THE ALILIA FORT in Bishangarh, Rajasthan, saw a high-profile get-together in May that was graced not just by the royalty of the state but also prominent private equity investors, business tycoons and celebrities who flew in from across the globe. It wasn’t a lavish wedding of a Bollywood diva or a cricket icon. It was the launch of Godawan Century, a bespoke 100-bottle-batch limited edition handcrafted single malt from Diageo. Thirty-four out of the 50 guests had pre-booked their 700 ml bottle, priced at ₹91,700. Godawan is the local name of the dwindling Great Indian Bustard, and Godawan Century is an ode to this beautiful bird.
Right from the place it is distilled (arid region of Alwar in Rajasthan) to method of distillation and the botanicals used, Godawan is the opposite of the famed single malts from Scotland. It is distilled in wooden casks in sweltering 40 degree centigrade-plus heat, while Scottish single malt is distilled in four degrees in lush green highlands.
Diageo’s strategy of launching handcrafted Indian single malt after being around in the country for over a decade makes sense. Year 2022 was one of the best for the Indian luxury industry, according to a recent Bain & Company report. The luxury market in India ($8.5 billion) could expand 3.5 times by 2030, says the report. The potential is being realised by entry of more luxury brands into India. French luxury retailer Galeries Lafayette (Europe’s largest luxury departmental chain with 290 stores that house over 200 brands) has partnered with Aditya Birla Fashion Retail to start Indian operations. Reliance Brands has signed up to bring Valentino (Italy) and Balenciaga (Spain) to India.
The discerning Indian consumers are seeking best-in-class brands and want to settle for nothing less than the world’s best — Rolex or Patek Philippe watch, Dior or Chanel apparel and accessories and jewellery from Cartier or Tiffany. Their homes are statements, and they don’t hesitate to make multiple trips to Harrods in London for unique artefacts.
But there is also a strong urge to support indigenous luxury. It’s even better if it’s handcrafted and has a story to tell about the country’s glorious heritage. The consumer who buys an expensive diamond necklace from Cartier is more than willing to complement it with exquisitely crafted Benarasi sari priced ₹5-7 lakh from an Indian brand like Raw Mango or Tilfi. This adds purpose to the purchase (supporting local artisans), not to mention the great pride of wearing India on the sleeves. This has spawned a plethora of Indian luxury brands such as Zoya (luxury jewellery brand of Titan), Ganga Vilas Cruise (uber luxury cruise) and Godawan. This is apart from myriad direct to consumer brands such as Tilfi, Nappa Dori, Chamar and Hapusa. From bespoke jewellery, fashion and crafts to luxurious river cruises and handcrafted single malts, Indian luxury, though in its infancy, has a bright future.
Titan Company MD C.K. Venkatraman narrates how a third-generation family business owner requested business head of Zoya to source a rare sapphire from Sri Lanka for his wife on their first wedding anniversary. “We customised it into a beautiful ring. The customer told us he couldn’t have expected this level of service at any of the globally acclaimed jewellery stores,” he says, adding, “Indians are no longer apologetic about ‘Indianness.’ They are flaunting it. That has had a positive rub-off on Indian luxury brands.” The company recently opened the first Tanishq store in U.S. (Edison in New Jersey) which also houses Zoya.
Indian luxury is among the most interesting stories unfolding in the world, says Dilip Kapur, founder of Hidesign. “Earlier assumption was that luxury came only from Italy, France or New York. Today, India has enough confidence in its culture to develop a story which is not a copy of Milan or London.” Kapur says a bulk of Hidesign’s growth in post Covid-19 era has come from its luxury and premium portfolio Atelier.
One big reason the Indian consumer is turning to indigenous brands is awareness about the need to reduce the carbon footprint. The best way to ensure this is to support local artisans. The trend has ushered in an era of ‘silent’ luxury. “You don’t have to show the logo on the face. There is subtlety. The craft and value of the garment will come out in its uniqueness rather than the logo. It’s about the quality of materials used. The story is more powerful,” says Gitanjali Saxena, chief business officer, Tata CLiQ Luxury.
Silent luxury works perfectly for a brand celebrating a centuries-old craft like Benarasi weaving, says Aditi Chand, co-founder, Tilfi. “The Benarasi sari was always a luxury product but the creator never had the confidence to build it into a brand. It is all about the craft and not so much about the logo. It’s not about making a statement. The statement is implied. With logo mania fading out, we want to represent Indian craftsmanship at the finest level.”
The average luxury consumer in India always craved global brands. But the market here was never as lucrative as China for most global brands. The reason: Indians mostly buy accessories such as bags, watches, perfumes and shoes and not much apparel from global brands. “Indians like a lot more glitter which they don’t find in western apparel. They don’t want to spend ₹5 lakh on luxury outfit of a global brand. They would rather buy a gorgeous lehenga from an Indian designer,” says Bijou Kurien, chairman, Retailers Association of India (RAI).
Devika Bhagat, writer of Amazon Prime series Four More Shots Please and co-founder of handcrafted gin brand Tamras, says she is looking more and more for Indian brands in fashion or home décor. “I am looking for Indian labels even for my western clothing because the aesthetics and the material make you distinct. I don’t want to follow what influencers across the world are wearing. I want to project my own style.”
With people of Indian origin increasingly assuming top positions in business, science, fashion and films, the apprehension about showing off Indian craftsmanship and designs has significantly reduced in past decade. Also, spending power of consumers has gone up significantly. Dignitaries like Prime Minister Narendra Modi have also given impetus to make in India luxury through gestures such as gifting organic tea from Makaibari estate to Queen Elizabeth (Makaibari Tea Estate also launched a limited-edition coronation blend during the recent coronation of King Charles) and gifting a tree of life painting in Rogan Art style of Rann of Kutch to former U.S. President Barack Obama.
Yogesh Chaudhary, director, Jaipur Rugs, says a decade ago, carpet sellers in Europe, Dubai and other countries sold his carpets as Iranian or Turkish. “Not any more. The fact that our carpets are handwoven in India by women weavers enhances the premium experience.” Jaipur Rugs has stores in Milan, Dubai, Shanghai and Beijing. It has also been partnering with global brands such as Kate Spade and Maria Laura Berlinguer’s Studio Irvine. The average price of a Jaipur Rugs carpet is ₹10 lakh.
“Consumers are more confident about their Indianness. Pride in heritage is taking over,” says Geetanjali Saxena of Tata CLiQ Luxury. Nearly 40% products on Tata CLiQ are Indian. “The consumer wants products customised to her needs. That is the space Indian luxury brands can occupy. There are gaps in segments such as footwear and home décor, too, as most global luxury brands are minimalistic and Indians prefer craftsmanship,” adds Saxena.
Personalisation & Customisation
Now, far fewer Indian luxury shoppers travel all the way to U.S., Europe or even China to shop for home-décor than earlier. Most global furniture is made from engineered wood, while Indian furniture has been about hard wood, which lends it a different charm. Interior designer Mekhla Chakravarti, founder, Renovation Co, says bulk of her clients prefer high-end domestic home stores such as Colonial Collections, Nivasa or Sarita Handa. “High-end Indian stores are expensive but offer a wider variety and, most importantly, customise, which most global brands don’t. The discerning consumer is willing to pay a premium for customisation.” A sofa-set in a store like Pottery Barn or West Elm costs ₹2-3 lakh. In Colonial Collection, it can cost more than ₹7 lakh, but the latter has more takers, says Chakravarti.
The love for customisation and exclusivity has led to the emergence of a host of premium direct-to-consumer brands such as Nappa Dori (leather products), Oceedee (footwear) and Tilfi. For instance, Tilfi’s collection has saris that the brand makes-to-order. The sari could take between 15 days to a month to be woven. The brand also offers a range of Indo-western outfits such as jackets and shrugs made from Benarasi fabrics. “Over 50% sales come from diaspora and not all of them wear saris,” says Aditi Chand.
“Luxury consumers are willing to pay for design, unlike earlier when they were looking at only the product. If I pay ₹5 lakh for my fourth handbag, I want to know how different it is from my earlier bags in design, workmanship and material. These new-age luxury brands will create a bridge between what people buy versus what they would like to buy,” says RAI’s Kurien.
Do you know that almost every royal family in Rajasthan has a signature liqueur that was prepared by their royal vaidya (doctor)? The royal families even had distilleries. Some of the popular brews are Royal Kesar Kasturi, Jagmohan, Mawalin and Chandrahaas.
Luxury brand building is also about celebrating provenance, culture and heritage, and just like the liqueur heritage of Rajasthan, India has myriad stories on which luxury brands have started focusing. “Consumers want experiences that create memories. It’s no longer about buying a product and being happy, it’s about buying an experience, a purpose. Premiumisation earlier was all about higher cost per unit. Now it is translating into value per experience,” says Shweta Jain, chief business development officer (premium luxury reserve and craft), Diageo India.
Take Obeetee Carpets (priced ₹5-10 lakh) that were launched by the Britishers in India. The company carpeted the Rashtrapati Bhavan in the 1920s. Rudra Chatterjee, chairman Obeetee Carpets and MD, Luxmi Tea (which owns the Makaibari Tea Estate), acquired the brand in 2008. He positioned it as a ‘Proud To Be An Indian’ brand. “Carpets usually have Iranian or Persian lineage. We celebrate India. We have launched a chikankari collection with Tarun Tahiliani, a Jamavar collection with JJ Valaya and a collection on India’s rich military history with Shantanu and Nikhil.” Obeetee is now carpeting the new Parliament House as well as the Prime Minister’s Office. Chatterjee says Indians are increasingly willing to pay a premium for their heritage and culture. “Even the Makaibari tea has enough takers within India. Earlier, it had an audience only in international markets.”
While Makaibari has a heritage of over 100 years Bala Sarda, founder of VAHDAM India, is trying to take the legacy of his grandfather’s 90-year-old tea store in Darjeeling to international markets. “VAHDAM India has been shipped to over 130 countries. It has been endorsed organically by global icons like Oprah Winfrey, Mariah Carey, Ellen Degeneres, Martha Stewart, Nicole Scherzinger and Drew Barrymore,” says Sarda.
Storytelling and celebrating culture is a key element of the recently launched 52-day Ganga Vilas river cruise from Varanasi to Dibrugarh via Bangladesh, priced at ₹25 lakh per person. The 18-suite uber luxury cruise line, which completed its first voyage recently, was completely sold out, says Raj Singh, chairman, Antara Cruises. The ship’s interiors celebrate India, its folk arts and its rich history. The guests also get first-hand experience of local cultures.
For hotelier Kapil Chopra, founder, The Postcard Hotel (former president of Oberoi Hotels), creating an authentic Indian luxury experience is all about celebrating local cultures and cuisines. “Experiencing life is more valuable for today’s consumer than saving money. Indians are willing to spend mega bucks for experiences. More importantly, they understand quality.”
Fashion designer Deepa Chikermane, founder-director, Pret-Interpret Clothing, believes India should aim to be the mecca of luxury. “Nobody can make luxury products better than us. Jackets made by us may be worn by Michelle Obama and the embellishments we make are being sold by global brands upwards of $1,000. But in India, we don’t attach value to craftsmanship.”
India’s luxury legacy may not yet have the heritage that comes with luxury giants such as Hermes, Dior or Chanel as their stories began almost a century ago but the good news is that the country has all the ingredients to become a luxury powerhouse.