For India's 'Brand Freaks,' Gucci Trumps Gandhi

"I'll spend my whole salary for a really swank brand" and eat rice cakes the rest of the month, says Anuga Shah, 26, shopping in a boutique.
"I'll spend my whole salary for a really swank brand" and eat rice cakes the rest of the month, says Anuga Shah, 26, shopping in a boutique. (By Emily Wax -- The Washington Post)
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By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 11, 2008

AHMADABAD, India -- Amid buttery leather handbags and $200 torn jeans, Anuga Shah and her friends were shopping in this boomtown's newest mall recently, proudly humming that they were "spendy."

"This week, it's all about Tommy," Shah, 26, cooed as she petted hooded sweaters inside a glitzy Tommy Hilfiger boutique. "In India today, we love to be branded. I'll spend my whole salary for a really swank brand and eat idli [steamed rice cakes] for the rest of the month."

This country's growing middle and upper-middle classes have recently given rise to self-described "brand freaks," who crave the latest luxury goods. In this city -- where the father of the nation, Mohandas Gandhi, once located his austere ashram and rejected foreign textiles -- it's Chanel, not homespun cloth, that generates excitement these days.

India's elite have long enjoyed luxury goods imported from the West. In recent months, though, Indians who can't afford $600 sunglasses -- but who still have some disposable income -- have been splurging. Designers including Prada, Jimmy Choo, Gucci and Louis Vuitton, as well as brands such as Rolls-Royce and Mont Blanc, have either set up shop or beefed up operations here.

Last month marked the opening of two of the country's highest-end malls. At New Delhi's Select City Walk, women nearly caused a stampede as they crowded into a MAC cosmetics store, many of them in search of a popular brand of eye shadow. Women said they were thrilled that their husbands didn't have to go abroad to shop for them anymore.

"This year, India really unleashed the brand beast," said Saloni Nangia, associate vice president of Technopak, an India-based marketing research firm that estimates the middle and upper-middle classes at 8 million to 9 million people and growing, albeit in a country whose population is 1.1 billion.

"It used to be just five-star hotels that had the high-end shops," Nangia said. "But now India is actually getting upgraded with both premium brands and very high-end luxury. The right real estate is here now and the brand-freaks market is only going to get bigger."

In the fall, Vogue magazine, the bible of high-end fashion, launched its thick Indian edition, the most glamorous in a long line of magazines from Elle to Marie Claire that now have editions here. A recent article in Vogue headlined "The rise of ME culture" chronicled how much the Indian paradigm has changed, with women finding more disposable income and freedom to spend on their own needs rather than on the traditional extended family.

"This is the year of the Indian woman as a confident brand-buyer not abroad, but finally at home," said Bandana Tewari, fashion features editor at Vogue's Indian edition. "I find it refreshing that we have choices and a better lifestyle riding the optimism of the economy."

In a country with a rich tradition of textiles, Indian haute couture is flourishing, too.

"India still loves its colorful silk saris. We haven't gone to wearing black and white like the rest of Asia," Tewari said. "We refuse to change our intrinsic personality. We are remembering that India has always had superbly expensive jewelry, and insanely luxurious hand-woven seven-yard saris that are 800 years old. It's a good reminder to us that it shouldn't just be about importing. We were sprinkling very expensive saffron on our dessert before we got caviar."

Such enthusiasm is not shared by everyone. For many, the rising popularity of Western brands has served only to highlight the stark gulf between the rich and poor in a country where the majority of people still live in abject poverty. Along a main highway here, Tag Heuer billboards jockey for space with towering posters of Mont Blanc pens; below, barefoot children in ragged clothes tap on car windows, begging bowls in hand.

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