Business Standard

Sunil Sethi: A life of labels

Regardless of protests against the entry of multi-brand foreign retail chains, the big brands are a way of Indian life

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On a recent afternoon I went round to my local opticians’ to order a new pair of reading glasses. It used be a typical “daddy-beta” store in a — the choice of frames limited but reasonably priced, with a friendly, attentive staff and a modest man at his desk punctiliously sizing up apertures and alignments. Over the years it has become depressingly “Armanised” — not just in its product line but in its lashings of glitz. The display cases are now backed with mirrored glass, like something out of Mughal-e-Azam, and customers pore over samples in velvet-lined trays as if they were choosing Golconda diamonds.

In the hope of easy parking and a quick, quiet purchase I went on Sunday but the place was heaving, a club minus the bouncers, buzzing with smart young customers trying on rainbow-coloured shades from Ray-Ban, titanium-tinted aviators and the latest balloon-shaped retro eyewear from Prada. Spotting me after 20 minutes, the proprietor was all apologies. “So sorry, summer’s here and everyone wants the latest designs. There’s not much of a market for reading glasses. Most people now have contacts or laser implants.” Myopia notwithstanding, the price tags rendered me goggle-eyed: between Rs 12,000 and Rs 24,000 for a pair of fancy dark glasses.

Regardless of protests against the entry of multi-brand foreign retail chains, the big brands are no longer a fact but a way of Indian life. In his immensely readable recent bestseller, Breakout Nations: In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles, emerging markets investor records that when the first Domino’s Pizza outlet opened in Patna not long ago, the lines outside resembled those once seen at old, subsidised ration shops. Rising incomes and aspirations fuel the desire for foreign tastes. Even if you can’t afford a slice of Domino’s, your local grocery stocks a cheaper version of something-like-a-pizza. Mine offers six varieties of bread, from traditional pav and kulcha to an Indianised version of wholewheat pita. Old-fashioned double roti is a dull has-been, like HMT watches which belong to the Dark Ages.

When Titan took over the timepiece market in the 1980s, it was the home-grown, high-end fashionable brand; but freed imports of jewelled, luxury watches and foreign designs made it diversify into jewellery. The brand now has a dowdy middle-of-the-road appeal. A few miles further south from Titan’s flagship store in the capital is an exclusive mall devoted to top international fashion brands. Off the central atrium, where well-heeled shoppers snack off Scottish smoked salmon and sour cream sandwiches, is a Cartier showroom; buying a watch here could cost the same as buying a small car. But the cars that drive up at its portals are often the latest BMW and Mercedes sports models.

A Confederation of Indian Industry report on the luxury personal care market alone in India estimated its worth at $300 million (or Rs 1,600 crore), growing at 22 per cent annually. The ^20-billion luxury goods conglomerate Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy continues to fish for big-ticket Indian partners, having already introduced its leather goods emporia and acquired a retail stake in Jimmy Choo shoes and Just Cavalli couture. 

Not everyone is queuing up. India is also the home of the artful fake and cheap rip-off. The flourishing cottage industry and market for imitations of foreign brands are beyond guesstimates; they could be seen as spurring rather than stifling low-level manufacturing. More important is what the contagious quest for these brands signifies. My cook’s son, a young job seeker, cannot afford Guess jeans or Lacoste polos but knows exactly where to find low-priced copies. He understands that the labels stand for those with a life of regular jobs and assured incomes. Further up the ladder, some of my colleagues have hit upon local leather-workers who produce cheaper versions of Dunhill wallets and Bottega Veneta handbags. Such appurtenances are their perceived passport to moving onwards and upwards.

Brand mania may be seen by many as a gigantic corporate conspiracy or heist, but for some a life without labels isn’t worth living.

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