Luxury and Craft: The Value of ‘Humility’

In this conversation, we look at the co-relation between the artist and the craft and true appreciation of the artisan, his creativity and give it the value that it deserves. How Indian consumer behaviour will change the way the product will be offered to him. Featured here with anchor Bandana Tewari, Lifestyle Journalist & Sustainability Activist are Bénédicte Épinay, President & CEO, Comité Colbert and Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Founder, Sabyasachi Couture.

Bandana: To start with, I know there’s a lot been said about the craft industry today, and as we know the ones who live here, that craft is a lived experience. It is something that is extremely grassroot, and it is something that is about rural communities. So, when we have this very elevated conversation about craft as luxury, and I pose this thought to both of you, maybe Bénédicte you can start, is that how do we then be very careful that craft doesn’t become a commodity, however, luxurious. How do we take on the challenge to keep craft to what it really is, especially in a country like this? It starts from the grassroots.

Bénédicte: The part I prefer in my job when I took my position four years ago, after 30 years in journalism, is to visit workshops. It’s so important. It’s roots. Everything started with the workshop centuries ago. And this is our main asset. I love what you said, when we say that, what difference between a good brand and a major brand is integrity, you said that and is so true.

And integrity as in workshops, integrity in the work of hands, integrity as the history. And we are not an industry, like we are a cultural industry. So, the link between the economy and culture, will have to be cherished. We have to cherish our artisans. This is the main assets.

Sabyasachi: I’ll just remind you of something that happened not so long ago. In L.A, the writers from the movie industry were at strike because they were asking for better paychecks and also over the invasion of AI. When we talk about the new consumer, our children, our grandchildren, and our great-grandchildren, what are they going to be born as? Are they going be born as robots or are they going to be born as humans? The answer is very clear. They’re going be born as humans. You know, today we live in a very strange world, Bandana when you talk about commodity, I say what is real, what really is commodity is when you, it’s almost the opposite of sustainability. When you’re producing bigger, stronger, faster, a lot of it generated by technology.

Today we have the world divided into two. So, we have people who live and thrive within a tech world, which is completely infested with technology and another world where people are dropping out. So, I dropped out of Instagram about three years ago, and I probably have never been happier.

And I think that today there will be two kinds of consumers. Maybe the larger consumer is going to be, who are consuming because of what social media dictates. And for them, they’re going to be, they’re going be people who are going to consume commoditized luxury. But then there is going to be another set of consumers who are going to drop out, and they’re going to create this silent rebellion of humanizing the world a little more. Because we are human beings. You know, if everything from joy, laughter, sex, every relationship could be expressed in the artificial world. Who are we as humans? And I think there will be a more collective consciousness of people moving towards things which are made by hand, things which are touched by humanity. And that is going to be, that is going to become the bastion of true luxury.

Bandana: So that actually begs the question Bénédicte, because in this industry, that means while we are toggling a technologically savvy society year after year, and we are going to deal with AI on a more realistic level, as opposed to just reading about it. Do you feel that, do you feel now that you know, the brands have to be even more aware that this is the world that they’re competing in, right? So do they have to be more immersed in what they’re delivering as authentic luxury?

Bénédicte: Absolutely. And that’s why, I don’t know if you pay attention to that, that since maybe four to five years, the luxury brands opened the doors and bring people behind the scenes to show the artisans. It’s new. And I think it’s a good way of, of thinking for the future because they, they raise their prices a lot. And people have to know that if they pay for products, very expensive, this is for one good reason. It’s because it’s handmade and handmade with people that work a lot with passions to make lovely things. They need a lot of expertise.

Bandana: And so this brings us to the interesting question of, so who is the consumer? Maybe Sabya, you can start with this. The consumer of today can be generalized in so many ways, but I’ve had this conversation with you before, and you are very specific about the Indian consumer. There is no doubt all eyes are on India, and rightfully so, big legacy brands who have to sell here and the exchange of beautiful ideas, aesthetics, products. But have we nailed the Indian consumer, which both Indian designers and western designers are hoping to captivate and capture?

Sabyasachi: Before I talk about the Indian consumer, let’s talk about the global, the consumer as human beings. You see, one very good thing that happened with social media, though I’m not a very big fan of it, is the fact that in many ways, it united people. Everybody has a community, so everybody can discuss their problems, their fears, their insecurities, their anger, their political will. When you divide human beings, human beings end up becoming underconfident. When you put them in a community, they start becoming stronger, more resilient, and more confident. I’m going to say a very controversial thing that I’ve said many times before in my interviews, that fashion for the longest time has made a lot of money by feeding on people’s insecurities.

But today, so earlier, brands used to decide what the consumer would buy, and you see a major reversal that’s happening because the consumers are deciding what the brands should sell. That is because when you put people in a room, when they’re allowed to have thoughts and exchanges, people become more and more secure about their self-identity. And then they start dictating to the brands what the brand should be producing. And I think today we have reached a very unique place where, and you will see in years to come, and you can throw in a comment that brands which have built their businesses with integrity, which have focused on the product first and marketing second, are brands which are going to become the brands of the future. Because you are talking to an extremely confident, extremely decisive customer.

Gone are the days when you could use very big influencers and you could throw a great party. And then, you know, you can spend billions of dollars in advertising and just getting the consumer. Today when you spend money in marketing, a lot of consumers engage. But how many of them are buying is the big question. So there has to be a reset. And that reset will be now done by consumers and not by brands. I think we are, we are going to go into the new chapter of luxury right now, which is again, going to go back to how luxury really started. It was really about the product and not about the marketing.

Bandana: As a normal consumer, on the one hand you tell us, buy, buy less, but buy things of value at the same time. This is the industry that runs a novelty on newness. So how do you reconcile that conversation and does that reach ordinary consumers like me?

Sabyasachi: I don’t think any other Indian brand has been as trolled as I have on social media, and people troll me for everything. People will always have an opinion about who you should be. But it’s very important for you to have an opinion about who you should be and who you are. I’ve always said that it’s repetition that makes a look iconic. And I think when you learn to dismiss criticism and start believing in yourself, you are creating something authentic and something of value for your consumers. So, for me, I think novelty is important, but novelty will never give you longevity. What’s going to give you longevity and where people are going to remember you is when you stay true to who you are.

Bandana: And I want you to deep dive into this because I think the whole idea of this exchange is India and France and a craft legacy, I think there’s a great need for understanding with the Indian customer. And I hate using the word consumer, the human being who’s going to participate and enjoy a beautifully crafted brand.

Sabyasachi: Let’s talk about the Indian consumer. You know one of a colloquial word in India is a word called ‘juggar’, which means quick fix. So, one of the biggest ‘juggar’ in India was a concept called the missed call, which means if you didn’t want to pay for a call, you called a friend three times, you made one call and you dropped it so that you wanted the friend to call you back.

Then let’s talk about sustainability. Our mothers never threw anything away. If a sari got torn, it got converted into a blanket. When I talk about the Indian consumer, there’s a word that I use, which is called ‘dheet’, which means a consumer who’s very stubborn. The consumer is very stubborn because the consumer is very sure. The Indian consumer Bandana is educated. A lot of the education comes from life itself. A lot of the education comes from school. The Indian consumer is also someone who will not pay you a larger gross margin just because you have a bigger brand ambassador. The Indian consumers is very resilient, is an astute and a very, very intelligent consumer.

Because they had to work so hard to be able to get to where they are today. We are people who have been victims of partition. We have had all our wealth has been uprooted in one day. I think we have gone through what we call is the biggest cultural genocide. So, I think when we have, when we have survived from all of that, and we have come to where we are today, and the nation’s doing well alongside that is a new sense of nationalism. Today Indians all over the world are doing fantastically well.

The Indian consumer does not feel any less today. And when you become more and more confident about who you are and your identity, it’s going to be very, very difficult for brands to come into this country and try to sell their ware without engaging with them.

You know, they say that the Indian consumer bargains a lot. The Indian consumer the Indian consumer is constantly looking for a better deal. My question is, why should you not? Because at the end of the day, who doesn’t want a better deal? But the Indian consumer also knows that if you have created something exceptional and if you stay true to your ground, they will convert. While they are looking for a bargain, they also value integrity and quality.

Bandana: So, is it fair to say that perhaps this generation of consumers that you’re talking about who are unapologetic and not bogged down by what I call post-colonial blues, do you think that is a big shift? Do you think that plays a, a big role in the attitude of the younger generation?

Sabyasachi: My mother had nothing. So right now, she wants to redefine her life by looking at things that were never hers. But the young Indian who’s born in India today is educated abroad. They don’t have such problems. Their gender roles are very fluid. There is so much acceptance about everything. Parents will allow you to do everything. There is no repression. When you grow up in a free world, when there is no repression, the first thing that you seek out is your identity.

So, I don’t know the amount of girls who come to us and buy graduation saris because for the graduation day, these girls want to wear a sari irrespective of whether their mothers are wearing suits or gowns. I think that’s a great India. It’s a young India that’s extremely proud of who they are, and they want to embrace their roots in a completely modern, unapologetic way. And that is going to drive the future of consumption in this country.

Bandana: If there were a bunch of students sitting around Bénédicte, what would you want them to take away from your beautiful country? And given the symposium’s theme, if there were all kinds of designers who would want to work in the luxury business, two takeaways that you want us to take from you and Sabya, you can start thinking about the reverse. If you were sitting with a lot of French investors in the luxury business and they want to come to India, what would you like to say.

Bénédicte: I think that we are progressively shifting from a global luxury worldwide vision of one luxury, expanding everywhere to a luxury with local identities. And I think it’s the most important is one takeaway. I’m sure that every brand is really aware of that they’re working on to maintain strongly these cultural identities everywhere in the world. And the second takeaway is that all I discovered in one day here, is that I’m convinced that there is a place here for luxury, strong Indian luxury brands, building a strong community here collectively of a strong market and with a place for western luxury brands taking care of the local identities, Indian local identities.

Sabyasachi: So, any French brand trying to come into India, I have only one thing to say to them, you are coming into a very resilient country, which is a very strong sense of self and purpose. Don’t be in a hurry, don’t try to change, collaborate and adapt.

Bandana: What does the new leadership look like? What kind of human being is the kind of leader I want to personally look up to, or I want my daughter to be able to follow. And in that female leadership is very, very important. So just encapsulating this day’s events about craft and luxury, what can craft teach the leaders of today?

Bénédicte: Humility.

Sabyasachi: Absolutely. I think that I was just going say humility and sensitivity because craft has existed much, much before the biggest luxury houses were born. And hopefully it’ll continue to exist after all of them have gone because of greed.

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