What it takes for Indian brands to go global
I am at Dubai Mall’s sprawling Level Shoes district, trying out this glorious red velvet concoction of a boot, zardozi-embroidered to the hilt with gold-threaded flowers, sequinned leaves, and a lone plump sparrow thrown into the mix, and this whole mini-garden set atop impossibly high platform heels with its own mini-forest of red metallic spikes. I feel giddy-headed, in part because I am suddenly a shaky 6 inches taller, but mostly because the boot is breathtakingly beautiful, like an exotic creature born of two colliding worlds, Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s nostalgic Indian traditions strutting alongside Christian Louboutin’s come-hither sensuality. For shoe lovers, notwithstanding this one’s heady price tag of United Arab Emirates dirham 17,000 (around Rs2.9 lakh), it seems to be a match made in heaven—I have come at the tail end of the season, and, barring a few pieces, the entire Sabyasachi-Louboutin collection of sandals, pumps, flats, wedges, boots, sneakers is “Sold Out”.
While this success is the result of a limited-period collaboration between two heavy-hitting brands—although one plays in India with revenue in the $50 million (around Rs318 crore) ballpark, and the other works the globe with revenue more than ten times that—it got me thinking about what it will take for Indian designers in general to march out into the world and become successful luxury brands on their own steam. For instance, could Sabyasachi become Louboutin in terms of global coverage and financial size? There is a recent sprinkling of Indian brands in foreign lands—Manish Arora in Paris, Grassroot (by Anita Dongre) in New York, Varana in London—but could India have a robust retinue of valuable luxury brands like Europe or the US do?
In many ways, that exquisite red boot I saw in Dubai Mall is a metaphor for what we in India have going for us—as well as what we need to get better at—to succeed in the global luxury market. First, the boot stems from the vision and talent of two exceptional designers, Sabyasachi and Louboutin. Two, there is the luxurious Indian craftsmanship—the intricate hand embroidery, the traditional motifs, the ancient ethos—in fact, not just this boot, but the entire collection is made from antique saris and ribbons from Sabyasachi’s archives. Three, there is an easy “international” feel to the shoes—despite the very obvious Indian embroidery and fabrics, these shoes are unmistakably designed for the global consumer. Four, there is top-notch production quality. The shoes were made in Italy, they fit beautifully, and are faultless in every detail. And five, there is the sheer brand-marketing machinery of Louboutin—he showed up personally for the Dubai launch—and the effortless global reach that put the Sabyasachi shoes in top stores like Harrods London, Bergdorf Goodman New York, Lane Crawford Hong Kong, plus extensive online retail.
How do our Indian designers fare on these five critical success factors?
In terms of design talent, we have it in heaps. There are very few emerging countries where one gets to see such a vibrant local designer scene; in fact, I can’t think of any. In most other countries—China, for example—Western outfits are the rule, and by and large, Western designers are the ones that rule. But we still wear a lot of Indian clothing, thereby allowing local designers to thrive, especially in the crucial wedding segment, which is virtually impenetrable for Western designers. There is clearly the roster of well-established designers like Sabyasachi, Manish Malhotra, Tarun Tahiliani et al, and they are the obvious candidates to venture abroad. But there is also a groundswell of surprising new talent that is pushing out from different pockets of the country—they might cut their teeth on the Indian market, but I am hoping enough of them will take a shot at the global market.
As a sheer measure of talent, I asked myself the question: Can an unknown Indian designer stand in the international arena just on the strength of his product? Lane Crawford, the avant-garde Hong Kong department store, showcased a capsule collection of Sabyasachi clothes (yes, it’s him again) designed exclusively for the store—dresses, pants, skirts, blouses, jackets—which was a remarkable hit with local shoppers, most of whom had never heard of the brand before. I asked Jillian Xin, Lane Crawford’s senior buyer, who travels the world picking up brands for the store, what made her pick Sabyasachi. “I walked into his store in India and fell in love,” she says. The amazing craftsmanship, the details, the idea of how artisans produce each piece, how “it’s a piece of art really” are aspects that swayed her. Equally, it was “his vision for the brand, his sophisticated aesthetic that resonates with our customers”, she says. Had she heard of Sabyasachi before? No.
Which brings me to the second factor, that of Indian craftsmanship, the artisanal weaving, embroidery and embellishment methods that have been ours for centuries. By no means is it essential to use it—for example, Prabal Gurung, the New York-based Nepalese designer and National Institute of Fashion Technology (Nift), Delhi, graduate, best known for dressing former US First Lady Michelle Obama, has achieved success with an entirely Western aesthetic—but I believe our vast inventory of crafts is a unique differentiator that an Indian luxury brand can exploit to its advantage. After all, the heart and soul of the most successful global luxury brands is a tradition of craftsmanship—think Louis Vuitton or Hermès (sales of $9.9 billion and $5.5 billion for 2017, according to Forbes) and their much sought after bags are all about craftsmanship by hand. They make a big deal of calling it out. We should too.
In fact, Indian craftsmanship has been used by the likes of Dior, Chanel, Gucci, almost every major global luxury brand over the years—unrecognized as it might be—which leads me to the third factor, that of designing for the global consumer. If international designers can successfully adapt Indian craftsmanship to Western garments, why can we not learn to do the same? It is an area we will have to invest in, or hire skills from abroad. Sabyasachi’s collection for Lane Crawford has some pointers. The silhouettes were all Western, and in some cases the bling pared down to a mere accent, as in the floral embellished silk swing dress ($2,175), which is plain silk except for a gold embroidered border above the hemline.
Top-notch production quality, the fourth factor, is where we as a nation struggle big time, especially when it comes to meeting the utterly unforgiving standards that are table stakes for playing in the luxury market. This is easily one of the biggest stumbling blocks we have to overcome. Even basics like getting the fit right are an issue—perhaps that’s why Varana, the Indian brand that opened a store last year in London’s Dover Street Market, has hired a French pattern cutter. For good measure, Varana has an Italian keeping an eye on quality.
Brand marketing, the fifth aspect, is as much a function of big budgets as it is of imagination and chutzpah, especially in the age of social media. Nirav Modi, the jewellery brand, is pretty much doing everything in the luxury brand playbook. In the last three years, the brand has rolled out 11 stores internationally, in Hong Kong, China, Macau, Singapore, the UK and US, and is positioning them in high-end locales where the likes of Tiffany and Cartier reside. Its advertising campaigns feature big names like model and actor Rosie Huntington-Whitely and actor Priyanka Chopra. It is working all the major red-carpet events and consistently showing up on celebrity bodies. It is doing the Sotheby’s and Christie’s auctions. It is still early to gauge success, but may the force be with them.
For imagination and chutzpah, I return to our ebullient duo of Louboutin and Sabyasachi—they featured in an outlandish fairy tale (think princess saved from awful curse by beautiful shoe) rendered as a graphic comic on the Louboutin Instagram. Louboutin has 10.5 million Instagram followers (Sabyasachi has another two million) who were regaled with the fairy tale and shoe details over 24 posts. Talk about conjuring up publicity from thin air.
The business of building global luxury brands is a tricky one—it is as much about “brand” as it is about “luxury”, and Indian designers will have to put as much effort into crafting their brands as they put into crafting one of their exquisite pieces.
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.
The writer tweets at @RadhaChadha