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Tuesday, July 05, 2022

Jennifer and the Neverfull Bag

Shefalee Vasudev explores the many faces and facets of Indian fashion. Excerpts from Powder Room

Written by Shefalee Vasudev |
June 30, 2012 1:16:22 am

Book: Powder Room

Author: Shefalee Vasudev

Publisher: Ebury Press

Pages: 364

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‘What does luxury mean to you,’ I asked Silvia Venturini Fendi at the Fendi Pallazzo in Rome in April 2008.

‘Freedom,’ she said.

The girl pulled out a bunch of tissues in the scented ladies room of New Delhi’s high end DLF Emporio. ‘You know what?’ I heard her say to another girl as she wiped her hands,‘I heard some young pretty lady got a Fendi Peek-a-boo handbag customized and invited her friends to Zest to celebrate it. Aish hai na; bas paisa hona chahiye.’

I turned and smiled at her. She didn’t smile back.

Later when I introduced myself,she gave me only her first name,Jennifer*. ‘Ma’am,I will lose my job if you interview me,’ she said and politely excused herself.

The ‘young and pretty’ Fendi customer who Jennifer had heard of was Payal Sen,editor of the lifestyle store Roseby’s magazine,Enhance and the shop’s trend forecaster. I had gone to the Fendi store to ask who had ordered the Peek-a-boo but they refused to divulge customer details. I found Payal instead through the grapevine. When I asked her on the phone if I could come by to see her made-to-order handbag,she laughed and invited me home.

Thirty-year-old Payal looks a little like Twinkle Khanna; both share the same immaculate grooming,classic style,and lady-like poise. She was dressed in a pair of jeans,an ivory chikankari kurti and slippers when I visited her at her opulent home in Delhi’s Jorbagh. The drawing room breathed art,silver,crystal,and silken rugs. Low-cal sandwiches in brown bread sat on white plates and were brought on a carved wooden tray by a uniformed butler. The Fendi bag had been discreetly left on the floor near a sofa wearing turquoise silk.

Payal told me that she was extremely picky about what she bought and never gave in to impulse shopping. Made-to-order luxury products were her ultimate indulgence. For the customized Peek-a-boo,she had chosen red leather with black stitching and gold hardware; her name had also been etched on the inner lining with the date and city of make — Rome.

The beautiful young woman was offended to hear that there was idle gossip among salesgirls about a party at Zest which she said she never had. She also refused to tell me what she paid for the bag.

I went back to find Jennifer,hoping that it wouldn’t cost the girl her job. She worked as a sales executive in a luxury store at Emporio and agreed reluctantly to talk to me. ‘We can’t sit here. Let’s meet at Khan Market,’ she said.

Jennifer is a dark skinned,slight looking girl. She came to Latitude,the Good Earth café in Delhi’s Khan Market,wearing a pale blue,chest print T-shirt with black jeans and black metallic hoops in her ears. Her thick,raven hair was pulled back by a hair clip,making her look like a teenager. Without her store uniform — formal black trousers and a well-tailored lilac shirt with black,kitten heels — she looked younger than her twenty three years,similar to the girls I would see on the Delhi metro every day.

She has a warm sunny disposition and an earnest,extremely polite manner — and if you observed closely,a subtle refinement which put her few notches above the regular Delhi Metro Girl. One of three siblings,she belongs to a middle class family from Patparganj in East Delhi. Her sister was in higher secondary school and her older brother worked in a Costa Coffee shop.

Two years after finishing a pass course at Delhi University and some odd jobs later,Jennifer was short listed by a head hunting firm for a luxury brand store. After an interview with its Indian representative,she was recruited and put through rigorous training sessions. ‘They presented the brand to us through photographs and CDs. We learnt about its ethos,history,all the product lines,prices,and also how to handle customers,’ she told me. She was given grooming and makeup tips by a visiting consultant who also coached the team on language and articulation. ‘The trainer reminded us that the store was not a beauty parlour and a lady customer should never be addressed as didi,’ she said.

Training sessions such as the one Jennifer described are an intensive process handled by a team of professionals. Prasanna Bhaskar,who formerly worked as Regional Director,South East Asia and India,for Salvatore Ferragamo,would lead similar sessions for her staff in India. She would fly down from Hong Kong where she was based for this. Prasanna,who was trained by and worked for Louis Vuitton when it first arrived in India in 2003,told me that LV was like an academy when it came to training its employees. Most candidates who sought work with luxury brand stores as sales staff belonged to middle class families and needed to change the way they thought and behaved.

Jaideep Sippy,the founder and CEO of Style Kitchen,a Pune-based company that markets healthy eating solutions,was once the corporate trainer for LV’s Middle East and India stores. Never,ever address a customer by the first name,Jaideep would tell his store staff,not even when you are invited to. Hindi was a big no-no. Everyone from the youngest sales girl to the store manager was encouraged by the brand to ‘believe’ that they weren’t just representatives of the brand,but were Louis Vuitton themselves. ‘If a customer is TarunTahiliani,you are Louis Vuitton,’ was Jaideep’s way of empowering his store team. He had been similarly empowered during his training period.

Paris or New Delhi,sales staff are taught how to walk across a shop floor. French elegance isn’t incidental. It is learned. Teams at these stores get specially tailored clothes made for them and during fittings they are also taught the importance of wearing the right size,even for undergarments. Some brands now hire grooming consultants to teach new staff as in the case with Jennifer. The right choice in lipstick and makeup,personal hygiene,use of deodorant and perfumes,how to greet the customer — everything has to be taught and drilled in.

Prasanna,like Jaideep,found role playing a useful tool. She would enact a customer,both the well-mannered and the fussy one and then turn into a store manager to explain to a trainee how to greet them,show them around the store discreetly,and handle objections…

In 2010,Jennifer earned about Rs 27,500 each month. She was occasionally stung by the disparity between the world of luxury and her life back home. ‘We can’t afford this kind of money even on medical care,’ she said,the sincere,bright smile never leaving her face as she sipped her mango panna. Only a couple of belts and small items cost less than her monthly salary; sometimes,she said they sold products worth five or seven times what she earned. I wondered if she was resentful. If she was,she succeeded in concealing it well.

‘What would you buy for yourself if you could afford it?’ I asked her.

‘A Louis Vuitton Canvas Monogram Neverfull bag,’ she said,without a blink,her hand unconsciously touching her faux leather handbag.

* Name changed

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