An image of Nita Ambani holding a white Birkin bag in London has been at the centre of heated debate. For the uninitiated, this elusive and exclusive Hermes handbag is considered the epitome of luxury and indeed, descriptions of Ambani’s purchase certainly suggest it’s very special. According to Christie’s, the virtually logo-less, ivory coloured, crocodile skin purse is encrusted with more than 240 diamonds on its 18-karat-gold hardware. It cost $379, 261, well over Rs 2 crore.
As any economist will attest, luxury is a function of scarcity — and awfully seductive to people obsessed with rarity. The wildest of legends surround the iconic Birkin: you can’t just enter a store and buy it, you need to register and patiently wait your turn, for two years. (The lucky few who eventually manage to grab one can jubilantly take their place at the top of the style pecking order, their social capital suddenly unquestionable). It turns out, a Birkin resting gloriously on a delicate elbow assuages a lot of upwardly mobile anxiety — the buyer inhabits the rarified stratosphere of the obscenely wealthy who scoff at procuring a variety of acquisitions and instead, concentrate only on the very, very best. It’s hardly surprising that Ms Ambani bought a Birkin, after all, if not her, who possibly could be more eligible? More surprising are the reactions to the purchase, ranging from righteous indignation to sarcastic comments on vegetarianism.
One particularly galling headline in one of those zillion ‘news’ websites that have sprung up recently went: “Nita Ambani is ‘carrying’ my entire lifetime’s salary”. Maybe this writer was hinting she needed a raise and may this unsophisticated tactic spout dividends, but comparing the purchasing power of the 18th richest person in the world to the lifestyle of a poorly paid journalist is bizarre logic. It’s tragic that this newswoman will earn a mere 2.6 crore in her career, but surely, that’s an outlandish amount for approximately three fourth of Indians who survive on less than Rs 200 a day. We reach our own conclusions of what “adequate” means based on our incomes and live accordingly. All wealth is relative. As far as spending disparity goes, it’s futile to resent the one per cent, since, seen from another perspective, the merely solvent and middle-class have benefited from policies that promote unequal growth.
So, nobody but Ms Ambani gets to decide if she should or shouldn’t aspire for the Birkin and these sneering moral diktats on what makes for an ‘appropriate’ high, are ultimately personal. The other banal argument doing the rounds is that a card-carrying vegetarian has no qualms about wearing an exotic skin for which a beautiful crocodile was slaughtered (after being bred for the precise reason of ending up as a handbag). There are complex ethics at play here and it is almost certain that Hermes follows due diligence when it comes to using ethically sourced skins. There’s no point getting riled up about expensive leather when we commit folly upon folly and actively participate in the destruction of other species, unthinkingly.
Over 6,000 silkworms are boiled inside their cocoons to make just one kilogram of silk. The clothes we wear are manufactured by killing millions of insects with pesticides. If there’s any justice, perhaps in an alternate universe, lemurs are gassing humans but in our current one, the cosmetics industry relies on palm oil, whose production kills and destroys the natural habitat of orangutans. Conservation is a collective responsibility and it’s unclear how Ms Ambani’s purchase deserves more flak than everybody else.
More interestingly, every international fashion survey conducted of late suggests that the future of companies manufacturing luxury goods lies in the East, in India and China. In an immature market, women are yet to discover the joy of buying into a brand that stands for sheer fabulousness, nor are they discerning enough to outright reject it (for sustainability reasons). It’s worth pondering on, however, if we’ve got to this place even in India, that more than gold and diamonds, a fancy clutch is the fashion accessory most worth having.