This was originally posted on The New York Times website:
NEW DELHI — An old woman missing her upper front teeth holds a child in rumpled clothes — who is wearing a Fendi bib (retail price, about $100).
A family of three squeezes onto a motorbike for their daily commute, the mother riding without a helmet and sidesaddle in the traditional Indian way — except that she has a Hermès Birkin bag (usually more than $10,000, if you can find one) prominently displayed on her wrist.
Elsewhere, a toothless barefoot man holds a Burberry umbrella (about $200).
Welcome to the new India — at least as Vogue sees it.
Vogue India’s August issue presented a 16-page vision of supple handbags, bejeweled clutches and status-symbol umbrellas, modeled not by runway stars or the wealthiest fraction of Indian society who can actually afford these accessories, but by average Indian people.
Perhaps not surprisingly, not everyone in India was amused.
The editorial spread was “not just tacky but downright distasteful” said Kanika Gahlaut, a columnist for the daily newspaper Mail Today that is based here, who denounced it as an “example of vulgarity.”
There’s nothing “fun or funny” about putting a poor person in a mud hut in clothing designed by Alexander McQueen, she said in a telephone interview. “There are farmer suicides here, for God’s sake” she said, referring to thousands of Indian farmers who have killed themselves in the last decade because of debt.
Vogue India editor Priya Tanna’s message to critics of the August shoot: “Lighten up,” she said in a telephone interview. Vogue is about realizing the “power of fashion” she said, and the shoot was saying that “fashion is no longer a rich man’s privilege. Anyone can carry it off and make it look beautiful,” she said.
“You have to remember with fashion, you can’t take it that seriously,” Ms. Tanna said. “We weren’t trying to make a political statement or save the world,” she said.
Nearly half of India’s population — about 456 million people — live on less than $1.25 a day, according to World Bank figures released last week. But as any well-briefed luxury goods executive or private banker knows, India also has a fast-growing wealthy class and emerging middle class that make it one of the world’s most attractive new places to sell high-end products.
The juxtaposition between poverty and growing wealth presents an unsavory dilemma for luxury goods makers jumping into India: How does one sell something like a $1,000 handbag in a country where most people will never amass that sum of money in their lives, and many are starving? The answer is not clear cut, though Vogue’s approach may not be the way to go.
Marketers need to “create brand awareness” in India, said Claudia D’Arpizio, a partner with the consulting firm Bain & Company, who is based in Milan. She recommended the approach that some consumer brand companies took in China, opening big flagship stores and trying new forms of advertising like television.
As India’s population becomes more affluent, successful luxury goods manufacturers will “create aspirations,” Ms. D’Arpizio said, and people will buy their products to show their pride in their prosperity. On the other hand, she said, would not be prudent for marketers to open luxury stores on “streets where people are struggling for survival.”
Brands like Gucci, Jimmy Choo and Hermès have been bunking in high-end hotels or banding together in new superluxury malls, where guards are often stationed at the doors to keep the destitute outside. One new mall coming to south Delhi, the gold-leafed and marbled Emporio, even features a spa and a members club, developers say.
For now, the Indian middle and upper class — and the companies that aim to cater to it — are just getting used to having new money, said V. Sunil, creative director for advertising agency Weiden & Kennedy in India, which opened its first office here last September. “No one thinks they need to do something deeper for the public,” like address India’s social ills, he said.
The subjects of the Vogue shoot are the people that luxury goods manufacturers might hope to one day become their customers. Companies are attracted to emerging markets like India because of the millions of people who are “coming from no income and rising quite fast,” said Nick Debnam, chairman of KPMG’s consumer markets practice in the Asia-Pacific region.
The idea of being able to afford something but not buying it because you do not want to flaunt your money reflects a “very Western attitude,” he said. In China and other emerging markets, “if you’ve made it, you want everyone to know that you’ve made it,” and luxury brands are the easiest way to do that, he said.
Still, the in-your-face poverty of India, where beggars sometimes sit outside five-star hotels, does present challeng es that companies do not face in other markets. In China, most of the very poor live in rural areas, said Mr. Debnam. “Most of the luxury companies don’t consider these people,” when they’re thinking of selling products, he said, “and even the consumer product companies don’t look at them.”
Not taking a close enough look at the “real people” is drawing criticism for Vogue, too. “The magazine does not even bother to identify the subjects” of the photos, said Ms. Gahlaut, the columnist. Instead, Vogue names the brands of the accessories in the captions, and says they are worn by a lady or a man.