Craftsmanship in the West can be ruinously expensive. But with outstanding artisans often employed by even leading global labels, India tells another story.
I have been writing – off and on – about the luxury business for over a decade now. I started long before the designer boom reached India (I guess we can date the start of the Indian obsession with brands to the opening of the first Louis Vuitton store at the Delhi Oberoi in 2003) and though I am less interested in the subject now, this is a little ironic because the rest of India seems to be going label-crazy.
This Christmas day I found myself at the Emporio Mall in Delhi’s Vasant Kunj and was startled to discover how jam-packed it was. Crowds thronged the lobby, cars were backed up for a full mile and at some shops, they were denying people entry saying that they were already filled to capacity. At the nearby Promenade Mall, the story was the same. Even the Ambience Mall, the least upmarket of the malls in the area (redeemed only by The Collective and the movie and dining options) was bursting with shoppers.
At first I thought these were window shoppers whose idea of a day out was to visit the malls. But no. Everywhere I looked people were carrying shopping bags. At some of the stores, the sales people told me that products had flown off the shelves faster that day than on any other day of the year.
A label-hungry mob in Delhi on Christmas day? Higher sales than Diwali? Who would have expected that?
What intrigued me about the shoppers at Emporio was that most did not fit the profile of fashion-conscious sophisticates. Many spoke very little English. At least half seemed to have come to Delhi from out of town. (Ludhiana? Patiala? It was hard to be sure.) These were the sort of people you expected to find in a JJ Valaya store. But now, here they were, crowding into Tom Ford (where it is impossible to look at a price tag without giggling at the ludicrousness of the rates), Dior, Fendi, Jimmy Choo, Salvatore Ferragamo, Hugo Boss, Versace and Gucci. And they were buying, buying, buying – usually with wads of cash.
For years and years I have been telling the heads of global fashion houses not to confuse India with China. In China, the cult of branded luxury has reached the stage where a receptionist will save up to buy a Louis Vuitton monogrammed bag that she can’t really afford. In India, I always say, we look for value. We spend money on quality, on things that have an intrinsic value, not on a bag that costs Rs 2,000 to make but sells for Rs 50,000 because of its monogram or label.
To a large extent I think I am still correct. Brands that came into India hoping to repeat the China story have either retired hurt or have scaled down their expectations. Louis Vuitton is probably the only brand that makes serious money in India (though many others are now profitable) but its presence in our country is tiny compared to its near ubiquity in China.
But I suspect that things may finally be changing. Two factors seem to have made the difference. The first is the rise in incomes in what used to be called Tier Two cities or ‘B Class’ centres. People have made so much money (from real estate, business, trading, etc.) that their buying power has boosted the fortunes of brands. The second is the attitude of the young. This is the most designer-conscious generation in India’s history. They don’t really give a damn about Indian designers (unless they are getting married) but they are fascinated by global brands, all the way from Oakley and Diesel to Burberry.
If these factors persist – and there is no real reason why they shouldn’t – then we could be looking at a full-fledged designer explosion within a decade or so. In a sense, this is ironic. When you talk to people at the top fashion houses abroad (at the level of say, Chanel or Hermès), they seem fascinated by the skills of Indian craftsmen. The problem with the West, they will tell you, is that everything is now mass-produced and industrially manufactured. As global demand for so-called luxury brands has grown, companies have increased margins by shifting production to cheaper industrial hubs in Taiwan, China, Korea or Thailand.
The notion of craftsmanship – which was at the heart of the idea of luxury – has been lost. So has any sense of distinctiveness. If you buy a designer bag that you like, be warned: there are probably a million identical pieces in that batch. Rather than buying into luxury, you are just becoming like everyone else, paying far too much for a mass manufactured, industrial product only because it has a logo on it.
The old rich, who have watched the growth of brand consciousness with mounting disdain have pulled back. Very few people can afford haute couture (which prices start at around $30,000 for a dress) but those in the know go for craftsmanship over industrial manufacture. An Hermès bag, which is made by hand by an artisan in an atelier in France has acquired a new desirability. Made to measure suits from such labels as Zegna, Armani, and the like have grown in popularity.
The problem with all this craftsmanship stuff is that – in the West, certainly – it can be ruinously expensive. Few of us can ever find the money to pay for artisanal goods.
Which is where India has the edge. Foreign brands know that Indian craftsman can be outstanding. Hermès still has a bag in its range that is made in Ahmedabad. All designers send garments to India for embroidery and other artisanal touches. Many famous labels make their shoes in India.
It has always stuck me as odd that at a time when discerning people in the West are seeking out craftsmanship we, in India, are turning our backs on our native skills.
Two years ago, I did a TV series dedicated to the assumption that you could get the best things, made especially for you in India without having to pay anything like the ridiculous prices foreign labels charge for mass-produced industrial goods. That Custom Made should be the most remembered of my shows says something about how Indians want to appreciate the skills of our craftsmen and artisans but do not know where to find the right things.
Speaking for myself, I have embraced Indian craftsmanship with a passion. Most of my shirts are made for me in Delhi. I have suits made by a Delhi tailor which often evoke nearly as many compliments as Savile Row bespoke suits. I no longer buy shoes off the rack. They are made for me in Bombay. My leather travel carry-on was made to my specifications by a shop in Colaba. I am working on getting an Indian perfumer to make me a nice agarwood fragrance. My cufflinks are made by a craftsman in Delhi. The best part of all this is that I actually spend much less money on clothes and accessories than I used to. A bespoke suit made in Delhi with exactly the same fabric from the same Italian mill is at least one-fourth the cost of a similar bespoke Savile Row suit. My hand-made shoes are less than a third of the prices of Gucci or Ferragamo. (And they fit better). My leather carry-on is one-fourth the price of some nasty monogrammed canvas bag made in some Chinese factory by a famous French label.
None of this is to say that I have turned anti-label. I still buy quality no matter what the label is, provided I think it represents value for money. My last few Armani and Canali purchases were great. I swear by Hermès though I can never afford it. Chanel makes the best fragrances in the world. Some Indian labels are terrific: Abraham and Thakore, for instance, make clothes that combine the finest Indian fabrics with the best designs. And so on.
My point is more limited: why go crazy over labels where the quality is second-rate and the prices are ridiculous when we have such a wide range of options in India? Why fall victim to the wiles of global luxury marketers when real quality is available at our doorsteps for much less money?
That Christmas day it took an hour for my car to fetch me from Emporio, such was the backlog. So I sat and drank a coffee at the lobby café and watched the impatient hordes buy their way into Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Dior. And I thought to myself: I hope we never become a society like China which worships brands and values marketing more than quality. Especially when the rest of the world recognises what we do not: India is the last great centre of craftsmanship.