Questionable acquisitions: Diamonds with a conscience, anybody?


Questionable acquisitions: Diamonds with a conscience, anybody?

How does the value of the product change for the consumer once the brand falls from grace?

What would you do with a beautiful piece of jewellery or a luxury item if it turns out that the maker of the brand is a fraud, molester or racist? Amid the rubble of post-scam deconstructions of diamond merchant Nirav Modi, the soft-spoken purveyor of culture and art who hired exceptional photographers and models for his campaigns even as he allegedly duped bankers, this question assumes significance. How does the value of the product change for the consumer once the brand falls from grace? Does an expensive, coveted acquisition bought to make the customer stand out become an embarrassment?

For those of us in the business of writing on luxury brands — programmed to find new superlatives for designers, style icons and fashion photographers — the job is becoming tougher by the day. Luxury and glamour stories must now come with additional vetting — the moral and ethical credentials of the brands as well as their makers. Just recently, The Boston Globe published an investigative report on sexual harassment in the western modelling industry based on the testimony of more than 50 models. Among those named is legendary photographer, Patrick Demarchelier. A sought-after name among fashion titles and luxury brands , he was also commissioned by Nirav Modi for a campaign with Priyanka Chopra and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley last year.

Luxury and fashion marketing have perhaps never been more complicated as a profession. If a model is sexually molested while working for a particular brand, the repercussions of the incident have a ripple effect on the reputation of the brand itself. If an advertising campaign is racist or gender insensitive, the product, however good, tends to suffer a dent to its reputation. H&M got a great deal of flak last month because of an advertising campaign in which a black child modelled a green hoodie with the slogan, “The Coolest Monkey in the Jungle”. The company rushed to control damage; it ended up recruiting a diversity leader ( a professional who will ensure that diversity is reflected in the brand’s campaigns). Calvin Klein got away for four decades showing gang violence, drug use and pornographic visuals in its underwear campaigns until protests by advertising watchdogs stopped all that.

Now, as financial frauds, reports of ecological exploitation, sexual misconduct and other unacceptable kinds of behaviour in fashion and luxury emerge almost every day, even consumers, especially those labelled as High Net Worth Individuals (HNWI) or Ultra High Net Worth Individuals (UHNWI) might have to take ownership of their choices. No one can sense a fraud, a molester or racist through their wares. But it may be time to question if a diamond necklace by Nirav Modi will become a family heirloom for future generations of his clients, or if awe-inspiring couture by John Galliano, accused of pro-Nazi sentiments and removed by Dior as its creative director in 2011, will find a place in the buyer’s wardrobe?

World views change, facts change, and consumer priorities must change with them. In the current scenario, a crocodile skin Hermes Birkin bag or a shahtoosh shawl made from hair of Tibetan antelopes are not luxury possessions; they are questionable choices.

The artist-versus-art debate is the new black in the creative industry. Woody Allen’s tarnished reputation versus the memorable films he has made and still makes; Kevin Spacey’s extraordinary acting talent versus allegations of sexual molestation; or famed Peruvian photographer Mario Testino’s fashion styling versus his sexual misconduct: is it possible to think of one thing without the other? So also for Nirav Modi, a law-breaker of another kind. A consumer may be unsure of giving pride of place to his jewellery for which she paid lakhs or crores, but finds herself feeling ethically duped. Putting things in perspective, though, may help. Did you buy the piece because of its craftsmanship or because you wanted to own diamonds by a jeweller who is a social celebrity and endorsed by the rich and famous? Do you crave diamonds with a conscience or those with faultless shine, worth and resale value?

The questions will be different for buyers of luxury handbags made from the skins of animals which were made to suffer in the process. Yet again, what position do we take on Marchesa gowns co-created by Georgina Chapman, the wife of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, who pushed them on famous women he sexually harassed. Does the fallout of the Weinstein scandal affect the luxury couture made by the wife?

In business theory, consumers are the ultimate brand. They make or break a brand’s worth on scales of innovation, promise, positioning, quality, myth or social connect. Fraud and ethical bankruptcy are reasons enough to decide if Nirav Modi diamonds are luxury or just epitaphs on a business gone wrong.