The state of luxury fashion today is a state of identity crisis. While sneakers, logo T-shirts and hoodies have profitably entered the luxury scenario since the past few seasons, the old school houses of the luxury business are quietly maintaining their status of what is defined as ‘true luxury’ since centuries. Also, luxury in the Indian market is significantly different from luxury in the West. Somewhere along the fashion curve over decades and the launch of new entrants in the industry across the fashion globe, there have been surging headlines questioning the real meaning of ‘luxury’ and its fate in times to come.
To understand it better, we are in conversation with luxury industry professional Saurabh Banka, an alumni of NIFT, New Delhi and Founder of LAÏTEworks.
Saurabh Banka graduated from NIFT Fashion Design Course in 2007 following which he persuaded a Masters Course from IFM (Institut Français de la Mode), Paris in 2008-09. For a few years, he worked as an embroidery designer for a brand called Rue du Mail. The doors of the luxury industry opened for him through the retail industry when he started working for Prada as their sales associate in 2015.
In 2016, Banka launched a brand of hand-embroidered scarves and accessories called LAÏTEworks. This brand combines design inspirations from France and handcrafted skills from India.
According to him, while he was working as an embroidery designer for Rue du Mail, he realised that most of the couture houses or design houses of Paris get their embroideries done from India as Indian embroidery is rich and diverse. Therefore, it was a conscious decision on his part to promote the embroideries and its craftsmen from India. LAÏTEworks as a brand participates in Maison&Objet, Paris and currently retails from several stores in Italy, France, Switzerland, United States and Japan.
How would you define ‘Luxury’?
Luxury Brand is like a five-star rating for hotels. It’s like Rolls Royce amongst the cars; flying business class in flights. Everything has to be on the top of the line – the products, the quality, the price, the stores, the services and the ambience.
Clients queue up an hour before the store opens its doors, in order to buy bags worth € 5,000 and above. Such a brand is a luxury brand. A single store making an average of € 150,000 on a weekend is called a ‘Luxury Store’. A dress flown from Paris to London for a client, because the client wants to buy it and it is the last dress in the collection, is what can be termed as ‘luxury’. ‘Luxury’ is also the possibility to get certain products/services custom-made.
It can also be related to providing after-sales services for the products bought in recent years.
Luxury Brand is like a fivestar rating for hotels. It’s like Rolls Royce amongst the cars, flying business class in flights. Everything has to be on the top of the line– the products, the quality, the price, the stores, the services and the ambience.
What are the key parameters which decide whether a brand can be called a luxury brand?
1. History: When was the brand founded? The history of the brand usually plays a very important part in defining a luxury brand. Brands like Dior, Chanel and Balenciaga are more than 40-50 years old. The DNA of such brands is enriched with fascinating stories and iconic creations. People aspire to be associated with such rich past by possessing something from such brands.
2. Savoir Faire: Luxury brands have unique ‘Savoir faire’ or ‘Technical know-how’, which distinguishes them from other brands. For example, Louis Vuitton is known for making exceptional luggage bags for travelling or Burberry is known for its trench coats.
3. Quality: Luxury brands are very particular about quality. Everything is made where it is best-made. Shoes are made in Spain, bags in Italy and high-end garments all over Europe.
4. Brand Bouquet: It is not an obligation but today most of the luxury brands offer many product categories – prêt-à-porter, shoes, leather goods (bags and accessories), perfumes, sun shades, cosmetics, jewellery. Some brands even offer home products such as Hermès.
5. On the Fashion Map: Luxury brands participate in one of the four main fashion weeks – Paris, London, Milan, New York.
6. Trendsetters: Luxury brands hire the most talented of the creative minds to create the latest and trendsetting looks whether in bags, watches, perfumes, etc. One has to surpass that which already exists.
7. Image: Luxury brands employ strong marketing strategies to set the image of the brand. Choicest of celebrities are made brand ambassadors. These brands are published in all leading magazines. Expensive locations are chosen for store placements. Huge investments are made in show windows as they are the image of the brand.
8. Price Points: Luxury products come with a price tag. Price is not the limit in luxury business.
9. Service: The service in luxury business is of prime importance. If one wants to sell a dress worth € 3,000 to a client, one has to imagine how the store should look like, how the staff should behave, what all services should be provided to such a client, how the dress will be packaged to be handed over to the client and so on.
Having said that, luxury brands may break one or two codes to be more original but the underline codes or parameters to call a brand a luxury brand remain the same.
When companies market a luxury brand, what customer instincts and desires are they really appealing to and has that changed over the time? How is it different in India vis-a-vis abroad?
Humans have the desire to rise financially. Buying a luxury product validates this progress as it reflects the purchasing power of a client. It boosts their ego. It is an indirect way to show one’s power, reputation, money and status.
The main focus of a luxury product is to satisfy the aspirational/associative desires of a client. The product has to have a history/ a story to tell. It needs to be an iconic piece, something that created a sensation when it was launched. It needs to be worn, or seen, or celebrated, or known to people over a period of time. These products eventually gain a reputation of being aspirational products. Everyone aspires to have one. They want to be associated to that product.
We can take up the case of the Birkin bag of Hermès or Chanel 2.55. These bags are classic and have been selling/reselling for decades because of their aspirational value. When clients buy these bags, they associate themselves to be part of that story history.
Luxury brands also create exceptional products. Something which has not been seen before or done before. It is for the clients who want to feel unique. Clients who buy luxury products on a regular basis surely have purchasing power and are always looking for something new, since they can buy anything in the world.
I feel in India, we don’t focus on the aspirational value of a product. I don’t know one brand in India that is famous for one iconic product. A specific product that is wanted by the client season after season. A product that has a resale value. I am not talking about jewellery here.
We should focus on the storytelling of the brand. If you enter a Chanel store, they will tell you stories after stories about the logo, the bag, the details of the bag (why it has been put in such a way) and it goes on and on. It makes people dream and they want to be associated to these stories. For instance, Mona Lisa is just a lady’s portrait. It is the stories around the painting that have made it so famous.
Which are the key fashion markets around the world? How are they similar or different from one another?
The key fashion markets around the world are the four classics – Paris, New York, London and Milan. The only thing similar between these cities is that they receive clients (both locals and tourists) every year who buy luxury products.
Paris tops the list in luxury business as it has the most reputed luxury brands in the world like Chanel, Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Dior and many others.
Other cities like London, New York or Milan also have luxury brands but the market value of French brands is higher on an average.
In Asia, which luxury brands or products do customers identify more strongly with and why?
According to statistics, the brands mostly demanded by Asians are Chanel, Hermès and Louis Vuitton. Luxury brands make the most of their business through ‘leather goods’, be it in Asia or any other part of the world. It is one product that suits every morphology unlike clothes. One can be of any height, weight or colour to wear a bag. A bag is not a dress that may change with the body. This aspect of bag or other leather accessories drives customers to buy them more often.
Other products that work well for brands in terms of numbers are perfumes, cosmetics, sunshades and shoes.
What is the difference between high-end vs true luxury in fashion?
One can differentiate between a high-end vs luxury fashion only when one starts working for them or starts buying them.
It’s like comparing bukhara dal with some other restaurant dal. It comes with the tasting. One surely knows that in bukhara dal, the best of the ingredients are used. There is a real ‘savoir faire’ about the making of that dal.
Similarly, luxury fashion hires the top-of-the-line designers, raw materials and fabricators to develop their products. They have real finesse to get the best products.
Approximately 90 per cent of the products offered by a European luxury brand is made in Europe. They may source a few raw materials or hire jobwork from another country that is best known for it. For example, crocodile leather comes from far East Asia as it is best produced there. In today’s time, producing in Europe is very expensive but luxury brands make no compromise.
A high-end fashion product may look similar to the luxury fashion product but lacks high-end materials or fabrication. It is usually made with less expensive materials and in countries where production cost is low.
What is the future of luxury?
Luxury brand will always remain at the top of the fashion pyramid. Without it, the fashion business will be incomplete. Most designer brands want to achieve that status. It’s a status that needs a lot of hard work, financial investments and credibility. Not every brand achieves that status, no matter how creative or unique it is.
Two of the richest people presently in France are Bernard Arnault and François Pinault. They both are CEOs of LVMH and Kerring respectively, dealing with luxury brands. So, luxury is the future.
What is the role of young fashion professionals like you working with luxury brands? Where do they fit in?
The most dynamic department of a luxury brand is its commercial department. Commercial department deals with wholesale and retail parts of the brand. There are many hierarchical posts in this department like that of Retail Managers, Client Managers, Store Managers, Buyers, Visual Merchandisers, etc. Many job opportunities frequent in this department. It is rewarding financially, and there is a scope for promotion too.
How can brands in India achieve true luxury?
In one of your previous questions, I mentioned certain parameters to define a luxury brand. If a brand in India is ticking eight out of these nine parameters barring History (as most of the Indian brands are not dating 50-year-old), then it can safely call itself a luxury brand.
In Europe, many such brands exist. They really make beautiful products and yet are not called luxury brands. It’s because there is a big space to fill in for them in order to be recognised as luxury brands. The stakes/investments are high. The demand from clients are high. A credible image around the brand has to be made. It is not easy to sell a € 8,000 leather bag to a client every day.
Nevertheless, the five most important points that make a product a luxury product are:
1. Developing the aspirational value (Storytelling) and image of the brand
2. Showing a distinctive ‘savoire faire’ for making the products
3. No compromise in quality
4. Choosing an elevated price point that justifies the product
5. Providing impeccable service