I am sitting in a crowded clothing store in Amritsar on an expansive white gaddi that covers almost the entire floor. My shoes are tossed aside in a heap of footwear at the edge. I have an eclectic group of friends with me—Mark Prendergrast (CEO of Tom Ford Asia-Pacific), Pin Leng Lee (former fashion editor of the South China Morning Post) and J. Takemoto (unabashed luxury enthusiast)—who are hungry for some good Indian shopping. We ask for shawls, and the show begins. The salesman unfolds the first shawl with the flourish of a matador holding up a red cloth in front of a bull—it is a beige pashmina with a fine floral border—and then the next and the next, and pretty soon we have a tangle of umpteen colourful shawls at our feet. It’s a finely tuned system—as soon as we pick a colour, dozens more of the same hue are hurled at us. Two junior salesmen keep up the supplies, dancing back and forth to the signals of the master salesman, adjusting colours, sizes, embroideries, fabrics. It is rapid fire, it is relentless, it is chaotic, and it is exhilarating.
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Crowds, clutter, cacophony—these are the defining characteristics of shopping in India. Or to borrow a concept from Clotaire Rapaille’s book, The Culture Code: An Ingenious Way to Understand Why People Around the World Live and Buy as They Do, the Indian “culture code” for shopping in India is Chaos. In fact, taking the Indian shopper out of chaos is like taking a fish out of water. We feel at home in the hustle bustle of local markets and start having withdrawal symptoms in a structured sterile atmosphere.
Delhi’s Khan Market is an upscale reinterpretation of the Amritsar bazaar. It is as upscale as it gets in traditional retail—commanding India’s highest retail real estate rental, and attracting a steady stream of high-value shoppers—and yet there is nothing upscale about its physical reality. Neat, clean, structured, streamlined, refined, aesthetically pleasing or even pleasant-smelling—these are not words that you can associate with the Khan Market experience. What you have instead is a full frontal assault on the senses, the constant refrain of honking cars circling the perimeter, a jam-packed disorderly parking lot, merchandise spilling on to the sidewalks, walls lined with foreign magazines, a bangle-and-bindi-wallah’s stall juxtaposed alongside a store that sells designer sunglasses, uneven dusty back lanes where you have to watch your step. In the midst of this haphazard retail madness are charming stores and cafés tucked up tiny winding staircases—delightful, whimsical, providing that rush of discovery, each one unique in character. This is the chaotic Indian version of the quaint and trendy West Village in New York.
Order obsession: India’s luxury shopping malls could do with an infusion of chaos. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
Now let’s switch tracks to luxury brands in India, which inhabit the other end of the spectrum, ensconced in beautiful shopping malls, high ceilings, wide corridors, stores neatly lined up with glass fronts, the merchandise pre-edited and displayed like pieces of art in a gallery. There is no chaos here, no clutter, no cacophony, and as yet, no crowds—there is instead the highly controlled, air-conditioned, squeaky-clean, serene setting of a modern luxury mall like DLF Emporio in Delhi or UB City in Bangalore or the Grand Hyatt Plaza in Mumbai. These malls are purpose-built to provide a sumptuous environment for luxury brands, but the piquant question that the Khan Market experience raises is this: If the culture code for shopping in India is “Chaos”, would luxury brands benefit from recognizing and leveraging it?
Most luxury professionals would baulk at even having “luxury” and “chaos” mentioned in the same sentence. Admittedly Khan Market is not quite luxury in the traditional sense, but if Good Earth can sell Manish Arora crockery, Ogaan has a line-up of Indian designers, and Amrapali stocks high-end jewellery, we are in the luxury ballpark, talking to the same consumer who has both the means and the inclination to buy luxury. In which case, why not bring the mountain to Mohammed? In other words, bring Western luxury brands to traditional high-end markets such as Khan Market—or South Extension or Greater Kailash or equivalent ones in other cities—embracing the vibrant chaos and the well-heeled crowds that come with it?
Even in the new luxury malls springing up, I would make a case for incorporating the comforting elements of chaos. Instead of the rarefied atmosphere of a luxury cathedral, create the merry hustle bustle of a Hindu temple. Instead of awe-inspiring interiors, create warm and inviting ones. Instead of wide-open spaces, intimate ones. Instead of minimalist displays, lush ones. Instead of the cookie-cutter sameness, uniqueness and character.
Incorporate a whiff of Khan Market, allow the thrill of discovery, make room for whimsy and charm. Create luxurious chaos.
Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book The Cult of the Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair With Luxury. Write to her at email@example.com