Utpal Borpujari

April 13, 2009

Is luxury sustainable?

Filed under: Deccan Herald,Fashion & Luxury,Media — utpalb21 @ 4:49 pm
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By Utpal Borpujari

These are difficult times, with the globe reeling under the economic recession. Even in the world of the ultra rich where luxurious is a word used to describe things of daily usage, the talk is now of “sustainable” luxury. And that exactly was the theme of the International Herald Tribune-organized recent luxury conference, held for the first time in India. The choice of the venue made the conference more interesting – it becomes more than interesting when a global conclave on all things luxurious makes India, the nation of teeming millions, most of them poor, its destination, that too in these hard times. But quite obviously for the organisers, India, with its huge population which means a sizeable and growing proportion of the rich and a growing economy, is the right venue to hold such an event. And why not, with a growing – though miniscule as compared to those in the lower strata of the society – population of upwardly mobile, India is emerging as a nation where the market for high-end products is only expected to grow in the coming times.

 

The theme of the conference, the brainchild of IHT’s legendary fashion editor Suzy Menkes, this year was quite appropriate for the times, and the contrast is quite telling when one recalls the theme of the 2007 conference in Moscow – “Supreme Luxury”. The conference, which got postponed from its original schedule because of the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai last year, saw icons of the fashion and luxury industry share their views over two days on how to make luxury sustainable and where India fits in into the scheme of things.

 

The prevailing mood in the backdrop of which the conference was held was aptly captured by François-Henri Pinault, chairman and CEO of Pinault-Printemps-Redoute (PPR) group, when he makes it a point to say that the credit crunch situation has added to the drop in consumer confidence, which has made it extremely difficult to make projections regarding demand for luxury products. “Retailers have difficulty obtaining financing and been forced to sell luxury products at steep discounts to stay afloat. We do not have any secure forecast to make about any recovery,’’ he says. Christian Blanckaert, executive vice-president of luxury products firm Hermes International, is even more blunt when he says, “Luxury can be provocative when so many are poor, and so many are very rich. Luxury can be seen as a threat to social cohesion. It would be totally wrong to say that luxury has not been affected with what has been happening with the rest of the world.” Which, in a sense, made it a relevant forum to discuss how to make luxury “sustainable”.

 

“As along as the world goes round and round, people will love luxury goods. Luxury doesn’t mean vulgarity. Luxury means saving money to buy an object of desire. Luxury is anything beautifully crafted and enduring, with heirloom value. Even a beautifully-crafted saree is a symbol of luxury as it appeals to emotions and can be passed on to the next generation. It is not about need, but about desire. So, the market will always be there,” she says. “Luxury is all about earning enough to buy an object that you do not necessarily need but greatly desire. But to make luxury sustainable, we have to approach it in a less wasteful say,” Menkes explains, giving the example of encouraging fair trade in cotton as a means to make luxury sustainable.

 

Of course, she too admits that the times are “tough – and rough” for the luxury world. “The days of gilded crocodile coats snapped up by oligarchs are over – and personally, I am not sorry to see bling and glitter slink away. But there is a big industry out there dependent on an upturn. And those sensitive to the shifting mood doubt that the 15 years of expansive growth can return in the same heady, crazy way,” she says. But then, there is this opinion that the really good brands will survive, whatever be the situation. As Amin Jaffer, International Director of Asian Art for auction house Christie’s, says, “The western luxury brands survived the Great Depression of the 1930s because of the Indian royalty. Good products will always be there, though because of the recessionary trends, buyers are now more selective.”

 

Well, if in the 1930s Indian royalty rescued the luxury brands of the West, would not the Indian nouveau rich do the same now? May be in the long run, but not immediately, is the opinion of the experts. Menkes, for one, says the India is a potential market for the future. “I don’t think any one is looking at this becoming an important market at least for a very long time,” she quips. But by selecting Delhi as the venue for the conference, she has sent the signal that through events like it, “young hearts and minds” can be won over. “When eventually they have the money, they will buy,” she says. Blanckaert, whose Hermes has opened its first India boutique in the capital’s five star Oberoi Hotel recently, says it is time to observe the Indian market. “We have to innovate to rise above the economic situation,” he says. Menkes adds, “Luxury is always finding new lands to conquer. There was China, there was Russia, and now there is India and Turkey. India is an emerging market but with tremendous potential.” Indian designers of luxury products too can benefit from this potential. As Jaffer says, prices of Indian art have increased in recent years because global awareness about the country has been increasing. And this could be the scenario in other creative fields too.

 

Menkes, quite obviously, has the final word on why sustainable luxury and India could go hand in hand.India is being looked upon as a source of precious raw material and affordable labour, making it a hotbed for producing luxury and not just a target audience. The concept of luxury goes well with Indians who are traditionally family-oriented. In a country where there is a strong stress on the concept of handing over traditions from generation to generation, there will always be a place for luxury in the hearts of people,” she says. With Hermes planning to send a team of its artisans to India to get a peek into the country’s indigenous craftsmanship and other luxury brands eyeing India, the proof of which lies in the boutiques in the Emporio Mall in Delhi, home to only the highest-end international brands, we can only say, “Amen!”

 

What They have to say:

 

Legendary Italian designer Roberto Cavalli:

 

India can make a mark in the world arena by staying the same. The world will look at India only if it retains its cultural vibrancy and not lose its identity by aping the West. I have been coming to India since the 1970s and my whole family loves the country for the artistry of its people. There is no doubt that India and West Asia are the future of the fashion world. These two regions give us an opportunity to discover and experiment. Young designers from India should nurture their art with love, passion and care. And each one of them should believe in oneself if you want to make it big. In a world where ever mall looks the same, whether it is located in Delhi or Shanghai or London, it is important to retain one’s own uniqueness. Fashion comes very easily to Indian women as every one of them wants to look beautiful and sensual. India is a country of colours and its amazing artisans are its jewels.

Suzy Menkes:

 

India has a magnificent heritage. Why don’t Indian designers have more confidence in their heritage? Indian designers need to focus more on the country’s heritage if they are to make a mark internationally. The Made in India label has a resonance to it when linked to traditional Indian craft. We have to find areas in which a sense of crafts and luxury can be tied up. That’s the way to go global – one step at a time. But what many of the Indian designers are doing amounts to a click, cut and paste on the computer. It does not work. India is being looked upon as a source of precious raw material and affordable labour, which makes it a hotbed for producing luxury and not just a target audience. India‘s handwork, the extraordinary and varied craftsmanship, is a reminder that fast fashion is not a necessity. The skills and craft that make Indian style so exceptional could be used to create fashion with a wider appeal. The cultural heritage of India and its vast work force makes it a rare place that can produce handmade goods at the highest level, which is why a haute house like Hermès works with Indian craftsmanship. As Western luxury companies look for a place in vibrant, expanding, modern India, maybe they will find that there is something to learn as well as to sell.

 

Christian Blanckaert, executive vice-president, Hermes International:

 

We are planning to send some of our artisans to India so that they can learn indigenous craftsmanship of the country. This will help them produce better products. India has been a great source of inspiration for us. Our consumers are the the middle class who would not necessarily buy the most expensive stuff. Hermes specialises in leather products like luggages, handbags and belts, as also products like ties, scarves, accessories and perfumes. We have opened one boutique in India, in Delhi’s Oberoi Hotel. We also have long-term plans to open stores in cities like Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Bangalore.

 

François-Henri Pinault, chairman and CEO of Pinault-Printemps-Redoute (PPR) group:

 

There could have been no better choice of venue to discuss the issue of ‘sustainable luxury’ than India. With its strong economic growth, India is one of the great powers of the 21st century. It possesses an even greater asset in its extraordinary cultural heritage. The Indian civilization is not only one of the world’s greatest, but also one of the most dazzling. Its masterpieces of sculpture, architecture, mural and miniature painting are treasures of humanity. When Europe‘s nations were not even born, in India, artistes were already embroidering, cutting gemstones, printing on fabric and inventing dyes and colours. These thousands of years of luxury can only inspire us. The sheer antiquity of Indian culture is breathtaking. The world’s ecological heritage is limited and precious. The humankind is an integral part of nature. We cannot defend human interests, unless we protect our planet. The luxury business does not escape the logic that human beings and the planet should be protected together. On the contrary, it should play an important part in achieving that goal, as a model and leader. The two words, ‘sustainable luxury’, are inseparable and the notion they express is both self-evident and absolutely necessary.

(published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 11-04-2009)

http://www.deccanherald.com/Content/Apr112009/living20090410129392.asp

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