Luxury is a feeling

Written by fe Bureau | Updated: Apr 26 2010, 04:59am hrs
Standing outside Teen Paradise Mall 109 in Shibuya, Tokyo, my 14-year-old daughter Ayesha looks at the hundreds of Louis Vuitton bags passing by and asks me a question I am frequently asked: Papa how would you tell a fake LV from a real one Without giving up the secret, to me the real question is why do the 60% of Japanese household that own a genuine LV product pay 50 times more for the iconic luxury brand LV when they cannot tell the difference from a fake The answer lies in the special satisfaction she gets when she holds a genuine LV bag. When she buys the fake she may be fooling the world, but she is also missing out of what the $1,000 cost of LV provides: a feeling of being special. This feeling that the young Japanese girl experiences has driven the luxury market from being an exclusive small European market to one that has seen exponential growth in the past 20 years to become widespread in Asia. Luxury brands in Asia seem to be able to offer a feeling of exclusivity while being widespread. However, Dana Thomas, who spent years as the journalistic authority reporting on European luxury for the American market, strongly argues in her book Deluxe that brands such a LV, Gucci and Armani are no longer true to the original idea of luxury because they have gone massthat dreaded word that is the enemy of luxury. Luxury has always been about feeling special, of being exclusive and unique.

Where do we as Indians stand in this argument Are we similar to the Japanese with their homogenous culture that continues to feel a sense of luxury even when the experience is shared by millions, or are we looking for a greater sense of exclusivity I have always believed luxury is only indirectly about price (less people can afford to buy itso you feel exclusive) and all about the warm feeling that the experience of being regarded as special gives you. At Hidesign, while we pushed for growth and greater efficiency, we worked hard to consciously not lose those aspects of the brand experience that made people feel exclusive. This is the key question facing luxury brands as they grow larger, and the area where original users of luxury feel brands are failing them. Other than the rare brand such as Hermes or Bottega Veneta, Dana Thomas strongly argues the rest of the luxury market no longer offers true luxury. Editors of fashion magazines, in spite of being heavily dependent on the large luxury brands, would seem to agree: in a widely quoted survey, over 60% of the editors chose the small but very heritage-laden brand, Bottega Veneta, as their first choice in a bag. Are the editors talking a different language to the Japanese girls I would argue that both are talking about the same thing, that luxury to both of them is the feeling of experiencing a sense of exclusiveness. While the editors feel the millions of LV products sold make them appear not exclusive enough, the Japanese secretary certainly feels she is moving into an exclusive social crowd when she carries a genuine LV. The feeling is the same; the cultural difference makes them perceive the same product differently.

Luxury can never be mass. I remember giving a talk at a conference after six well-known management leaders had talked about line production, mass manufacture, the Chinese method of conquering a market through low-cost mass production. And there I was arguing that Hidesign was now moving in exactly the opposite direction. To maintain the soul of the bag, we were taking out all-line production, switching totally to a small group production where every bag is individually crafted by a small group. While mass manufacture talks of perfection in terms of every piece being alike, every stitch the same, luxury talks about the character or soul of the product, thereby emphasising the unique nature of each piece. Luxury brand managers love the dependability and quality of work that comes out of China, but hate the sameness and lack of soul and deadness of anything produced under the highly cost-efficient mass manufacturing system of China.

On the other hand, Indias very individualistic craftsmen are very close to the spirit of European luxury traditions. But they intensely dislike the lack of quality and dependability of Indian craftsmen. Indias own luxury designers produce exquisite products crafted by very skilled artisans, but the threads come out, the embroidery unravels and you never get it on time! When Hidesign started working with Louis Vuitton, one of the most challenging tasks we faced was to achieve excellent quality without losing our look of uniqueness, artisan workmanship and strong character. Luxurys basic need for exclusivity certainly implies a high degree of individual artisan work, but it can never be at the cost of quality.

Its an accepted truism that luxury brands come to India to take advantage of our cheap labour. Really How come every luxury brand manager I have met talks about skills and craftsmanship and is adamant that cost of labour is a minor consideration With the product cost, including materials and labour, being normally only 5-10% of the selling price, luxury brands are not going to save huge amounts from the selling price by getting cheaper labour. But Europe is running out of craftsmen, of intelligent young people that want to learn artisan skills when easy, well-paid jobs in services are plentiful. Skillful craftsmen that have had skills developed over years of training are at the heart of a luxury product. Its the small hand-worked details that give it the touch of uniqueness. Its the three little hand stitched crosses on every Hidesign product and the woven straps that our users tell us make them realise the product is uniquely crafted and not mass produced.

As the battle of ideas rages over whether luxurys need for exclusivity can be maintained while the luxury brands expand, India and China are increasingly at the centre stage of the discussions on luxurys future. China is already being marked as the next Japan, with millions of young Chinese girls as the target for mass luxury. Will India go the same way Or will our strong heritage of craftsmanship and diverse cultures make us look for what Dana Thomas would call true luxurya customer that demands craftsmanship, uniqueness and a soul in every experience and product.