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India bags it

Most — if not all — great fashion houses have an Indian connection, but few will openly acknowledge it.

fashion and trends Updated: Apr 11, 2010 01:11 IST
Vir Sanghvi

Most — if not all — great fashion houses have an Indian connection, but few will openly acknowledge it. Oh yes, they will talk about the maharajas who bought their products in days long gone by or will prattle on about the potential of the Indian market. But they will fight shy of acknowledging their debt to Indian craftsmen, tailors or even, our raw materials.

They owe India
Within the rag trade it is no secret that many — probably all — mass-market designers get some of their clothes made in India. Even the smaller, more quality-conscious designers use Indian craftsmen. I once bought an astonishingly cheap pair of obviously genuine (they were very well-made) shoes by Paul Smith at a shop in Colombo. A couple of years later, when I interviewed the man, I asked Smith how this was possible. He frowned. The most likely explanation, he said, was that the guy who made Paul Smith shoes in Chennai was selling surplus stock in Sri Lanka.

Smith is unusual in openly acknowledging his debt to India. But high fashion brands, which send garments out to India for the kind of embroidery that Indian craftsmen excel at, will never mention the Indian connection. And nor will it appear on the label. Even if part of a product is made in India, they can still write Made In Italy on the label. Nor will most perfume companies credit Indian raw materials.

The likes of Veerapan made their fortunes by illegally felling sandalwood trees so that European perfumers could use high quality Indian sandalwood oil in their fragrances. (Now that supplies have dried up, they have been forced to use synthetics.) Indian jasmine and Indian rose pop up in many, many fragrances but nobody talks about it. Few houses have the confidence to acknowledge a debt to India. One of them is Chanel where the legendary perfume-maker, Jacques Polge openly expresses his admiration for Indian perfume ingredients. And the other is probably the greatest luxury brand of them all: Hermès.

Quality vs Branding
While most fashion (or perfume, for that matter) these days, is about branding, a tiny minority of fashion houses such as Chanel and especially Hermès focus instead on quality and craftsmanship. The most iconic Hermès products, the famous bags (such as the Kelly and the Birkin) are still made by traditionally-trained craftsmen who work with their hands. The high prices reflect not just Hermès’s reputation for quality and the prestige value of its name, but also the sheer number of man-hours that go into each product. Because Hermès is so focused on quality, it takes the line that the sales will take care of themselves. Amazingly, that philosophy appears to have worked. Despite being family-owned and slightly leery of branding and marketing, Hermès has been consistently profitable and latest figures suggest that it has beaten the recession. It helps, I imagine, that there is no pressure from outside shareholders to maximise returns so the house can think for the long term. (Contrast this with other Paris houses. No member of the family has any significant shareholding or presence in Dior, Saint Laurent, Givenchy or most of the others. Louis Vuitton is now part of the same giant conglomerate as Dior and Givenchy and even privately-owned Chanel is controlled by the family that financed Coco Chanel and not by her relatives.)

Hub of crafts heritage
Sometimes, the Hermès obsession with craftsmanship can be a little surprising. In New York, last month, to attend the opening of the new Hermès menswear store on Madison Avenue, I got talking to Patrick Thomas, the group’s CEO, about India. Now, I have had similar conversations with dozens of other fashion business executives. All such conversations usually follow the same pattern. They wonder how long it will take for the Indian market to reach the level of China; they ask which of their product lines will do well in India; etc.

But Thomas was different. Of course he cared about India as a market, he said, when I pointed out that the Birkin had now become ubiquitous (worryingly so, perhaps) as the bag of choice among ladies who lunch. But he thought the Indian market would take a little while to mature. His real interest, he continued, was in India as a source for Hermès products. The house already made one bag in Ahmedabad.

Would it be possible to create more products that used Indian craftsmen? India was different from other countries, he said, because it was home to a flourishing crafts tradition that Hermès valued. The real challenge before Hermès was not to grow the Indian market — that would happen in due course — but to find a way of tapping into India’s rich and luxurious crafts heritage.

They lived in India once
It helps, of course, that Hermès has a strong, personal India connection. Jean Louis Dumas who ran Hermès for many, many years and turned it into the world’s leading luxury icon, was obsessed with India. Long before the country became fashionable and years before it was on the international radar, Dumas was a regular visitor to India, made many close Indian friends, got Kolkata’s Sunita Kumar (with whom he had been friends for decades) to design saris which Hermès sold at its London store and even had his children brought up by an Indian family retainer. (The kids still go and visit him at his village in India).

For all of these reasons, Hermès’s attitude to India is significantly different from that of other fashion houses. Most act as though we are some backwater that has finally woken up to the joys of high mark-up, mass market, branded clothing and accessories that cater to Page Three wannabes. Hermès, on the other hand, has a deep-rooted respect for Indian traditions.

From India’s point of view, this is great. If we are going to have a fashion house that cares about Indian craftsmanship, we cannot do better than Hermès, which is positioned at the very pinnacle of the luxury business and is globally respected for its quality. In fact, it is interesting that the more up-market and more respected a fashion house, the more it seems to care about India. The conglomerates may see us as no more than a market, but it is the quality houses like Chanel and Hermès that recognise India’s individuality. And it is those fashion brands that are still owned and run by individual designers (such as Paul Smith) that happily broadcast their Indian connections.

At present, Indians are like kids who have just been allowed into the candy store, mindlessly flocking to the bland, mass-market labels. But as the market comes of age, I imagine we will learn to respect those houses that respect us.