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Inside Story

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Shortly after Mukesh Ambani, chairman of Reliance Industries, moved into Antilia — his $2 billion, 27-storey home in Mumbai — his wife Nita described it as a “modern home with an Indian heart”. In an interview to Vanity Fair magazine, where the photographs of the home’s interiors were first published, she also spoke of how “getting the temple right was so important”. 
Not everyone knows that the place of worship at Antilia was carefully clad using gold leaf technique, an invaluable Indian craft traditionally used to dress up the domes of temples and palaces. While the entrance of the room used the leafing technique in silver, the ‘seat of God’, where the idols are installed, was done up in a combination of gold and silver. Even the bedrooms, the ballroom and some other rooms were gilded with 24-carat gold and silver sheets, with patterns that were customised for the Ambani home. To be sure, the technique was used on select furniture items too. 
Mumbai-based The GoldLeafing Studio, which has been into gold and silver gilding for over eight decades now, did the work in Antilia. “People don’t hesitate to spend on their homes. They can spend in crores if they wish,” says Shehzad Khan, the fourth-generation promoter of the company, even as he refuses to comment on Antilia’s details, including how much the tab came to. GoldLeafing’s claim to fame includes gilding homes of the rich and famous, Shah Rukh Khan among them. 
Prateek Jain and Gautam Seth, owners of Klove Studio, New Delhi
(BW Pic By Bivash Banerjee)
Touring the homes of the rich and famous is a critical part of Khan’s work. From Shah Rukh’s Mannat to Lakshmi Mittal’s mansion in Delhi, his work takes him to places where only a few are allowed access. “The gold-leafing trend for private homes picked up three years ago. Corporates, doctors and lawyers are increasingly approaching me for leafing work,” he says. People, quips Khan, want to live like maharajas.
Back in New Delhi’s Chhattarpur, home to some of the plushest farmhouses, world-renowned chandelier designer and restoration expert Regis Mathieu says in all seriousness: “Indians still live the maharaja life.” We’re seated beneath a smoky quartz chandelier that Mathieu has designed over six months, cutting and arranging roughly 200 kg of quartz. The piece, inspired by the universe, is priced at Rs 20 lakh (in another corner of the room, we see a similar piece, inspired by the planets, priced at Rs 50 lakh). “The collection in quartz is popular with Indians who believe in the healing properties of the stone,” says Mathieu who along with ANG Sales, set up a shop last year to help high-end international lifestyle brands enter India. “The demand is growing and I’m here (in India) once every five weeks,” he says while showing us other outstanding pieces in the farmhouse that he is converting into his ‘light studio’. 
Samvit Tara, director of International Furniture Brand
(BW Pic By Ritesh Sharma)
Clearly, well-travelled Indians with rising disposable incomes and a penchant for spending are widening the luxury category in the country. Numbers, too, tell a positive story. According to India Luxury Review 2011, a CII-AT Kearney report, the Indian luxury market is pegged at $5.75 billion and is expected to grow to $14.72 billion by 2015. Those in the business say that home décor contributes 4 per cent to the market. However, with the coming up of high-end real estate properties (Lodha Group’s World One, the tallest residential tower in Mumbai, for instance, will boast of apartments furnished with Armani Casa furniture, Italian designer Giorgio Armani’s home décor line) along with the interest shown by individuals, the category could contribute 8-10 per cent to the luxury market.
Call it ostentatious, flashy or pretentious, but those who have the money are, well, flaunting it. Chandeliers with 20,000 pieces of shimmering crystal at a staggering Rs 3 crore (Mathieu’s replica of a 17th century European piece), walls dotted with milky white pearls with a hint of gold dust (we find this in Delhi’s House of Raro, a decade-old home décor brand), hand-made Italian mattresses made from 22 carat gold yarn  from Magniflex at Rs 27 lakh, consumers are demanding — and showing off. 
The choices are a plenty. A trip to House of Raro’s recently opened store at Delhi’s DLF Emporio showcases the brand’s new furniture range, aptly called The Penthouse Collection. From an eight-seater dinner table with a hand-carved fishscale pattern on African ebony wood to a leather embossed table with silver leafing, or a tall ‘Masai chair’ draped in fabric from Hermes to antique Venetian mirrors (part of the ‘palace collection’, by the way), House of Raro’s mainstay is bespoke. Taking 16 to 20 weeks to complete their projects, the brand launches its ‘limited’ collections twice a year. 
Or you could pick up the Hermes armchair ($11,100) and console ($8,550) made of pear wood with satin-finish varnish and natural cowhide at its year-old store at Horniman Circle in Mumbai. Interestingly, Bertrand Michaud, managing director of Hermes India, while talking of the brand’s confidence of growing in a developing nation like India in a recent interview to a website, spoke of how its clients were “citizens of the world”. After its Mumbai store (where you walk on cushioned, bespoke Hermes carpets), which houses apparel, accessories, home décor and furniture, Hermes plans to open another store in Delhi. In India since 2008, Hermes now has a presence in Mumbai, Delhi and Pune. 
Regis Mathieu, chandelier designer and restoration expert
(BW Pic By Tribhuwan Sharma)
If Hermes is quietly confident of its presence in the country, others like IPE Cavalli and Fendi Casa are also betting big on their furniture lines. More contemporary in style than, say, Hermes, these brands were brought to India by companies like Terra Sans International (in Gurgaon) and International Furniture Brands (in Delhi and Mumbai) earlier this year. The ‘streamlined’ range of IPE Cavalli furniture, besides a select range of Fendi Casa, is already on display at the plush 15,000 sq. ft Terra Sans Home Couture boutique in Gurgaon. 
According to Nitin Kohli, director of Terra Sans International, Indian consumers are ready to experience all the furniture brands that are offered globally. The Terra Sans boutique offers sofas, armchairs, beds, tables and more in bright colours and eclectic designs. The price point: Rs 10-15 lakh upwards for Fendi Casa beds. 
Now, even fashion designers are seeing promise in diversifying into luxury furniture. Sabyasachi Mukherjee, for instance, has already been approached by realtors to design homes, as have Raghavendra Rathore and J.J. Valaya. Designer duo Ashima-Leena plans to launch a dedicated furniture and soft furnishings line, according to media reports. 
“I don’t see people compromising on their spending power when it comes to furniture. Many seek customisation, which, in turn, means exclusivity,” says Raseel Gujral, promoter of Casa Paradox, a high-end homegrown furniture and furnishings brand that opened in 1993. We’re seated in one of Gujral’s three sprawling stores in New Delhi’s Gallery on MG, which is bursting with colours and has brilliant pieces of furniture. The mall has dedicated two floors for homegrown and international luxury high-end furniture brands. That luxury is priceless is evident from her design pieces, which do not have any price tags. Clearly, Casa Paradox’s discerning clientele believes in pointing out their favourite piece of furniture and having it sent home, without worrying about how much it costs.
Raseel Gujral, promoter of Casa Paradox
On her part, Gujral spends anywhere between 6-8 months planning a new collection every year. “We don’t have sales staff in showrooms, we have designers,” she points out. Up next: an uber chic collection of international furniture (including centre tables, consoles, cabinets and chairs) in neo-classical Indo-French style that’s synonymous with gold and silver gilding, lightly carved patterns on furniture and upholstered with rich fabrics, including satin and velvet. Gujral’s collection will use fabrics in shades of salmon, ecru and amethyst. If Gujral predicts that the trends in furniture and furnishings will be classical with subdued colours, Delhi-based luxury home furnishings store Sarita Handa foresees the influence of antique French textiles in the segment. 
Even as international furniture brands eye the Indian market, not everyone has succeeded. Versace Homes, brought in with great fanfare last year by Blues Clothing Company (sofa sets  were priced at Rs 14 lakh onwards), has downed its shutters according to people in the know. Blues Clothing Company declined to 
participate in the story. Two industry experts separately said Versace Homes has not exited the country. “It’s only a matter of time before the brand comes back with a new (business) partner,” said one of them.
Others such as Gianluca Brozzetti, chief executive of Italian fashion house Roberto Cavalli, feel that the time is right to tap the enormous opportunity that India offers for luxury brands. “The well-travelled Indians want to experience (furniture) designs inside their homes and we see immense opportunity here,” says Brozzetti. Roberto Cavalli Home, which will showcase a wide range of furniture and other home décor products for the Indian market, will soon start selling, for instance, its signature leopard print carpets, beds in suede and leather and chairs upholstered with silk and velvet with gold print. 
“Luxury requires a personal touch, long-term investments and tremendous services that can last clients a long time,” says Samvit Tara, director, International Furniture Brands, a 16-year-old company that has brought over 30 premium brands such as Baker, Ralph Lauren Home, Armani Casa, Theodore Alexander and Maitland Smith to India. 
Most in the business agree that “servicing clients” is what can make or break brands, especially those in the luxury/premium category. The GoldLeafing Studio, for instance, offers a guarantee of 25 years on its services and three years of free maintenance. Prateek Jain, promoter of Klove, another homegrown boutique brand for lighting installations, says: “We sometimes redo pieces of our work if the client is unhappy with the product. It’s part of gaining the  loyalty of clients, a must if you’re serving a premium client.” 
On his part, Mathieu’s products (“it’s not just a chandelier,” he says) come coded with numbers, embossed with the studio stamp and bear Mathieu’s signature. The ‘code’ is to ensure that only authentic pieces are delivered to the client. It also allows the company to continuously track its invaluable “work of art” for maintenance and other periodic services that the company offers its discerning customers.
(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 24-09-2012)