The Spread of Affluenza


The Spread of Affluenza

Indians,” as a luxury brand representative observes,“are eager to cross the road even when the light is red.” The reference was to the current economic climate where,despite an obvious slowdown,the affluent still seem to exist in a gilded cage. In many ways,how much we spend and how we want to spend is now inscribed on the Indian landscape — urban restaurants that serve the most expensive liquors in the world,penthouses that cost crores,luxury cars which cost as much as a mansion in an exclusive neighbourhood,limited edition watches,destination weddings that boggle the mind,furniture and lamps that wear exclusive designer logos,unbridled teenage spending on clubs,pubs,phones,clothes,computers. In 2010,when the economy was barely bouncing back after the last recession,a limited edition LVMH watch worth Rs 12,00,000 sold in India as did two watches from the Sharon Stone limited edition line priced above Rs 9,00,000.

Over the years,as consumption and more consumption outwitted every other social trend,Indian affluenza acquired its own characters,milestones and addresses. The yacht parties of Vijay Mallya,till recently the king of good times; the setting up of DLF Emporio in Delhi,UB City Mall in Bangalore and Palladium in Mumbai as venues of indulgent spending; the wedding of Sajan and Sangita Jindal at the Ferragamo family villa in Florence; Mukesh Ambani’s 27-storeyed residence Antilla which cost USD 2 billion. Affluenza also has Mannerisms — we recognise a rich housewife from North India by the brands she favours; Mechanisms — Ludhiana has more Mercedes Benz cars than any other city; Politics — a recent episode of Aamir Khan’s Satyamev Jayate revealed how lakhs are given in “cash” as dowries by seemingly middle-class families. If there are the obvious big spenders,CEOs earning big salaries and NRIs coming back to settle at home,there are closet spenders like politicians and bureaucrats who lavish extraordinary amounts on luxury goods but never announce it publicly.

Spending without harness which was considered morally unscrupulous in Gandhi’s time and outright bad manners in the Nehruvian era,became a calling card for the wealthy in the early 2000s. Especially after luxury brands stormed into the “the world’s most fertile new market” and the first edition of Kaun Banega Crorepati in 2000 became a clarion call for the masses to try their hand at undisguised affluence. Bored of shahtoosh shawls,rare Persian rugs and ancestral farmhouses,even those with old money found themselves pulled towards brand logos. Spending became a social triumph. If Rich was your second name,it had to be spelt out.

In the early 2000s,the average Indian salary surged by 14 per cent (18 per cent for IT professionals),the highest wage growth in Asia,as recorded by Hewitt Associates,a global human-resources company. In those years,1.6 million Indian households spent an average of Rs 40,50,00 a year on luxury goods,according to The Knowledge Company. Indians from wealthier families had not only begun competing with the purchasing power of their European or American counterparts,some were even eclipsing them.

Today,India is the 12th largest market globally for luxury products and in the next couple of years is likely to emerge among the top 10 luxury markets. India’s domestic sales of high end jewellery,handbags,shoes,watches and clothing are estimated at $2.2 billion,just a fraction of the sales in China. Yet the annual sales growth is 20 per cent. According to Crisil,India will have ,high net worth households by 2015. It is this population with high disposable incomes that will drive the growth of luxury in coming years. The highest growth in the Indian luxury industry has been recorded in Delhi,followed by Mumbai — the two cities account for 30 per cent of total retail revenues. The south — Bangalore,Hyderabad and Chennai — are catching up and the Reddys of Hyderabad are already being called the Punjabis of the South.

Spending changed India’s image in the eyes of global luxury giants. From being a viable market,it also became a design muse. The year 2010 stamped this new image. Louis Vuitton in association with noted design guru Rajeev Sethi created a Diwali collection of dresses made from Indian vintage saris,designed by Marc Jacobs and dressed its store windows across the world in handmade paper lamps from India. Bottega Veneta launched the Knot India clutch and Tod’s an India Clutch in 2010. Dior dedicated a limited edition watch — the Mumbai Christal with eight time zones — to Mumbai city. It coincided with the opening of the new Dior store at Taj Mahal hotel. Canali brought in the Nehru jacket,Etro too launched its India jackets and Hublot an India watch. French saddler brand Hermes which has had India-inspired themes for their scarves for years,topped their love for the country in October 2011 by launching limited edition saris. “Designing these saris for India is like a light homage to the country,” said Patrick Thomas,chief executive of Hermes International. “Hermes admires India and has a lot to learn from here,” he added. This year,shoemaker for the high and mighty of fashion,Christian Louboutin announced Bollywood heels when he opened a store at Delhi’s DLF Emporio mall.

But that’s only one half of the story. In 2012,Indian Affluenza is an evolved affliction. It first created a privileged social class which openly rejoiced in frothy spending — buying everything that was new and expensive. But interestingly,this culture of affluence never walked a linear path. On the one hand,it continued to spawn aspirants across small and big cities in a hurry to climb the ladder. But in a complex way,it also gave rise to a small sect among the rich who are now keen to practice sustainable luxury and alternative spending. It wasn’t a mere coincidence,after all,that India was the chosen venue of International Herald Tribune’s 2009 global conference on Sustainable Luxury,where luxury giants like Nicholas Ghesquiere,Dries Van Noten and Francois-Henri Pinault,CEO of PPR’s Gucci group,among other stars of global affluence talked about working with India and “responsible luxury”.

The trajectory forked out. New victims of affluenza still consider a Louis Vuitton monogrammed bag as an arrival statement but the truly affluent find themselves underwhelmed by logos. Then there are those who have,like Bill Gates and Elton John — formerly big symbols of the Gilded Age in the West — begun to look at wealth as a shareable asset. They want to bask in the glory that comes from creating real value and not by standing endlessly in the limelight that streaks out of perishable,purchasable commodities. New arguments around affluenza are getting ample attention in India. Gates and Warren Buffet made a strategic trip to India last year urging the Indian rich to consider philanthropy as an alternate responsibility. Their trip was successful. Ask Rohini Nilekani,the quiet but steady philanthropist. Even Nita Ambani,who is now investing in corporate social responsibility.

Analysed as an affliction by British writer Oliver James in his book Affluenza to research which he travelled to many cities in the world,extraordinary consumption has also been seen as one of the biggest causes behind lack of satisfaction and abject unhappiness so common in privileged societies. “It spreads because it feeds on itself; when you try to make yourself feel better by buying a car,or bulking up in the gym,or spraying on a fake tan,or having a facelift,you actually make yourself feel worse,which makes you want to buy more things,” wrote James. Selfish capitalism leads to emotional distress,he argued.

In India,it could also lead to a visceral resentment among the underprivileged as Aravind Adiga’s 2009 book The White Tiger pointed out. Not only that,there are scarring defeats embedded in the tale of New India’s prosperity as American journalist Katherine Boo revealed in her recent book Beyond The Beautiful Forevers,by disrobing the lives of the unclad and the hungry.

But celebration and irony have never been the only two contradictory symptoms of affluenza. It is repeatedly struck by impermanence caused by economic volatility and a vacuous boredom. Uncontrolled spending usually hits a barrier of imaginative ideas. Perhaps that’s why for every mind-bogglingly lavish holiday that gets splashed in travel magazines,a rich couple seeks a highly priced spartan vacation in a quiet zone,including spending time inside a monastery. For every wedding lehnga that has real gems sewn on it,there is a unique,completely handwoven khadi sari hailed as new luxury. For every rare dog breed flown in from Russia by Pet Air,there are those dressing up strays from Indian streets in diamante collars.

Because indiscriminate wealth can be defeating and pressurising,many who own it are forced to worry about what to do after the peak is achieved. Affluenza frequently presents its victims with new dilemmas: what to buy that no one else can buy. A few rescue themselves by making expensive,philanthropic choices. Others continue to get Belgian chocolate massages,wondering why it doesn’t give them better skin and deeper sleep.

Everything comes for a price,after all. Even money.