From the Rolls Royces of the maharajas to the Canali suits of today’s successful urban Indian, how the meaning of conspicuous consumption has changed
By Abhay Gupta
What is Luxury? How has it evolved over time? Who has been the luxury consumer over the years? Why is one attracted to consume Luxury? What does it all really mean?
These are some pertinent questions associated with the notion of luxury consumption. Some more can be asked, given the current ‘Aam Aadmi (common man)’ wave. Is conspicuous consumption viewed with distaste? Does it reflect the great divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’?
If one googles the word ‘Luxury’, it throws up about 197,000,000 results in some 0.33 seconds.
Various definitions crop up – for example, ‘something inessential but conducive to comfort and pleasure’; ‘something expensive and hard to obtain’; ‘sumptuous living or surroundings’; ‘something pleasant, expensive & surprising’ and several others.
So what really is Luxury ? Luxury is a product for some. For others, luxury is a status or a service while for some, it is a prized possession or asset. It can also be a combination of all these for a few. Luxury is also a differentiator in the social hie
rarchy. It’s a way of life for some. But the meaning always changes with time.
Flashback: End of 1800’s to Early 1900’s
Luxury was reserved for the kings and their queens. Luxury was also meant for the British aristocrats and the ‘brown sahibs’ but not for the common Indian.
Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala ordered Cartier to create a special necklace for him which was later named ‘Collier de Patiala’. Weighing a total of 962 carats, it contained 2,930 diamonds including the famous de Beers which was the world’s 7th largest diamond at 234 carats. Maharaja Yadavinder Singh, his heir, was the last to don the necklace.
Maharaja Jagatjit Singh, an avid traveller and gamer, was fond of carrying his entire royal gear on his tours. He was a loyal Louis Vuitton customer. Louis Vuitton crafted special wardrobe-like trunks for his travels. The comp
any took special pride in filling his orders. It is believed that he owned over 60 large trunks that would hold his clothes, paraphernalia, swords, suits, turbans, shoes, etc besides his elaborate traditional dresses.
Automobiles were another fascination for our maharajas. It is believed that the Maharaja of Mysore had no less than 24 Bentleys and Rolls Royces. In 1930, when not dressed in his royal gear, Maharaja Bhupinder Singh was not properly attended to by a British sales person at a Rolls Royce showroom. He then went back to the showroom in full fanfare to buy 3 cars and convert them into garbage-hauling trucks back home. The entire British administrative machinery was on their knees to dissuade him from going forward with his plans. He then went on to become their greatest pre-war customer, eventually owning 44 Rolls Royces. It is believed that some 800 Rolls Royces were imported to India between 1908 and 1937.
Hence the era of the late 19th and early to mid 20th century was the one which acted as a great market for the European luxury brands. The Indian market exclusively consisted of maharajas, nawabs, sultans, nizams and
Fast Forward : 1940’s to 1980’s
The Swadeshi (a part of the Indian Freedom struggle) Movement, fuelled by a desire to be self-ruled and self-governed, led to a major upswing of anti -British sentiments and everything foreign was a taboo. Khadi (Indian hand-spun cloth) became the order of the day and textiles made in the mills of the British empire were being discarded and burnt on the streets. Post-Independence, with dismantling of the zamindari system, the caste and class systems, reforms were the way of the society. The British, having siphoned off most of India’s treasures & upper class income, the so-called Indian elite was not left with much to spare. No longer could the upper class maintain
palaces and harems or wear silks and muslins.
However, post Independence, the new classes of industrialists, bureaucrats, lawyers, doctors, teachers and journalists arose, whose social position came from education, training and success rather than heredity and inheritance. In the princely states, however, the remnants of the Mughal aristocracy continued with their extravagances with large palaces, harems, hordes of retainers, miniature armies, ceremonial elephants, tiger hunts and stables full of Rolls Royces. Luxury thus was still restricted to the aristocrats in the early days but this would change soon.
In the post-Independence era, the single most contributing factor to development of luxury has been fashion and the influence of the film industry on fashion. Bollywood was an early trendsetter where costume designers like Bhanu Athaiya started experimenting with film fashion in the 1960’s. Over the years, popular bollywood trends were the differentiator between an ordinary and a fashionably luxurious attire. Gradually, situations and themes of Indian cinema became westernised, paving way for global fashion.
The brain drain of the 70’s and 80’s and the frequent movement of the NRIs in and out of the country brought in glimpses of fashion and luxury from the developed countries to a still ‘third world’ India. Cousins would be requested to bring back a pair of ‘Levis’ jeans during their trips overseas. Simple living with practically no means of
luxury indulgence was the usual fate of the common Indian. Few of the rich who frequented foreign shores and were perhaps educated abroad enjoyed the westernised concept of luxury.
Fast forward : 1980’s to 1990’s
After over four decades of protectionism, the government decided to liberalise the economy in 1991. Before that, through the 70’s and 80’s, the youngsters of India were frustrated and wondered why he or she should not have the same lifestyle as his counterpart from other parts of the world.
Amongst other sectors, fashion and luxury too got affected by this socio-politico development. Ingress of international brands, manufacturing technology, modern day techniques was the order of the day. Lifestyles, dress sense, consumption patterns were moving upwards.
Train travels were becoming faster thanks to introduction of Rajdhani Express in the early 70’s. The humble ambassador was getting replaced by the fast & swift Maruti 800 in the early 80’s.
By early 1980’s, the first generation of Indian fashion designers started cropping up, including Satya Paul. However, it was Rohit Khosla (1958–1994), who became a pioneer in the fashion industry when he founded Ensemble in 1987 with Tarun Tahiliani, Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla and others. In its early years, the 1980’s, Indian designers largely focussed on haute couture.
However, the 1990’s saw a growth in the domestic retail industry as well as an influx of outsourced garments business from the western countries. This meant better quality and larger manufacturing facilities available locally. In the coming decade, fashion industry experienced a boom, both in terms of volume and trends.
Amongst the initial international fashion brands which set foot into India, names like ‘Lacoste’, ‘Benetton’, “Wrangler’, ‘Levis Jeans’, ‘Reebok’, ‘Adidas’, ‘Louis Phillip’, ‘Arrow’, ‘Tommy Hillfiger,’ etc are prominent. Hordes of Indian brands cropped up and spread deep into India very quickly.
The Indian design fraternity became the symbol of luxury until the mid 2000’s when international luxury labels started to show their presence via multi-brand stores selling previous season’s stocks. Ritu Kumar, the doyenne of Indian fashion, says “Luxury has been an inherent part of Indian culture; whether it is jewellery or clothes or even lehengas, we have been exposed to high value pieces from a very early age. We have a 2,000-year-old culture of gifting silver and precious fabrics; we understand luxury.” Other names which impacted the luxury-fashion scenario include doyens like Sandeep Khosla–Abu Jaani ; Sumeet Verma; Rohit Bal; Tarun Tahiliani; Manav Gangawani. Modern and younger names like Rajesh Pratap Singh, Manish Arora, Sabyasachi Mukherjee; Manish Malhotra became the new global faces of Indian luxury. Indian born designers like Prabul Gurang on the other hand have started to enter the fashion and luxury space from international ramps rather the other way around.
From the end of the 1990’s to the early 2000’s, international brands had begun to be prominently visible in the urban wardrobes. High duty structure and overall costs of imports made it extremely difficult to establish this as a viable business. However, retailers like Sehgal Brothers (The Blues – New Delhi) ; Benzer (Mumbai) ; Ffolio (Bangalore), etc were quietly teaching the Indian men to dress in Italian fashion by importing previous season’s stocks. The need to look ‘different’ from other men in similar circles was driving a small yet wealthy lot of customers to experiment with names like Ferre, Versace, Canali, Hugo Boss, Trussardi, Princepe, Valentino, etc.
Luxury comes a full circle
In 2005, the country’s first full franchise agreements were signed for ‘Versace Collection’ & ‘Corneliani’. Others followed soon when in 2008, India’s first luxury mall ‘Emporio’ in New Delhi opened doors to names like LVMH, Christian Dio, Fendi, Canali, Hugo Boss, Ferragamo, Armani etc. This mall was soon followed by the UB City in Bangalore and The Palladium in Mumbai.
The luxury fashion scene in India had begun to explode. The world was reeling under an economic crisis and the luxury brands were again approaching Indian shores. But the customers were no longer the maharajas. They were successful people, they were discerning.
The cycle is back to India where it all started for many luxury brands almost 100 to 150 years back!
Luxury Today :
Today luxury has seeped into every aspect of our lifestyle. From automobiles to fashion, travel to tourism, health to wellness, hospitality to fine dining, aviation to medical tourism, watches & jewellery to home & interiors, from gadgets to physical fitness, there is rarely something that has been untouched by the so-called luxury phenomenon.
India’s population has adapted to this globalisation at varied levels and in different degrees of intensity. Further segmentation of the phenomenon has resulted in premium – accessible – aspiration – core luxury.
The changing Indian mind set of its youth population is calling the shots. The great Indian middle class aptly termed as ‘The Closet Customer’ is not shy of experimentation and wishes to engage with luxury, even if it is for a brief duration. He seeks value for money and does not accept the product or brand just for its name or face value. He wants to sport the life style of the rich and famous. Even a short experience is welcome.
Luxury brands are responding to these demands and fuelling further growth, desire and craving for such latent dreams. Luxury brands are scaling down and premium brands are scaling up to meet this new customer. Despite challenges, cultural restrictions, social norms, brands are adapting and creating special products and unique experiences specially suited to the Indian customer. Adaptation to Indian tastes and likes is a norm. Hermes creates sarees; Canali offers bandhgalas; McDonald’s introduces McAloo Tikki burgers. These are all attempts to remain relevant and grow in India.
Eventually, luxury is a long-term business and India is a long-term market. Indians are realising their own potential and creating their own unique identity and demand. Indian heritage is being rediscovered by the new youth and is being restored to its past glory. Luxury is here to stay and relive its glory again. The glory that existed in Indian heritage is being refuelled by a modern nation.