India, which only 15 years ago was in the throes of a foreign exchange crisis, is emerging now as a big market for luxury goods, jockeying to supply exotic material while dreaming of building its own global brands that could give the French and the Italians a stylish run for their money.
Setting a new tone for the industry, Commerce and Industry Minister Kamal Nath said on Friday that India was ready for a re-look at import duties on luxury goods, but also wanted to guard local manufacturers from unfair competition.
"We don't want China to do to us what they did to you," Nath joked to his French counterpart Christine Lagarde, as he kicked off the second Hindustan Times Mint Luxury Conference at New Delhi's Taj Palace hotel, attended by 400 delegates, a quarter of them from overseas, especially France.
"You are at the right place at the right time," Kamal Nath told the delegates.
"There's a fantastic appetite in France for Indian culture — and we hope to be cross-country ambassadors," said Yves Carcelle, chairman and CEO, Louis Vuitton Malletier, among the big labels present at the conference. France's elite Comite Colbert club of luxury labels was also in keen attendance.
India has more than two million households that earn more than $100,000 a year, and this is growing at 14 per cent, Kamal Nath said.
Shobhana Bhartia, vice-chairperson and editorial director of HT Media Ltd, said the number of India's middle class households, had grown to 17.3 million in 2005, while traditional artisans and craftsmen were an inspiring source of supplies.
"Just as you have a lot to offer India, India also has a lot to offer to the world," she told delegates.
While the sessions covered ground from new markets to ready-to-wear clothes, new wisdom emerged from Patrick Bousquet-Chavanne, group president of Estee Lauder, who said widening affluence had resulted in the "mass marketisation of temptation" across the world, with more people joining what was once considered elitist, while redefining luxury itself.