Luxury, made in India

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Updated: April 5, 2015 1:21:20 AM

Luxury and quality, usually associated with top-notch international brands, need not mean only foreign labels.

Luxury and quality, usually associated with top-notch international brands, need not mean only foreign labels. Here are some Indian names that have made a mark while emphatically championing the cause of ‘Made in India’.

Amrut Single Malt

The Bengaluru elixir

One of the world’s best single malts has no relation with Scotland; it’s brewed in the backyard of Bengaluru. The story of what catapulted Amrut Single Malt to the top and what more to expect from a brand that has its sight set on more such laurels.

LISTENING TO the Amrut Single Malt success story, one might believe that it all happened by chance. That the introduction of the whisky in Europe happened because an employee made it into a live project for a university dissertation. But there’s no coincidence in the fact that within six years of its global launch, Amrut was ranked the world’s third-best single malt.

Bottled in Bengaluru at the Amrut distillery, the single malt was the result of several years of expertise in producing spirits. Having produced whisky, rum and brandy for the mass market for years, how and why Amrut decided to take the next step to produce single malts is another interesting story.

Managing director of Amrut Distilleries, Neelakanth Rao Jagdale recalls that in the Eighties, Amrut and many other Indian spirit makers were happy producing whisky blends for the mass market. But the Nineties brought an influx of foreign liquors that were much lighter and had a low malt content. As they grew popular, the Indian makers were forced to follow suit, but this left them with enormous quantities of unused matured malt whisky. Jagdale then thought of using this to make single malts.

Not only this, they took the bull by the horns when Rakshit Jagdale, Neelakanth’s son, introduced the single malt in Scotland, home of the premium whisky. The company paid close attention to packaging standards, and went the ‘right’ way of single malts by organising hundreds of tastings across Europe and placing their product at special retail shops.

Six years after its launch, renowned writer Jim Murray named Amrut Fusion Single Malt the world’s third-best in 2010, giving it a rating of 97 out of 100.

But Jagdale senior is not resting on any laurels. Packing a punch with his words as well, he says, “Success is not a destination, but a journey.” After achieving success with the single malt, they took things a step further by offering various mixes, and today have around 17-18 versions of their single malt, like port finish, sherry finish, etc, in the global market. They have recently launched a range of premium rums in the international market made with Caribbean and African blends. Jagdale is candid enough to admit that these can be called premium in the Indian market, but are ‘semi-premium’ globally. “We are not on the top of the game when it comes to rums yet, but in a few years, we aim to achieve that too,” he says. Next on the cards is premium brandy and gin for the global market.

There is wine too on the company’s agenda, but, as Jagdale says, they are taking baby steps in this direction, having bought land in the Krishna river valley for wine production. However, the company is taking no baby steps, growing about 10% year-on-year when the average growth in the industry is 4-5%.

He expects the company to be twice its size in about seven-eight years, generating about 20% revenue from its premium offerings. But why not dwell on the premium segment alone, one wonders? Jagdale delivers yet another punchline: “You need bread with the butter; butter alone is of no use.” A toast to that!

ITC Grand Bharat

Celebrating Bharat

Indian hospitality has the undisputed reputation of being world-class. ITC takes things a notch higher with an all-suites resort that epitomises luxury, but is also an embodiment of Indian culture and history down to the smallest detail.

When President Barack Obama visited India for the second time earlier this year, he commented that the welcome he had received was hard to beat. Indian hospitality can, indeed, be second to none, and the Indian hospitality sector does take luxury to high levels. Taking things a step further is an all-suites resort that not only epitomises luxury, but does it with a decidedly Indian heart.

ITC’s Grand Bharat, amidst the Aravalli hills near Delhi, captures the essence of India in multiple ways—in its architecture and design, its residences, food, wellness and relaxation—becoming a tribute to the idea of ‘Bharatvarsh’.

General manager for the resort Anand Rao explains: “The ITC Grand Bharat is the country’s first all-suites resort that has been built as a destination in itself. The hotel, envisaged as a tribute to the glory of India, is a testimony to the grandeur of India and its finest traditions. It is a hotel rooted to the soil, epitomising the highest ideals of India’s rich heritage and culture; both past and present, reflected in its nationally inspired architecture, interior design and warm Indian hospitality.”

Spread over a sprawling 1.2-sq-km estate, the resort has 100 suites and four presidential villas, the architecture of which is a confluence of the finest Indian details and techniques. The villas take inspiration from the dynasties of the Mauryas, Marathas, Mughals and the Cholas, while various styles ranging from the ghats of Varanasi to the stepped walls of Adalaj and temple architecture of Odisha are replicated all over the resort.

The main building, also known as Laxmi Vilas Palace, is a fine example of Indo-Saracenic school of architecture, seen elsewhere in the Gateway of India in Mumbai and the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata. The lobby, named the Sangam, is a symbolic meeting of three rivers, Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati. Amidst is a painted Tree of Life, surrounded by eight pillars signifying the eight stages of life as indicated in the Vedas.

But despite being an ode to India, the resort, resembling a mini township, has all the trappings of a world-class luxury destination. All suites come either with a semi-private lap pool or lounge terrace. The resort also has south Asia’s first and only 27-hole Jack Nicklaus signature golf course, a spa spread over 1,951 sq m offering holistic Indian therapies, and a host of activities ranging from nature trails to Segway tours.

And while ITC is known for its exemplary food, interestingly, none of its signature restaurants or star chefs find a place at Grand Bharat. Instead, you have a ‘well-being’ chef offering tailor-made menus, plus restaurants offering Indian, European and Asian flavours, with many ingredients grown right in the backyard.

“The Grand Bharat symbolises ITC’s vision of creating world-class brands that ‘put India first’ and is in keeping with our efforts towards sub-serving larger priorities of demonstrating global competitiveness,” says Rao, when asked how the resort fares in comparison with global luxury offerings.

“The India of today is not limited to its monuments and rural culture. Travellers today seek international experiences in an indigenous environment. While the demand may have been predominantly seen for destinations like Agra, Rajasthan, the Himalayas, Goa and Kerala, there is adequate appeal in other parts of the country as well. The resort also falls within the golden triangle circuit—Delhi, Agra and Jaipur—and its close proximity to the capital city facilities a getaway from the hustle bustle, but with easy access,” he says, aptly summing up the venture as one offering ‘unhurried luxury’. Surely a new era in Indian hospitality!


Bagging it

At a time when smooth Italian leather was in vogue, Dilip Kapur of Hidesign rebelled with his earthy Hidesign bags. From selling in counter-culture stores globally to being the preferred brand of celebrities worldwide, Hidesign has come a long way, reviving dying Indian traditions of ecologically tanning leather.

PRINCESS DIANA loved Hidesign’s Boxy bag, awarding it the ‘Accessory of the Year’ award in 1992. Nelson Mandela preferred the Andre bag, and Steven Spielberg the Roma.

Sold at John Lewis, Selfridges and House of Fraser in the UK, Myers and David Jones in Australia, Stuttafords in South Africa, Parksons in Vietnam and Robinsons in south-east Asia, to name a few, Hidesign is an Indian leather goods brand that first entered the global market in the late Seventies with a rebellious attitude. Company founder Dilip Kapur remembers it was a time when smooth and sophisticated Italian bags were in vogue. Hidesign’s rugged textures, highlighting the leather’s natural scars, were a complete contrast, but that is what added to its appeal. Kapur calls it ‘anti-taste’.

“It was the age of the hippies, the young and the rebellious. Hidesign products started selling well in counter-culture stores first. But over the years, upmarket stores started stocking them as well, and sales boomed,” he says.

Recalling an interesting anecdote, he tells us how, when working with leather in the US, he discovered that a rare leather imported from a premium supplier in the UK, which was considered the finest vegetable-tanned leather and was used for making luxury bags and footwear in the UK and Italy, bore the ‘E.I.’ mark. He discovered the EI mark to be ‘East India’, and traced the origins of the leather back to a town less than a 100 miles from his home town of Puducherry.

Excited that the world’s finest leather was coming from India, he returned to Puducherry and went in search of the source of this particular leather. To his dismay, he discovered that several tanneries were giving up on the long and ardous task of naturally tanning leather to reduce costs and were opting for chemical treatments instead.

Thus started his endeavour to produce leather of the same class as E.I. The company started with an aim to preserve Indian techniques and continues to believe in the same traditions, handcrafting each piece using natural and eco-friendly techniques.

Presently, Hidesign products are sold in about 25 countries in over 80 exclusive boutiques and major stores. In India, the company started selling only in 2000, but steadily domestic revenues have surpassed global sales.

Kapur explains this very well. “In the Seventies, Indians preferred plastic and nylon, and Hidesign was seen as a very rough product. But gradually, especially in the Nineties, the Indian markets opened up, and Indians also travelled a lot more. People’s tastes changed with that, they wanted to emulate the western world, became more international, more cosmopolitan. So Hidesign stood a chance.”

But Kapur doesn’t care for the mass market. He constantly endeavours to offer products that are innovative, different and new. “Hidesign has never copied a single design. All our designs are original. We never want to target the mass market, because that would mean catering to the tastes of the people. Innovation would be dead. What I would rather do is innovate and create a product and then see if the consumer likes it or not. It’s a risk, but that’s our philosophy.”

He wants Hidesign to be a global name in the leather goods space, but refuses to take any short cuts to reach there. “We need to grow, but we cannot be a brand that has something for everybody. We need to be special, offer something new, and not follow in the footsteps of the numerous European brands out there,” he says emphatically.

For that, he relies on India’s heritage and its story. “We might be fledglings in the global arena. We might not be like the Italians who believe everything they do is beautiful, or the French, who are all about elegance. But we have our own story to tell. For 800 years, the greatest leather goods came from India, but that slowly died. At Hidesign, we are attempting to revive that heritage. We do not believe in mass production, like the Chinese. We handcraft every single piece, which is unique in its own way. That, for me, is luxury.”

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