The New Status Symbols

The new Indian millionaire is savvier, less in thrall of big brands and more dictated by his design sensibility, his utilitarian needs, and a heady and often quirky mix of styles. He can leave you, and marketers, guessing.
Luxury
India is a brand conscious nation. And it's well documented.

It was the age of opulent golden maharaja chairs, of bags that screamed Chanel, and belts that yelled LV; of huge shiny chandeliers with crystals the size of ostrich eggs imported from places with unpronounceable Italian names. A time when someone told you it’s a nice suit, and you’d say “It’s Gucci!” instead of “Thank you!” When Burgundy was just red wine, and how terrible it was didn’t matter as long as it was French and poured in a Baccarat glass. Indians wanted the good life, but much more than that—they wanted people to know they had it. The people who said they were being loud, showy and tawdry were just jealous of their Mercs and their handcrafted-leather upholstery. 

It was a terrible time. Thank God it’s over.

Ladies and Gentlemen: our Mr Almost Made It has now almost made it again. After spending a good half-decade languishing amongst the Nouveau Riche and ODing on opulence, he’s changed gears hoping to move into the big league. He’s tugged onto the coat-tails of those who have arrived and entered the age of elegance.

He’s been told it’s crass to be tawdry, loud and showy, so he does it all discreetly. When someone says “It’s a nice suit”, he smiles; prod him, and he’s dying to tell you it’s a made-to-measure Brioni or Zegna. He likes French wine, but prefers boutique ones from Chile; he knows his Burgundy from his Bordeaux, and often sends them back because he thinks they’re too acidic or corked. He still wears Versace T-shirts, just not ones that scream Versace on the chest, but secretly he hopes you’ll ask him to show you the label; the Ralph Lauren No 3 polo T-shirt has been flung onto the ‘rejects’ pile because “everyone and their mother has one”.

He’s still into luxury, just not into flaunting brand names—looking rich is just not right in the post-Great Recession era. Ms AMI carries a clutch that she plans on passing on to her daughter as an heirloom, and gifts Lladro figurines of divinity from the porcelain maker’s Indian line for every other Indian festival. Italian furniture, German lights and Egyptian cotton sheets happily co-exist with domestic motifs in their house. 

It’s a time of strange elegance. And it’s just beginning.  

According to a Technopak senior consultant, Mr AMI buys most of the luxury products meant for the rich, he works out every morning with his personal trainer, and downs two shots of Brazilian acai berry before his day begins. In his pocket is a membership card for Amatrra—he hopes he’ll run into Lalit Modi in the locker room and add him as a Facebook friend. 

Mr Almost Made It is keen to learn; he’s heard telling people at parties that he can’t drink too much because he’s meeting Mr Made It (MI) and Mr Born With It (BWI) for an early game of golf at “the club”. Between holes, he hopes, they’ll hint what he did wrong in the Age of Opulence and offer new tips. 

Ms AMI meanwhile is busy doing her own course correction in the direction of subtlety. She’s been told that the Birkin bag is the way to go because a monogrammed one is just too loud; A Jimmy Choo is no longer the shoe she must slip her feet into, and she’s learnt never to wear an International Brand to an event because someone else also might. She’s been told to lay off Page 3 because it’s going down faster than that liner in that Iranian film she saw at that Charity Brunch. And though she still loves that front row seat at fashion week, her finishing school advice is to be discerning about the shows she attends.

Mr AMI, on the other hand, is a busy man. He’s always travelling, rushing meetings, and has at least three crises that he needs to firefight at any given moment.

Our guy may no longer be a businessman, but he still loves to show off his ‘busy’ness. The red light on his BlackBerry is perpetually blinking because of unread mails and he sure likes it that way. He’s ecstatic that we club being ‘Busy’ with being ‘important’.

He hangs out at parties with Mr MI and Mr BWI, and gets up early to add them to his Facebook list after his breathing exercises. He has dozens of pictures of himself returning from a trip or going back on one. Being connected to The Connected is the Status Symbol, to his mind. So Mr AMI is uber networked, happy to tweet even his slumming out moments, eating pani puri.

Only, by the time Mr AMI’s Facebook list became nice and smile-able, the MIs and BWIs discovered the healing powers of the E-fast. People started killing their online avatars—some upset about friend requests from the third cousin’s sister-in-law, some about Nandan Nilekani’s entire unique identity database and their grandmothers adding them as ‘friends’. The no-status update was dubbed the new status symbol; their idea was to lay off all things E, because it was just too stressful to be perpetually connected by fibre-optic cables. 

Again, Mr AMI seemed to have worked himself into a corner; but then, SRK was going full throttle social networking, so that’s what he would do too, he decided. And the BlackBerry became his upkeep tool. He did splurge on a limited edition Rs 2.6 lakh Dior cellphone (the company sold 250 in 5 months), but he still can’t live without his BlackBerry. BB Messenger, he discovered, was way cooler than anything else, plus of course much more exclusive; anyone can use Google Chat, after all. 

While it’s often enough been argued (and correctly too) that the cellphone is hardly a status symbol anymore and there is a BlackBerry that sells for Rs 15,000, the young millionaire wants to keep up the pretence of being busy. The Bold 9700 is what he carries—he likes the track pad better than the trackball that BBs had earlier (this is more utilitarian). Plus of course he doesn’t want to carry two phones— he wants one that does it all and more. Try telling off his BB, and he’d argue that even Obama has one. 

And, while he was at it, he decided to change the one thing that had identified him so far—his wheels. What car you drive will define what doors will open for you and how quickly. Our Mr AMI 2.0 is younger, more active, and wants to drive his own car; chauffeurs are for old foggies, he says. The first chance he got, he traded in his Mercedes for a Beemer—younger, trendier and the ultimate among self driven cars. Of course, the engineers behind the Pointed Star are on a rejuvenation drive for the Merc. In the first quarter of the year, 1,314 BMWs were driven off, even as the Merc, thanks to the newer ML Class, S Class and all-new E Class, made a stunning comeback. 

Just like fashion got over its love for skinny, Mr AMI got over his love for the SUV. His crush was the Audi Q7, till the Toyota Fortuner and Landcruiser hit the market, the Fortuner shattering records within 9 months flat. But even as he was confused between the Toyota and Audi, one thing was for sure—the BMW X5 was old hat. 

Things though may just be getting all set for a shake-up—he’s been eyeing the Porsche badge of late, the marquee’s famous logo. The shield-and-prancing horse (Ferrari’s is a prancing horse and prancing horse alone) gives him the feel of a rubber scorcher. He anyway liked his sports car yellow, and a 911 to go with his Ducati. But it’s the Panamera he sees as his piece de resistance. In less than a week after its launch in India, 19 units of its first ever 4-door GT sports car had already been booked. And in true tradition of a good crest—this one too doesn’t come cheap or mass produced—the Panamera range starts from Rs 1.4 crore (the Turbo is Rs 2.05 crore), and Porsche India has booked 50 pieces for now. Also since ‘The Earth’ is suddenly the cause du jour, he’ll tell you he’s looking for a green car; the truth is he’ll always choose a dream car over a green car (recent surveys agree). 

The new badge on his wheels, though, isn’t the only new thing in his life. His current fixation is a yacht—who cares if the nearest marina is 1,300 km away? 

He has just learnt the difference between a yacht and a sailboat, and has been thinking about getting one ever since he heard Gautam Singhania and Vijay Mallya had one. He wants to stand on the hull looking at the sunset, his linen jacket flapping in the wind, and sip Champagne. He wants to invite 10-12 of his closest friends to MS AMI for a cocktail party. Unfortunately for him, there isn’t much he can do with his yacht except ride it around the marina and take it down to Alibaug, near Mumbai. But, he’s unperturbed. He is perfectly happy just sitting on the deck off the Gateway of India. 

He might have had a boat for all of two days, but just say ‘Yacht’ and he’s ready for a half hour long discourse on the abject shambles that the Indian yachting scene is in. “It isn’t like the South of France,” he’ll tell you... “there you can just cruise into the next port on the weekend—pop in for a dinner and a drink and then cruise back home.” 

Aashim Mongia, managing director of West Coast Marine Yacht Services, agrees that the yacht is looked at as a social ticket; in fact, some of their clients include people from places like Delhi. Mongia sells about a dozen, 31 ft boats every year (called Silvercraft and priced at Rs 60 lakh) in addition to the fractional ownership schemes the company offers (the scheme starts at Rs 13 lakh). 

With his weekends taken care of, now all Mr AMI needs is a jet to get him from home to the City with the Marina. True, unlike some early members of the Mile High Club, he has no clue how a jet works; he wouldn’t even pretend to learn to fly one, but he sits in it, and boy, does he look good when he sits in one!

According to a 2008 Ernst & Young report, 30 business jets were delivered in India in 2007, a number which went up to 45 in 2008. The Indian business jet market is expected to grow at 50 per cent on an annual basis, and according to estimates by US Jet makers Gulfstream, 250 business jets will be delivered in India over the next ten years. 

While others kept their acquisitions discreet, Mr AMI took his lessons from real estate tycoon Sunny Dewan and wife Anu, who carted half of Bollywood to the IIFA Awards’ venue last year in their private jet. 

With a price tag of around $22-24 million, a personal jet may be a bit out of reach, but it’s worth the heads it turns. He can opt for fractional ownership, and no one really has to find out do they (wink wink!)? There’s a company called Bjets just for that. “First of all, you actually become a co-owner of an aircraft along with a relatively small number of other individuals or corporations.  Co-owners take better care of their aircraft, enjoy more personalised service and become part of a fairly exclusive business network.  They get access to the newest aircraft and are guaranteed an aircraft anywhere in the country any time,” assures Mark Baier, CEO, Bjets, which has clients across corporations in the infrastructure, manufacturing and defence sectors, apart from international and Indian celebrities. So Mr AMI would be a member of a really exclusive club. The Hawker 850XP, by the way, is the hot jet on the circuit these days. 

Plus, of course, private jets can fly to some 130 airports, while commercial planes can fly only to 50. He can jet set to Tirupati for a puja and then to Male for a weekend—all non-stop. Try asking him why he needs a plane, and he’ll shoot back: “It’s for work... do you have any clue how much time I waste travelling commercially?” Like George Clooney in Up in The Air, he does a quick account and tells you he saves more than 45 minutes per flight. It’s more time with the kids. 

Speaking of kids, packing them off to boarding school and summer camp is all-too English literature. Mr and Mrs AMI want Lil AMI to be close; a posh pre-nursery school where they (and their egos) can be proactively involved in the upbringing. 

Mr AMI wears fine quality shirts; often tailored to perfection, high collared but always slim cut with French cuffs. He had learnt the label on the suit cuff wasn’t for keeps after he wore his suit with one for a week. His suits are cut close to the body; they exude luxury and are a mix of Gucci and Hugo Boss and those stitched by his old family tailor and Paul Smith. He is aware of what brands support good causes, and which brands are not doing enough for the world. His current confusion is whether to buy Canali’s Bundgala (the store can’t seem to make them fast enough), or one from Raghu (Raghavendra Rathore), or from this tailor of the Maharajas in Udaipur that Vir Sanghvi was raving about on TV. 

But Mr AMI is thinking about doing something altogether uncharacteristic—he’s thinking of getting himself a suit that doesn’t cover his butt, he sort that Tom Ford makes. Then again, maybe he’ll just get a Tom Ford. A couple of years earlier, the head of a luxury watch brand had jokingly said, “You may own a Ferrari, but when you walk into a party you still leave it outside. A watch, you carry on you.” The coolest thing to own now is a Tag for the day and a Breguet for the night. The Tag Heuer Carrera tachymeter (Rs 143,000), that is, and as far as the Breguet is concerned, it doesn’t really matter which one you have on your wrist— it’s a conversation piece anyway.

Ask Mr AMI where he buys his jeans from, without trying too hard to check his backpocket loop, and he’ll smile. Later, over a casual conversation he’ll tell you he’s taken to buying G-star and Diesel largely because he likes their fits, and you just can’t get a decent pair in India—except CK. He doesn’t mind a pair of limited edition Alexander McQueen shoes from Puma, rather reasonably priced at Rs 19,000 a pair. 

Our man here often buys his underwear at CK—Calvin Klein—and his casual shirts at Tommy (Hilfiger, for the under-initiated), but they aren’t conversation starters anymore. He doesn’t think Tommy is a great brand, but it’s quality that keeps him coming back. 

He owns a couple of killer jackets from Karan Johar’s new line with Varun Bahl, and is convinced he knows enough about clothes to blaspheme himself complaining about Rajesh Pratap Singh’s shirts being ‘boxy’. Ms AMI has a similar problem; she no longer buys Manish Arora because it’s Manish Arora. 

The Indian status symbol seeker, as designer Varun Bahl says, is also on the quest for individuality. According to him, as long as it’s not big brands like Marc Jacobs or Dries Van Noten, they are not running after them screaming. “There is a distinct trend towards designers from not so well known stores and smaller places,” Bahl says. This quest for individuality is amply fed by those like Kolkata designer Anamika Khanna. 

The jewellery is almost always a family heirloom that has been passed down for generations. Strangely enough, Mr AMI has done something else too—he’s suddenly discovered flea markets and just how chic they are. A cheap n chic accessory (associations with the Moschino tag line are purely incidental), an exquisite bag, a vintage dress or a pair of loafers he bought off the street are the new talking points. Remember, his Facebook ‘friends’ love it when he is eclectic. He doesn’t dress in a designer’s or brand’s threads from head to toe—he always individualises it. Anyone who is anyone these days has his/her own sensibility.

Pratichee Kapoor from Technopak agrees, “Yes, there is a growing penchant for boutique names and smaller exclusive brands” because it provides high-end luxury consumers much needed “differentiation” from the rest of the brand brigade.

Sanjay Kapoor, chief of Genesis Colors, says that the initial euphoria of the Indian brand conscious luxury consumer is being replaced with greater discernment. “It’s a trend which we have observed over the last one year... in the early days of the Bottega Veneta store in New Delhi, we had faced a challenge of drawing customers who seemed to naturally gravitate towards monogrammed bags. But now we have seen a complete turn. There are a huge number of people who favour discreet brands such as Bottega,” Kapoor says. True to what he says, for Ms AMI a Bottega (Veneta), a Judith Leiber clutch and the Birkin and a pair of Ferragamo peep toes are new status symbols.

“Leiber’s limited, personalised, and timeless” luxury is what she lusts after now. Leiber novelty bags are produced in limited numbers for the global market, and mostly in editions of 72. “Which makes Judith Leiber a true luxury purchase—a brand that has no season and no sell-by date,” says Marigold Group’s CEO Sangeeta Assomull. 

But it’s not just Indian designers Ms AMI is lusting after. According to Assomull, there are very few international brands in the same league as “top Indian designers like Suneet Varma, JJ Vallaya, Rohit Bal, Tarun Tahiliani and Abu Sandeep.” 

Sadly though, for Ms AMI, old habits die hard. She might carry a non-monogrammed handbag that exudes luxury, but she still makes it a point to tell everyone she knows that it’s a Birkin. But this is not to say that the social ticket seeker is not buying an LV—that would be blasphemous. It’s just that they’re trying to pick something a little more subdued. His love for LV, though, is no longer limited to accessories and their ilk; he’s made sure he has an LV City guide 2009 to Mumbai on his side-table even if it’s only for the brilliantly subdued colour contrast.

According to Kapoor, while the Status Symbol seeker (aka Mr AMI) in Tier I cities takes his first tiny steps towards discreet luxury, the Status Symbol seeker in smaller towns is much more excited about brands like Jimmy Choo and Just Cavalli. 

But not everyone agrees. Vatsala Pant, associate director of consumer research at Nielsen, still thinks that as a country, India’s still in the “acquiring luxury good for badge value mode”, and brand names simply stand out. 

Despite luxury brands selling in India, Mr AMI prefers to buy abroad, but best of luck getting him to admit he’s doing it because of the snob value attached to it. He now has valid reasons for wanting to buy abroad. “Anyone who can afford to buy luxury prices at full value will want to look at the entire range available. At the moment, the feeling is that apart from the high taxes, even the assortment is not complete. Therefore, as consumers, people would rather buy on trips abroad where they can get to choose from the best assortment at the best prices,” Pant says. 

And though it’s easy to get swept away by fashion brands, what he drinks is as much a status symbol than anything else. While he continues drinking good wine and is fast acquiring a taste for pink bubbly, it’s the Taittinger Champagne 2002 that he’s now crazy about. 

He’s torn between his first love—Glen and luxury vodkas, unless he’s drinking at a brunch, where he will settle for Campari. He doesn’t drink Absolut anymore since it started selling in India, and looks for more luxury than that—Grey Goose for a regular night out and Roberto Cavalli Vodka for special occasions. 

According to Puneet Sikand who’s responsible for making sure that glasses at Delhi’s private parties don’t run dry and that guests are well fed (he runs a premium catering firm KichenArt), Mr AMI these days is ODing on Vodkatinis and herbed flavoured vodka at parties. Farrokh Khambata, Mumbai-based caterer to the jet set (he’s known for Vijay Mallya’s parties, no less) insists it’s Jagermeister that’s the drink of the year.

According to Kapoor, the Indian consumer has “moved up the taste ladder” and is now actively experimenting with fine wine, liquor and global cuisines. As far as food is concerned, the Indian Mr and Ms AMI are still by and large sticking by Japanese chefs and are happy serving Sushi and Tapenyaki to their guests. The newest are foie gras stations and Tapas and caviar bars. If he feels like serving fresh food, exotic fruits and vegetables from Japan, Africa and Vietnam are but a plane ride away. 

The price of Catering & Allied’s most exotic party package is a modest Rs 18,000 per plate—with Kobe beef, Crocodile meat, game venison and the sort. But Mr and Ms AMI need not worry since they aren’t really made of money, so they can always just get a Tapas bar and some exotic Brie de Meaux on a platter. 

If all this gets boring, you can always host a party on a beach like one of Sikand’s clients did and serve a menu that will be baked/cooked underground wrapped in banana leaves and then served. You can always use your hours on the jet because nothing really says you’ve arrived like a good party that feeds several society bashes. 

To show he’s not obsessed with everything French, Mr AMI is thinking of dumping Evian for Qua – because it’s made from water in the Indian Himalyas. He is, of course, also considering going off bottled water altogether because “It’s bad for the planet”. 

Mr AMI has either just returned from Latin America or is heading off again because he “very badly needs a break”. When in India, he takes the armchair adventurer in him out and forks out a small fortune for a luxury tent so he can be close to nature on boutique properties like the Oberoi Group’s Vanyavilas. He had taken a fancy to spas in the hills, but of late he seems to be drawn towards the beach with a spa. He’s no longer a passive vacationer, but an active one—it ain’t a vacation until he leaps off a mountain or something. 

Our man is also a keen hobbyist—something outdoorsy, he reckons. 

When it comes to partying out, he likes membership of exclusive clubs like Arjun Rampal’s Lap (about Rs 1.5 lakh). He likes rubbing shoulders with big shots but he’s learnt to pretend he doesn’t care. 

In his pocket are membership cards—the sort that have a tendency to make the concierge smile just a little more and move everything one step higher on the service ladder. Platinum is the metal of choice for his plastic, though it’s the American Express Black that his plastic dreams are made of. Everyone has the Taj Inner Circle card, so he wouldn’t mention it unless it’s Gold. The Starwood Privilege is just a necessity, but the one he covets the most is the Oberoi President’s card, bestowed upon a select few by Mr Oberoi himself. The idea, of course, is not so much the free cocktails as wasting time. 

Preferential treatment is seductive, and don’t we all know it? 

And this time, it’s more personal than ever before. They make it a point to personally invite friends for a party with “just close friends”; the gifts always come with a hand-written note on monogrammed stationery. 

He’s arrived, he knows, when the bartender and bouncer both leap forth to greet him and pour out his poison before he’s had time to mutter “the usual”. 

Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s almost as if Mr AMI was born to be here.