A couple of years ago, Darshan Mehta saw a young man, perhaps in his late-20s, wearing a pair of red trousers. It was at an airport and he remembers the attention the red trousers drew. “If he had done that in Italy, it would have been quite normal. But this was India,” he says with a laugh.
Today says Mehta, Managing Director, and CEO, Reliance Brands Limited (RBL), the level of experimentation with fashion in India is a revelation. He should know that better than most given that he heads RBL’s portfolio of 69 luxury brands. They include the likes of Armani Exchange, Brooks Brothers, Canali, Diesel, Ermenegildo Zegna, Giorgio Armani, Hugo Boss, Michael Kors, Paul Smith, Steve Madden, and Tiffany. Bet you didn’t know RBL brought all of these to India! This ensemble of brands is spread across 595 stores as well as 744 shop-in-shops and is the lynchpin of RBL’s fashion empire of ₹2,436 crores in FY21 (vs pre-Covid-19 sales of ₹3,562 crore in FY20).
Most recently, Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries Limited (of which RBL is a part) unveiled Jio World Drive mall in Mumbai’s Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC) area. It will house 72 prominent international and Indian brands apart from culinary outlets and also a drive-in theatre. The objective is to create a high-street experience.
Mehta says RBL aims for a share, and a hefty one at that, of Indians’ discretionary spend. But not of every wallet, nor all indulgences. “We were clear that our play was only in products and not services, which meant spas and leisure were out. Our core audience was the top 10 million customers in India. It was a laser-sharp approach,” he says. In that regard, Pushpa Bector, Executive Director, DLF Retail, credits RBL with assembling a stellar bouquet of brands with universal appeal. Or at least as universal as it can get in luxury. “Be it accessories, womenswear, or menswear, they have the best brands. They have been judicious with the spectrum of brands and have uniquely curated them. That is what has been most interesting,” she says.
There is competition—in the mix is Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail Limited—but Bector says RBL’s uniqueness is its ability to cater to the discerning consumer across categories. That gives it a vantage point in a segment whose growth is outpacing the broader market. “If retail grows at 35 per cent each year, the corresponding number for luxury will be 55-60 per cent. While one can say the base is low, the growth has been consistent,” says Susil S. Dungarwal, Promoter and Chief Mall Mechanic, Beyond Squarefeet, a mall advisory, and mall management company. Luxury, as a category, is uniquely placed simply because it is recession-proof, he adds. While the pandemic slowed down luxury consumption, it was only because supply was restricted. Demand is bursting at the seams. “Anyone in the business will tell you about the long queues at stores,” points out Dungarwal.
The catalyst for this demand is a significant mindset shift. Savings are no longer converted into gold, Dungarwal points out. “You just need to look around to understand that savings are now being spent on luxury. In many ways, it marks the evolution of a new consumer class,” he says. “To be seen with one Louis Vuitton bag is not it. It is about having several of them or an entire wardrobe of luxury brands. This, straight away, means luxury will be restricted to a few people or rather the chosen ones.”
That equates to the top 10 million customers in India for Mehta. At this point though, it must be said that he is not comfortable with associating the word ‘luxury’ with RBL’s brands. “It gets associated with excesses. We would rather choose to go with the unhurried experience of shopping or quite simply what money can’t buy.”
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