The two-day Mint Luxury Conference 2012, in its fifth year, got underway with minor hiccups. While the first two sessions were rescheduled - the minister of state for parliamentary affairs and planning, Ashwani Kumar, was late - it was the only blip as the well-heeled personalities of society and Indian industry gathered to brainstorm on luxury in the lavish environs of Taj Land's End, Mumbai.
"Luxury is not just a style statement. It is aesthetic and craftsmanship. Money does not guarantee taste; you either have it or not," Kumar said pointing out how the middle class was turning into a big market for luxury brands.
The saree was the attention grabber of the first day as two leading fashion designers - Diane von Furstenberg and Angela Missoni - expressed their fascination for the Indian fabric. Later, speakers delved into serious issues such as the future of luxury in India, impact of 100% foreign direct investment (FDI) on luxury and the challenges for luxury brands.
"The problem in India is tax duties, which are three times more than European Union and two times than China," said Armando Branchini, executive director, Fondanzione Altagamma, the Italian association of luxury goods.
There were some lighter moments - Bollywood actor Sonam Kapoor, revealed how she got interested in fashion. "Naked models," she chuckled.
The theme this year was Luxury in India: At the Tipping Point. The second day began with Michael Ward, managing director of Harrods, a luxury department store in London, sharing its success story. Harrods saw double digit growth even during the global recession.
Perhaps the most awaited session was the one with Christian Louboutin, the women's luxury footwear designer from France. And he did not disappoint.
But it wasn't just women who were the focus of the conference - panellists at the session What Men Want tried to decode men's desires. And no, as Michael Perschke, Head of Audi India explained, it wasn't all about sex and women. Cars and bikes are unarguably hard to beat.
A near war of words also erupted between the British and Italian luxury brand associations as Mark Henderson, deputy chairman, Gieves and Hawkes and director of Walpole, the association of British luxury brands, said Italy's brands were all about flair, excitement and were portable, not experiential.
Not one to take things lying down, Saba Ali, India representative for Fondanzione Altagamma, said, "You forgot about the luxury hotels we have." That prompted a quick apology from Henderson.
"Good designs aren't cheap but they're not outstandingly expensive either"
Her wrap dresses and the Indian saree could well be long lost cousins, and designer Diane von Furstenberg admitted as much when she sought inspiration from the saree. "There is nothing more beautiful," she said, speaking at the session on The Mystique of Design, moderated by author and brand consultant Radha Chadha. An American success story, Furstenberg started with an investment of $30,000 and today heads an empire with a revenue of $200 million. She said partnerships are the way forward for her in India. "We are a contemporary luxury brand. Our focus is real design at affordable prices," she added. While the US and UK are her biggest markets, the company's eye is now on China and India. Design, she says, should be affordable and reach the country's interiors. "Good designs don't come cheap but they are not outstandingly expensive as well," she said.
"There's a relationship between shoes and sex"
The man behind the red sole stilettos was in Mumbai to display his charm and talk about sex, cleavage and Kathakali at a session called World At My Feet. Christian Louboutin, founder of the shoe brand Christian Louboutin, in conversation with Nikhil Khanna, MD, Avian media, said his next line of footwear would be inspired by kathakali dance. Khanna, who tried to sugar coat questions about the relationship between passion and inspiration, was quickly caught wrong-footed by Louboutin. "What you are trying to ask is whether there's a relationship between shoes and sex," he said. "The answer is yes, but not every shoe, and certainly not the ones you're wearing," quipped Louboutin. As for how he got fixated by the colour red - his signature colour for soles - the French fashion footwear maker revealed his inspiration. "I was comparing designs of two shoes and was unable to decide. There was a woman with a red nail polish painting her nails, that suddenly gave me an idea to paint the sole red," he answered.
"Selling luxury, even to customers who have the financial means, is an art"
"Selling luxury, even to those who have the financial means, is an art," said Michael Ward, MD, Harrods at the session The Art of Luxury Retail. "Harrods represents 40% of the luxury industry of India," said Ward. For the uninitiated, Harrods departmental store in London spreads across one million sq ft with 5,000 employees and 22 restaurants. The company generated sales of R5,100 crore in 2010. "Luxury is about ease of shopping. The key is service," said Ward. "Luxury is strong and evolving. Even in Europe it is relatively young and more brands are emerging leading to lower prices," he added. Harrods, which was the first in the UK to introduce a retail degree, is also finicky about which brand they associate with and their exclusivity. That's why when mass retailer Tesco's started selling Krispy Kreme doughnuts, Harrods stopped allowing their sale on store premises.
"Although fashion and luxury can go together, there is a big difference"
The saree was the talking point as Angela Missoni, creative director of fashion house Missoni said she was quite taken in by the fabric worn by Indian women. Talking to Vinod Nair, HT Fashion Editor and moderator for the session Close Knit Style, Missoni said India had a large market for men's wear, and accessories. Naturally then she said her own brand was keenly watching the Indian luxury retail space for an entry in the near future. However, she said the market still lags behind Italy where the market demographics are similar. "India has talent in designers, craftsmanship, and the fabric," said Missoni. She aims to unveil a selective range of luxury products in India. "There is a big difference between fashion and luxury. They can go together but are different," said Missoni.
"British brands have failed to push through as they're a little conservative"
With Italian and French brands having top-of-the-mind recall in India's luxury market, the British seem to want to recapture lost territory. Leading the charge is Mark Henderson, director of Walpole, an association of British luxury brands and deputy chairman, Gieves and Hawkes, a bespoke tailoring company on London's famous Saville Row. He sought to answer the question: Are the British serious about Luxury? Accepting that British brands have a small presence in India, he sought blame government policies. "Tax on luxury brands, import duties, infrastructure, are some stumbling blocks for luxury brands to come to India," he said. But he conceded, "British luxury brands have failed to push through the market unlike other European brands as they are a little conservative."