Shefalee Vasudev's latest book charts India's fashion industry from its humble origins to the glitz surrounding it now. She also recounts in riveting detail the obsession with luxury brands that has become what she calls "a compulsive disorder" among the rich in India.
Vasudev first encountered haute couture as the founding editor of Marie Claire magazine in India, but it was while carrying out research for Powder Room that she saw how global luxury brands had hypnotised people in India's small towns.
In Ludhiana, an industrial town in Punjab that was once called the Manchester of India, Vasudev met beautifully groomed women who lunch, dine and party, swaddled from head to toe in famous brands – from Bulgari sunglasses and a Burberry scarf to a Dior bag, Jimmy Choo shoes, Vertu phone and Cartier watch. Indeed, the outfit of choice among the women in Vasudev's book is a white shirt tucked into jeans, because it lets them show off yet another label – on their belt.
Vasudev points out that fewer people in India wear traditional clothing anymore. It's a whole new world where the wives of rich industrialists shop at trunk shows, and where brands recreate the ambience of a luxury shop in the back of a van. Having grasped how much wealth lies in such small towns alongside the dirt and squalor, these brands have had to abandon their "exclusive locations" and take their products to the doorsteps of the wealthy.
The culture of conspicuous consumption in Punjab has been a godsend for the luxury brands. The money once splashed on lavish dowries, ostentatious weddings and exotic honeymoon destinations is now being spent on luxury labels, too. As a Fendi representative told Vasudev: "We survive because of Punjab."
What is the relationship of Ludhiana's women with luxury brands?
These women use luxury brands as an instantly visible "arrival statement" in a society that basks in the glory derived from such consumption. This is a language the rich understand. As I read it, Ludhiana's wives are actually playing out "identity politics", where the question "Who am I?" is answered through their choice of brands.
How far does this obsession go? Is it over the top?
Sooner or later, the obsession turns into pressure because it is not easy to keep up with the Joneses in a society where everyone can afford what you have. The obsessions play out in various ways: sofas upholstered in Versace, Fendi Casa furniture, two nannies per child. As one of my interviewees told me, the biggest anxiety in her life was finding the next luxury product that no one else had because everyone had everything – she found this more stressful than looking after her toddler.
How is the "society hostess" in Ludhiana different from those in other cities, and how does she go about promoting luxury brands among her friends?
Most of Ludhiana's women don't have independent careers. Some work with their husbands but few opt for full-time, salaried jobs. A "society hostess" is envied because it means that a particular brand has "chosen" a woman, thus speaking for her elegance, her "suitability" and her stature. But in other cities, it is the urbane women – those with careers, former models, representatives of various brands, independent women who own brands (not necessarily rich wives) – who become society hostesses.
Why do the top brands need Bollywood to survive?
The top brands need Bollywood stars to showcase their products. Bollywood endorsement is the best advertisement – and marketing strategy – for the "popularisation" to begin. What's good for Bollywood rarely needs another certificate of trendiness.
Shefalee Vasudev's Powder Room: The Untold Story of Indian Fashion is out now by Random House India.