The word ‘luxury’ and what it signifies have, for far too long, been associated in India as something sinful. Such a taboo against luxury goods stems from a misplaced ‘socialistic’ notion that if a vast majority of Indians cannot afford a square meal a day, nobody deserves exclusive items or services that, by virtue of their exclusivity, cost a packet. Of course, that’s not — thankfully — how India really works. As the two-day Mint-Hindustan Times Luxury Conference brings leaders behind the world’s finest brands under one roof today, it is the right moment to take note of a rapidly changing India and its accompanying change of attitude towards luxury.
A consumer confidence survey by Nielsen Company shows that 57 per cent of Indians now see labels as status symbols and are indeed welcoming luxury brands in their spheres of life. This should hardly come as a surprise. As far as human nature goes, people value premium products and one guarantee of an item’s quality is its exclusivity — which, in turn, puts a price tag to it. With a growing number of rich Indians and an even more dynamic aspirational class bursting forth, it was only a matter of time that the ‘civilisational value’ put to luxury goods would be accepted, not to mention celebrated, in this country of new economically-fuelled royalty. The likes of Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, Gucci, Hermès and other high-end luxury brands are setting up shop in India not out of some Marie Antoinette-style sense of philanthropy, but because these companies know that there is an eager market in India waiting. Brand consciousness, as the Nielsen survey shows, is high here and it is the supply side, rather than demand, that requires to be firmed up.
To understand this voluble demand in a clear-eyed manner, one needs to look at luxury as one section of a multi-layered consumer demand. To mix this high-end layer with that of the middle-class or those below, as has been the case until recently, is not only to miss the point but also to miss an opportunity. By definition, luxury goods are ‘controlled’ in number — partly because of maintaining the highest standards of quality and partly to enhance its mystique of exclusivity. This delicate matter of supply-demand lies at the core of any luxury brand building. So while the Nano is the (required) car for the masses, the Jaguar is the (luxury) car that signifies quality and status. And it is apt that these Tata brands, one created, the other acquired, tell the other story of Indian luxury: while we are turning into one of the world’s largest buyers of high-end brands, we are yet to build and maintain any luxury brand of our own. That is a question that could be mulled over by the participants of this year’s conference.