In India, Thinking Beyond the Cashmere Crowd

Aer, 34th Floor Lounge at the Four Seasons, Mumbai | Source: Four Seasons Hotels

Today we are delighted to bring you the first installment of India Inc., a regular column on the Indian luxury market by Bandana Tewari.

MUMBAI, India — Atop Aer, a tony roof-top bar at the Four Seasons with a sweeping panorama of slumdog-Mumbai — a circuitous medley of high-rises and slums alike — the time at which you arrive for a “Worli Sunset,” a vodka and mandarin cocktail named after the neighbourhood, says a lot about you. If you are there at 6pm, you are part of the “cashmere crowd,” discreet business travellers, Jaipur-bound foreigners or seasoned locals unafraid to sit alone. Most are there to simply take in the perfect sunset over the Arabian Sea. They are judiciously dressed: on-the-go-chic, with statement necklaces perhaps, but no “killer heels.” The men are usually in natty slim pants and after-work swagger. After sunset they usually go home, or to dinner — often to Indigo for Mediterranean cuisine, Wasabi for Japanese or Hakkasan for foie gras dim sum.

This discreet-chic, cashmere crowd has been the cynosure of every international luxury brand targeting India. Soirees are hosted on a weekly basis to woo them. And with encouraging figures coming out of New Delhi’s Emporio Mall, a local benchmark, and the number of ultra high net worth individuals in India expected to triple by 2016, according to a recent report by CRISIL and Kotak Wealth Management, it certainly feels like the luxury market in India is finally set to take off.

There’s only one small hitch. The cashmere crowd loves shopping overseas. Indeed, when money ceases to be a differentiator — most of them are on their third home by now — it’s geography that becomes important. The same bag has that much more cachet if bought in a Milanese flagship, not a boutique in a local 5-star hotel, where dealing with security procedures like metal detectors and frisking has taken the shine out of shopping. Indeed, perhaps it’s time for fashion brands, both international and domestic, to look beyond the 6pm crowd.

Today, it’s the 10pm crowd that offers significant new opportunity. Mumbai’s ‘bridge-and-tunnel’ crowd, they come in droves from far-flung suburbs, rambunctious and revving to kill the night. Their infectious enthusiasm keeps the staff at Aer on their toes — and the cash counters clinking. They go in for super-size style aplenty: bags are big, heels are tall, and skirts ride high. It seems there is much to be talked about and spent. They’re not new money, they’re “new-new” money. Most of the high-rollers are out-of-towners from satellite cities like Ludhiana, Chandigarh and Kanpur that fringe bigger metropolises like Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. They usually leave when the bar shuts, around 2am, and left-over cocktails are poured into plastic cups for the road.

This crowd faces cantankerous traffic and snarling multi-hour drives in order to reach a watering hole in the city. But ask any luxury retailer and stories abound: of housewives from sprawling homes in Gurgaon, outside Delhi, and families, brides and grooms-to-be from Punjab, shopping for 7-day weddings, as well as stocking up on the kind of basic luxury goods their home-cities do not offer.

A recent KPMG study, commissioned by Pradeep Hirani, chairman and managing director of Indian fashion house Kimaya, to understand the buying patterns of Indian women, points to a gaping hole in the market. Even though they increasingly have a taste for the finer things in life, as well as the means to buy them, residents of India’s second- and third-tier cities are forced to travel out of their hometowns to buy premium or luxury branded goods. Failing that, “as a non-preferred alternative, they would invariably end up buying mass brands that, although affordable, were both non-exclusive and non-aspirational,” says the report. Even Indian designers have made few inroads into these uncharted territories, where demand for premium and more accessible luxury goods is growing rapidly. Hirani explains: “At one end were a few mass brands, with average price points of $30, and at the other end were designer labels with average prices around $400 dollars. But there was no brand that filled the void in between.”

Spurred by this observation, Hirani has recently launched a platform called Karmik that unites fashion concept with quality and accessible prices, not unlike H&M. With top Indian designers — including Rohit Bal, Anamika Khanna, JJ Valaya, Rocky S, Ranna Gill, Shantanu & Nikhil, Rina Dhaka, Gaurav Gupta and Kavita Bhartia — all set to design clothes, Hirani’s focus on volume and economies of scale will ensure this new breed of designer-wear is accessible to the “10pm crowd” in smaller cities. The product will have an average price point of $100 and be available in over 60 stores across the country. “This will revolutionise the way women shop in India,” says Hirani.

Karmik will launch with a fashion show set to take place during Lakme Fashion Week next week in Mumbai, where the participating designers will walk the runway along with their muses and models in tow.

Another figure who gets the 10pm crowd is the designer Manav Gangwani. He has a loyal and ever-growing clientele, not only in Bollywood, but in many of the smaller cities in India, which are fast becoming new epicentres of wealth. “My clients, whether they are from Ludhiana or London, want the best and they are not afraid of my bold, glamorous designs” says Gangwani.

It is no wonder, then, that Roberto Cavalli’s first foray into India — a store in New Delhi’s Emporio Mall is expected in May with a Cavalli Café to follow in July — will be in partnership with Gangwani. In India, it’s unprecedented for a local designer to be the franchisee for an international behemoth like Roberto Cavalli. And whilst the collaboration is surely based on sound business sense, one cannot help thinking how much foreign brands also stand to benefit from Indian designers who understand the real, “Middle India” customer-base in this country.

Bandana Tewari is a contributing editor at The Business of Fashion

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  1. I was just at Aer tonight! Great reading an article on BOF covering the scene in India.

    There is no doubt that fashion in India is exploding and offers a huge potential for brands and retailers to cash in on the all ‘new-new money’. Visiting here for the last month, I do find a certain emptiness to the whole thing though. A lot of dollar signs, however there doesn’t seem to be much substance.

    It would be great to see India not only adopt western ways in brand consciousness and partying lifestyles, but also in social responsibility.

  2. Its been an open debate about when luxury brands will finally take off on the sub continent, apart from a few star brands the road so far has been predictably unpredictable. The usual sloppy comparisons to China and other so called BRIC economies has not guaranteed any strategic success and as new players enter the market every week – it appears the ‘premium’ segment is the next big thing. Authentic Luxury on the hand seems to be taking more time and apart from handbags and jewelry, ready to wear has been slow off the mark. This has a little to do with the existing rich Indian culture and great deal to do with understanding where European (Western/Japanese) fashion originates from and why. Its as much about lifestyle, manners, intuition and imagination as it is about studying style magazines, sipping in swanky bars and following the shows. It will surely happen over time and only until we can internalise the craft and beauty of a well cut suit or a hand finished silk dress will the shift truly take place. But one must ask why it really matters and if one day we will return to the old world charm of buying a hand made bag from one of few places or going to a specific region to buy a bespoke suitcase. Now that luxury goods are available in every airport and mini mall the world over do we really need such ubiquitous ‘luxury’ in every tier II and tier III city in India as well? The future of luxury is increasingly being debated in terms of core values such as tradition, time, craftsmanship, innovation, ecology and human rights, perhaps that’s a debate worth having first.

  3. Succinct, insightful and smart-as usual. Tell us more!

    Rymn Massand. NYC. from New York, NY, United States
  4. Admire your work Bandana and your insight into certain facts that only a few can bring to the fore like you do! Aspiring to be a fashion write myself, I’ll follow your work closely!You’re amazing!!

    Deepa from Mumbai, Mahārāshtra, India
  5. I live in Ludhiana and I have seen the luxury-buyers here. Luxury is not a way of life for them, it is something they do to be able to flaunt. A Punjabi shopper will almost always spend her money on instantly recognizable designer goods but not on something that feels luxurious. For example, I see a lot of speed(ies) in Ludhiana and Chandigarh and usually in monogram canvas and not Damier or Damier Azure. Some of these people are my friends and believe me when I say that most of Louis Vuitton carrying ladies here will quietly settle for tacky nightwear from a local shop. They schedule their designer shopping around holidays, not because of the price differences (tax return calculations are for us poors) but because taking a shopping vacation to Paris is so much hipper.

    Luxury and Indians are immiscible; the only interaction between the is on the surface. Our minds are too restrained with ideas of religious simplicity.

    Tada from Amritsar, Punjab, India
  6. Sharply written and thoroughly insightful. Bandana’s panache and intelligence fits this site like an immaculate leather glove.

    Sukriti Wahi from Brisbane, Queensland, Australia
  7. It’s good to see a series on India Inc, and I’m curious to see where it goes. The problem with Indian people is that they are afraid of trying new/ unknown labels. The want fashion that they can show off. Monogrammed bags, Designers that have huge marketing campaigns. God forbid they have to wear a name that their social peers cannot / have not heard of.
    In Delhi you will people buying goods based on the price. If one lady buys a bag worth $500, her friend will immediately ask for a more expensive bag regardless of how tasteless or garish it might be.
    Fashion is driven either by Bollywood or the western trends. There is a whole lot of untapped talent, Indie designers who do brilliant work but will receive little acknowledgement because they don’t have the right crowd wearing their clothes.
    Having lived in both New York and London I think the Indian consumer has a long long way to go. The lack the ability to invent their own style. It’s a herd mentality whether in Mumbai or Delhi or anywhere else.

    Aarti from Mumbai, Mahārāshtra, India