India’s growing middle and upper-middle classes have recently given rise to self-described “brand freaks,” who crave the latest luxury goods.

Gucci trumps Ghandi

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.

Meanwhile, a new Gucci store in New Delhi sells fancy dog bowls, as well as dog beds priced from $300 to $500 — all in a country that has more stray dogs roaming the streets than almost any other in the world, according to animal rights activists.

"We are changing a lot and too quickly as a nation," lamented Vijay Bhai, 81, the caretaker of Gandhi ashram here, who likes to joke that he represents India's endearingly cranky and thrifty grandfather. "Everyone should remember that some jobs are good when the malls go up. But we shouldn't forget the poor and what's important in Indian life. Gandhi was a humble man who wore a loincloth when he went to shatter the British Empire, not some glitzy brand-name clothes."

Bhai and others at Gandhi's quiet ashram marked the 60th anniversary of Gandhi's death last month, but there was little fanfare. They said they worried that the country was abandoning Gandhi's visions.

"If Gandhi were alive today, he would be shocked at how materialistic India is," Bhai said.

He said he had written school principals to encourage them to bring their classes to the ashram and view the simple cases that hold Gandhi's sparse possessions: a bowl and a few spoons, his famous circular glasses, a few books — all symbols of his austere lifestyle and respect for the poor.

Some of those walking the grassy paths of the ashram said the emergence of the middle class is something that Gandhi might have appreciated, because more people are being lifted out of poverty. It's a matter of development, they contended.

"You can't go for a job interview with a global company in loincloth," said Rutaunshi Patel, 23, who is finishing her master's degree in English literature and was visiting the ashram with a friend. "You have to try to find a balance. In the new India, of course, that's hard."

Gandhi has not been completely forgotten. A group of friends in their 20s visiting the ashram mentioned a recent Bollywood comedy about a gangster who adopts Gandhian ways. The show has been among the most popular DVDs here.

Ritu Shah, 24, who was among those touring the ashram, said she recently told her parents that she wanted to visit there on her birthday.

"They said, 'Why? Don't you want to go shopping?' " she said with a laugh as she lugged a designer handbag through the ashram's museum. "I said, 'No, no more shopping. I want to see what Gandhi was all about.' "

Share This Story