India's temple of luxury has worshippers aplenty

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 August, 2008, 12:00am

When India's first luxury mall opens this month in south Delhi, rich Indians will be able to walk past the imperial palms lining the entrance, over the marbled, mosaic floors and under the gold-leaf ceilings and imagine, for a moment, that they are on Fifth Avenue or Rue du Faubourg St-Honore instead of a city teeming with poor people.

The DLF Emporio Mall will be a temple to self-indulgence, a glittering palace where the world's top luxury brands will display their wares. Here, amid some serious shopping, the rich will be able to get a spa treatment, have a meal at a Nobu-like Japanese restaurant or sip Dom Perignon while waiting for their purchases to be packed. For the first time in India, global luxury brands will be under one roof.

'Location is very important to these brands,' says Harminder Sahni, vice-president of retail consultancy Technopak. 'They can't be seen next door to a Kentucky Fried Chicken or a McDonald's. They are about being exclusive and the only suitable retail space available to them before was in five-star hotels.'

But outlets in five-star hotels tended to be small, limiting the watches, bags, shoes and handbags that could be stocked and displayed. With the opening of the Emporio, the luxury brands have finally found a suitable home with plenty of space - 32,500 square metres, to be precise.

The finishing touches are being put to the mall, located in Vasant Kunj, for a grand opening.

Under grey skies, workers are sweeping the dirty water from the latest monsoon downpour off the steps as beautiful, black-suited assistants in the brilliantly lit Louis Vuitton shop - the first to be ready for customers - watch languidly.

Champagne-coloured marble sparkles, the fountain's plumbing is being checked and palm tree saplings lie in rows on muddy ground outside, waiting to be hoisted upright to line the mall's entrance.

DLF Emporio has been built on a road named in honour of a man known for self-abnegation - Nelson Mandela Road - but will be a place of self-gratification where India's rich can indulge their appetite for Cartier, Tod's, Dolce & Gabbana, Dior, Tiffany's, Zegna, Paul Smith, Chopard, Versace and Jimmy Choo.

'It means I won't have to spend so much time shopping when I travel abroad now,' says Lata Gupta, daughter of a rich garment exporter, as she browses for a bag in the Chanel outlet at the Imperial Hotel in the Indian capital.

'Once the Emporio opens, it will be much easier having everything here at home. It means I can devote my holidays to relaxing instead of running around shopping.'

Chandu Chada, the Hong-Kong-based designer of Indian origin who did the mall's interiors - he also designed the inside of the Four Seasons Hotel in New York - knew exactly what kind of look he wanted.

'I wanted to give it a rich but elegant look,' he says. 'It had to be opulent but not over the top.' He has put in Mughal fountains, crenellated pillars and a gigantic chandelier in the central hall to create a sybaritic atmosphere.

Real gold leaf covers the ceilings of the two gigantic, oval atriums where occasional fashion shows will be held. The fittings on the three floors are all burnished wood, etched glass and brass.

'The idea is that people can order snacks or a glass of champagne while they're in a shop,' Mr Chada says. 'Or they can go to the private members' club while their purchases are being packed.'

Retail analysts expect the Emporio to boost consumption of luxury goods. Yves Carcelle, Louis Vuitton Malletier's chief executive, told Businessworld magazine recently that he expected 'exponential growth' in five years 'as exposure to global markets increases and the desire to look like westerners increases among Indians'.

Technopak estimates that 1.8 million Indian households earn US$100,000 or more a year and spend about US$10,000 a year on luxury goods. That adds up to a market potential of US$18 billion, which is expected to rise to US$56 billion by 2012.

Global surveys show the rising number of Indian billionaires and millionaires. 'Go to Ludhiana in Punjab and it's awash in BMWs and Mercedes,' New Delhi public relations executive Anuradha Kapoor says after a recent visit to the city. 'These people don't look at price tags.'

India, together with China and Russia, is part of what is seen as a 'triangle' of the newly wealthy with an untrammelled appetite for luxury goods. The urge to splurge, smothered by decades of Mahatma Gandhi-inspired abstinence, is back. India's wealthiest man, Mukesh Ambani of Reliance Industries, recently gave his wife a US$60 million private jet for her 44th birthday.

In Mumbai, Fendi strollers and Prada diaper bags are the most coveted items among discerning mums. Gone is the whiff of discomfort - if it ever existed - at spending 250,000 rupees (HK$45,500) on a Hermes watch when 500 million Indians live on less than one US dollar a day.

Even better for the global luxury brands is that India has no homegrown manufacturers catering to this market. This is why the country's erstwhile maharajas used to travel to Paris to indulge their passion for extravagance - often bordering on the insane.

Cartier, for example, designed monumental jewels that were to be seen clearly even when the wearer was seated atop an elephant. Louis Vuitton made trunks with special compartments for turbans and saris.

Patrick Normand, managing director of Cartier Middle East and Asia, describes its entry into India as a sort of 'homecoming'.

'Our challenge today is to make ourselves as relevant to today's consumers as we were to the maharajas,' he says.

That should not be hard. Indians love European brands for the same reason as the Japanese - the biggest buyers of luxury goods in the world - they believe they embody European culture and they want to be associated with it.