Last week, as part of the Make in India Week in Mumbai, I attended a bunch of sessions at a design, innovation and branding seminar.
Organized by a foundation called the Luxury League, it had speakers from diverse professional backgrounds. There were bureaucrats, politicians, senior heads of design firms, branding experts, some young entrepreneurs, a couple of fashion writers and fashion designers.
India’s minister of commerce and industry Nirmala Sitharaman, too, joined briefly for a session. As did actor Vidya Balan later in the day.
You would think that the diversity of the panellists would only enable the equally diverse audience to understand what design, luxury and branding mean in India.
That it would arrive at clarity before beginning to persuade the world that India is the finest, oldest, most hospitable and sweet country naturally inclined to produce luxury because of its heritage industries and gifted artisans.
I know from day-to-day reporting of fashion, design and luxury that a certain cloud hangs on the definition of Indian luxury.
Everyone seems to know more or less what it could mean, yet no one is quite sure. Is it yoga, or is it a Banarasi sari?
That’s why for Indian journalists it is non-negotiable as a part of our jobs to constantly enquire, report and analyse the Indian idea of luxury. To put it out repeatedly for readers. Is it a “feeling” derived by holding a product handmade by a village artisan whose craft cannot be learnt or taught at a design school? Or must it be a brand rooted in heritage but based on all the principles that elevate a product to the level of a luxury brand?
Most crucially: is Indian luxury a sentiment or a tangible thing? If it is a thing, does it imply good, non-exploitative working conditions for those who make it, pure materials, a watch on manufacturing processes, minute care for details, research and development, fine packaging and a certain degree of aura (not inaccessibility)?
The ‘Make in India’ discussions, however, brought no clarity. People start talking about cultural values such as warmth, traditions, and the self-effacing and helpful nature of rural craftsmen, the beauty and colour of India, etc.
Colour is a cultural and design construct but it does not make Malabar coffee or a Kanjeevaram sari a quality product. These values don’t help build state-of-the-art factories or take manufacturing processes to a world-class level.
While member of Parliament from Thiruvananthapuram Shashi Tharoor made a case for a credible India, emphasizing that the country could be developed as a one-of-a-kind centre of frugal innovation, Sunil Alagh, the former managing director and chief executive officer (CEO) of Britannia Industries Ltd, argued for the manufacturing model of the Parle Glucose biscuit. He said it was luxury for the poor. Some praised the potential of India with rhapsodies about “mera Bharat mahaan” (my India is great), others lamented why India couldn’t do this if Japan could do that.
From rose wine and caviar as luxury for one person to electricity for another with everything from indigenous ittars (scents), yoga and handlooms thrown in between—the idea of Indian luxury remained dishevelled, further complicated.
The eastern idea of luxury and, within it the Indian model, needs an urgent consideration. The mythologized “greatness and potential” of India does not help define it. We need a tangible list of things and a set of industry-agreed criteria to list these as luxury.
Kashmiri kani and pashmina shawls, handwoven silk and wool carpets, handmade precious jewellery from Jaipur, filigree silver work from Odisha, new experiments with colour-fast Indigo dyeing for a range of fashion and design products, the innovative designing of jute and nettle from the north-east, the contemporarization of khadi, the purely organic produce of Sikkim—there could be many potential instances of Indian luxury. Can a short list be drafted from items with a Geographical Indication (GI) status such as Assam tea or Banaras brocades and set aside to be developed as high-class luxury products?
Unless our experts stop speaking like sentimentalists and give us strategy instead, some of us will indeed continue to accept Parle Glucose biscuits as luxury, while others will assume it’s the Nano small car.
The criteria for a brand or a product to be listed as luxury is equally crucial. Out of the very useful and clear messages that came from two non-Indian speakers at these sessions were these. “Quality, creativity and style,” said Patrick Thomas, the former CEO of Hermes. “The telling of true stories versus building mythologies around a brand or a product,” said Francis Kurkdjian, a French contemporary perfumer. How apt.