhi in succession. A third one opened in Mumbai last week. The group’s entry into India, in the heat of the global recession in late 2008, illustrates Hooks’ long-term plans for the country.
“It was difficult, there were the terrorist attacks, the uncertainty about the general elections. We didn’t know how to go about it but it was time that we set up our base at least in Delhi and Mumbai and we had to go ahead,” he says.
Still, India is a tiny part of his business (Asia comprises 18-20%, Japan being the bulk of it) and Hooks makes no bones about it. But, he explains, in luxury fashion one doesn’t always think in terms of geography, but in terms of consumers. Indian tourists are big clients for luxury stores in Europe. Having a presence in India is largely a branding exercise. More provocatively though, he’s been musing how much the hyper-articulate elite in India is speaking for the newly emerging middle class who aspire to Western models of luxury and fashion, but do not have the same international contacts or opportunities to travel. With his scholarly insight, India is increasingly becoming known terrain. Hooks, the Christopher Columbus of fashion, has his eyes set on Africa next.