The Dark Side of Luxe


By Dr Mahul Brahma

There is timeless love affair between branded luxury and our great nation of Royalty. One such example is that in the 1920s, 20% of Rolls Royce’s global sales was from our great nation. There are similar true legends about Cartier’s Maharaja of Patiala necklace or Maharaja of Kashmir’s customised Louis Vuitton trucks’ collection.

However, luxury has also been a great tool for one-upmanship and some secret fetishes since ages. This is a very heavily guarded side that all luxury retailers are silent about, however, these were a chunk of their revenues then and so the demand was supplied generously. At that time there used to be dealers, mostly European traders, of these luxury items who primarily used to make their living from the generous commissions of the Maharajas and Zamindars. Thereby hangs a lesson for retailers and brand custodians.

I will share a few of such instances to give you the feel of the other side of luxury that took place in Bengal in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Thereby hangs the tale of a certain Zamindar who accidentally hit a chandelier with his cane, knocking it off the ceiling.

It fell with a terrific crash. He was so mesmerised with the tinkling of breaking glass that he broke all the glass within his reach that night. Every piece of glass was imported from Belgium and the Chandelier would have cost a fortune, even then. He had a moment of “enlightenment” and realised the more expensive the glass, the sweeter the sound.

This was just the beginning of a long career of importing expensive glass from the biggest international brands from all over the world, aided by a European trader. A few examples were 16th century goblet from Prague, Ming dynasty bone China, Belgian mirrors, French wine glasses and crystal paper weights from Austro-Hungarian empire.

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He made it a private hobby to break these and listen to their “music”. And sometimes he will make a grand spectacle of his passion. Once he laid out four giant-size Belgian mirrors on the street and had his brother’s carriage run over them. Small wonder, his debt rose astronomically and he died a destitute.

Another story was the competition between two of the Zamindars or Babus on how expensive their open-top phaetons (horse carriages, modern day convertibles) were. So they started adding horses. This competition rose to level when one of them replaced the horses with Zebra. This story is not uncommon when were see the competition among the Richie Rich to showcase their imported two- and four-wheeled “beauties” unabashedly.

One-upmanship has been a great driver for luxury brands since ages.

Like modern-day elite car manufacturers, these makers of phaetons were able to brand them as exclusive giving certain features to make them aspirational.

Be it on the dark side or the brighter side, branding has played a crucial role in luxury retailing. Even at that time why did the Maharaja of Patiala want Cartier to design his necklace and not any other jeweller? Why even did Nizam buy Harley Davidson for his personal postmen and not any other motorcycle? Why even Maharaja of Kashmir asked LV to customise trunks? All these brands were able to first establish an Aspiration Quotient.

That would have taken years, but they were patient and gave all the time to the custodian for establishing and maturing the brand. And that is the only reason why these brands have stood the test of time. As luxury or luxe is all about perception, the value of the brand will determine how much premium you are willing to shell out.

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Every luxury brand needs to first focus of the measures that I had created — Luxe Factor, Luxe Quotient and Aspiration Quotient. The only endeavour should be to increase them. It is only after your brand has attained a certain level in these measures compared to your competition, you will know that your premium will be accepted by the consumers.

So don’t put the blame on the luxury brands, it is the job of a brand custodian to keep increasing these quotients. It is on the consumer to take it on the dark side. But, that is true even for science.

Luxury brands should appeal to both the dark and brighter sides.

Let your quest for luxury continue.

Reference: Decoding Luxe by the author; Chapter: The Dark Side


Dr Mahul Brahma is a Doctor of Letters, PhD and a TEDx speaker. He is an author, chief editor, columnist and award-winning communications and CSR leader. He has authored five books – How to Communicate Strategically in Corporate World, Quarantined: Love in the Time of Corona, and The Luxe Trilogy – Decoding Luxe, Dark Luxe and Luxe Inferno. His books have received appreciation from Ratan Tata, Amitabh Bachchan and Bibek Debroy.

He is an alumnus of IIM Calcutta, University of Cambridge Judge Business School, MICA, St Xavier’s College, SSSUTMS, and University of Calcutta. His short films were screened at prestigious film festivals like Cannes Film Festival. Dr Brahma is an artist and loves to play golf.