In an exclusive article for HT Brunch, the well-known fashion designer remembers the time when the world craved for goods made in India
Last summer in Paris, I was delighted to meet François Laffanour, an Indophile and conservationist, who owns an upscale art gallery called Gallerie Downtown.
I was amazed to learn that he had bought a huge collection of Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret designed furniture from Chandigarh. And then I was horrified to hear that most of this furniture had once been thrown in warehouses as trash, and often used as firewood.
He had refurbished the entire collection and then sold it at an auction for millions of dollars and made a handsome profit.
Needless to say his conversation unnerved me. What was considered junk in our country was auctioned at one of the world’s most prestigious auction houses for millions.
We can now wring our hands and accuse him of ripping us off. But in my eyes, he is an astute businessman with a vision and a great sense of trading and profiting from asymmetric information.
The blame for not valuing our heritage lies squarely on our shoulders. Laffanour recognised its value, took the risk to buy it and worked hard to refurbish it. He is therefore entitled to the profits from his entrepreneurship. I respect his ability to brand and market someone else’s ‘junk’.
This encounter got me thinking. I mused about the innumerable treasures we can be proud of in our country. If properly packaged and marketed, these could be a source of huge pride and wealth creation.
For some reason, no effort has been made to register various products of Indian origin for the status of ‘geographical indication’ or GI. A GI is the recognition that a product gets for coming uniquely from a particular geographical region, such as champagne from the French region of Champagne, and scotch from Scotland.
Battles for GI and trademark recognition have ensued for turmeric and neem – only after foreign companies recognised and aimed to exploit the value of our products.
Recently, the government established a Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) to provide information on traditional knowledge existing in the country to trademark and get a geographical indication status for it.
Our country has so many unique products, from Lucknow zardosi, Agra durries, Mysore silk and Chanderi fabric, to agricultural produce like Basmati rice, Darjeeling tea and Coorg cardamom. All of these can be protected (Darjeeling tea already is), and cleverly marketed worldwide.
Why do we have to wait for the Laffanours and Naturproduktes (the German company that reportedly registered Khadi as a trademark) of the world to unearth the value of these uniquely Indian products?
I was recently appointed advisor to the khadi board to promote and modernise the fabric. The word
‘khadi’ is symbolic of Mahatma Gandhi’s Swarajya movement. I used khadi for my debut collection in 1990. I have always appreciated its richness and the world of design opportunities it offers. I am now exhibiting khadi to global names in fashion so they too can understand its richness and versatility.
The key to uncovering the hidden wealth of Indian products is in their marketing. It appals me to see Indian incense being sold overseas for pittance. Their presentation is not refined and little or no thought has gone into the designing of its packaging. Nor is there any attempt to make it global or modern. The same incense marketed by a French company has a feel of exclusiveness and luxury and sells for 100 times more.
The French are masters of branding and we have some lessons to learn from them.
At a recent Luxury League Forum, global luxury brand gurus spoke about image building. Patrick Thomas, ex-CEO of Hermès said that the key to creating a reputation was in the quality of the product, not so much pricing. In India, we are fixated on price, with not much attention to quality. Our mantra is to make it cheaper than the rest of the world and not better, and that I believe is our downfall.
Marketing guru Peter Cialdini explains a phenomenon he terms ‘expensive = good’ with an anecdote in his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. A shop was having trouble selling its collection of turquoise jewellery. In frustration the owner left a note for the saleslady to drop the price by half. The sales lady misread the note and instead of halving the price, she doubled it. Three days later when the owner returned from her vacation, she was surprised to find all the merchandise had been sold.
Customers perceived the higher price to be indicative of good quality and bought out the store.
Centuries ago, Indian fabric was prized for its luxurious richness. Over time this exclusivity and sense of pride seems to be disappearing, and Indian fabrics are now marketed at the lower end of the price spectrum.
It is time to identify the uniqueness of India that constantly ignites global appeal. We must develop a branding and marketing strategy to represent India globally.
My vision for the future of the Indian luxury industry is infinite. I will be delighted when top global brands work with our artisans, with strict quality guidelines, to unearth the value of Indian GIs.
I urge our talented craftspeople, designers and artisans to develop corporate houses and establish strong brand identities by focusing on niche aspects of our Indian culture. They could learn from the Japanese designers who have established successful international brand names while respecting the spirit of their culture in their work, carving a niche for themselves in the competitive international market.
This will not only bring wealth to our artisans, but also enhance India’s image as a producer of quality.
From HT Brunch, Septermber 25, 2016
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