Hermès introduced a line of saris as a token of its affection for India, but is the trend-setting French fashion house trying to connect with Indian culture or Indian cash?
Hermès embarks on lucrative 'love affair' with India
Sometimes the difference between leading and following is simply one of perspective. What might seem like a bold trendsetting move is, on further analysis, rather more cautious and calculated.
Hermès' decision to produce a line of saris, announced this week, is a case in point. The French fashion house is the first luxury brand to incorporate the Indian dress into any of their ranges. One line will cost Rs300,000 (Dh20,000), another Rs400,000. Taken at face value this is simply the latest in a long line of visionary moves. Emile-Maurice Hermès was the first to secure rights to the zipper and to use it in clothing and accessories. Back in 1914 you wouldn't "zip" up your jacket you would fasten it by pulling up the "fermature Hermès" as the zipper was then known. A decade or so later the house became the first to manufacture scarves as a designer line. Before long the accessory became not only part of the Hermès identity but integral to French culture.
Speaking earlier this week the brand's chief executive officer, Patrick Thomas, said: "Designing these saris for Indian consumers is a way to pay light homage to India."
But though the "homage" may be light the decision to pay it is anything but. As a business strategy it is undeniably astute and has a lot more to do with Hermès being the first such brand to openly follow a trend rather than the first to set one. The trend in question is financial.
According to Monsieur Thomas, "Hermès has a lot to learn from India."
Remove the "l" from "learn" and you get close to the heart of this particular cultural courtship.
The Parisian label has been coyly edging towards this week's consummation for a while. Jean Paul Gaultier flirted with Indian motifs in his Hermès Spring 2008 collection while they later linked up with Jean-Francios Lesage of Lesage Embroiderers in Chennai to create "Shiny en Desordre", a reinterpretation of its iconic "Brides de gala" scarf in the form of a cashmere and embroidered silk shawl, embellished with sequins and glass beads. Now, like a frustrated suitor whose patience has worn thin, Hermès has recognised that in order to get what it wants it has to give a bit more. What Hermès wants isn't so much a connection with Indian culture. It is a connection with Indian cash.
The firm calls its relationship with India "a love affair", and the resultant garments are undeniably beautiful, but this is more marriage of convenience than coup de foudre. It would be hard to imagine a more stolidly European house than Hermès or one more associated with unbendingly classic style pieces such as the Birkin and Kelly bags. This is a brand born in the Grand Boulevards quarter of Paris. Its logo is a duc carriage and horse. Yet today one of its flagship stores is the recently opened Hermès Mumbai. It already has two outlets in New Delhi and the western city of Pune. Because, like grand aristocrats of old possessed of a name but conscious of the need for fortune, Hermès and brands like it must make a match to secure its future. Once that meant looking West. Today it means turning East. The last cultural homage Hermès paid was to China, with the Shang Xia range.
The consultancy firm AT Kearney has projected a 25 per cent growth in the Indian luxury market, taking it to $14.7 billion by 2015. India now has more wealthy households than many European nations including Germany and France. Similarly the Middle East, led by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, has posted retail sales growth consistently near the top globally. It is no coincidence that one of Bruce Oldfield's recent limited editions was a diamond encrusted Abaya.
Oleg Cassini once said, "Fashion ... is a mirror of the time in which we live." Take a passing glance in this mirror and Hermès seems to be leading by embracing the traditional Indian dress. But a mirror image flips reality round. The true picture here shows market forces at the fore, leading the market east and making a follower of fashion.