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Growing quotient of luxury fashion in India- In conversation with Eliana Koulas to understand the art of creating, growing, and leveraging luxury brands!

With 18 years of total experience in India and Australia, Eliana Koulas, Co-Founder/Director Luxus Retail - La Martina has been instrumental in bridging the occasional gaps in the luxury market and redefining the concept of luxury fashion in India. A dynamic entrepreneur, she is a visionary, ingrained with achieving perfection in every aspect of the business.  She brings with her an in-depth wealth of knowledge, encompassed with strong HNI customer networks. A lover of adventurous sports and the outdoors, in an exclusive conversation with Business2Business, Eliana shares more about her entrepreneurial journey, business strategy, challenges and a lot more:

Taking the entrepreneurial leap: Eliana shares, “Coming from an aeronautical communications and engineering background, I had always been inclined towards the business of fashion since my youth. When I moved to India in 2006 and after 10 years succeeding in the tech world, I decided to leave behind the backbone mesh networks and routers in exchange for the business of fashion. It was a huge shift on many levels, but at this juncture, I was ready to dive into a whole new transformation of career reinvention. It was something that came very naturally to me. There was no question if can I do it, how will I achieve it, or if I failed in the process. Intuitively I knew this was my calling and something I was tuned into, without having any real knowing. I have always been a chameleon, fearless of change and never doubting the doors of possibility. I had the opportunity of heading fashion giants such Versace, VJC, Corneliani, and Tom Ford. As we steered towards into a new phase of luxury consumption and brand awareness in India I was observing the rapid speed of how many top-tier luxury brands were entering the market, but there was a clear absence of ‘bridge brands’ in the affordable luxury bracket.

She adds, “Many of these ‘bridge-brands’ had entered via a distribution model where one could find them through a shop-in-shop format, but only a very small representation of the brand was present which did not have the same appeal as your typical flagship store. At that point, few market players in the bridge-luxury segment established themselves this way. The sport of Polo was on the rise, people were getting more and more curious since historically this sport was incubated on Indian soil with the British, however there was certainly a lack of awareness of the typical Indian consumer. Furthermore, people were starting to feel the saturation with mainstream brands. It was at this point I took the plunge to rope in La Martina which is not just for the polo aficionado, but a lifestyle brand for anyone who appreciates tradition, authenticity and luxury.”

The Indian luxury market: Sharing more on what is special and different about the Indian luxury market Eliana shares, “India has been inspiring the luxury and fashion industry for years and has been a source of inspiration for the rest of the world for decades. Parallelly, it is currently passing through a window of demographic transition which is rare. 72% of our population is below the age of 32 and rarely has this happened in the history of the world when you have a very young population, when you pass through this window of demographic transition that the luxury market does not grow.  She adds, “However, in the case of India, the population in India is getting younger and will keep getting young till 2040 therefore the scope of the luxury market will keep going up. This is a huge growth opportunity for new players entering the market where they have the chance for an early brand seeding.”

Opportunities for the International luxury fashion brands entering India: Eliana says, “Many brand players have had a lot of stops and starts in between. There’s no question about it. But overall, Luxury has been growing continuously at a pace of 20-25% per annum for the past several years. What is powering that growth is a massive increase in consumption, urbanization and economic leverage. While high net-worth individuals will grow, a lot of wealth will get created in India too. To win in India you have to be relevant in India. Generally brands see some sort of opportunity, be it a consumer opportunity or otherwise, but they are not relevant to what people really need. By having a level of contribution in whichever shape or form that the brand is passionate about, it must be relevant for India and its people. This is what will pave success down the road.”

Luxury is much more beyond just fashion: Sharing more on how her brand takes care of this aspect Eliana shares, “The sport of Polo is considered to be a glamour sport played by the elite, not only because you need time and money but also passion and devotion for the lifestyle. Our approach is quite simple; we consider it to be an affordable luxury. These core values of La Martina are embedded into our products without compromising on quality. We believe by having the best-of-breed offerings, we can by reaching out to more consumers who can obtain it everyday. India has been the ideal platform to do this and reach out to its ideal target audience. Alongside existing loyal clients who have been buying La Martina, we have further witnessed new clients buying into the brand and experimenting.”

Target audience and business strategy: The Indian luxury landscape is experiencing strong evolutionary undercurrents that are redefining the consumer profile and how luxury players operate in this domain. Sharing more on the same  Eliana shares, “Our main global target audience is predominantly men as we are a polo inspired brand (since more men are drawn to the sport than women are) however this ratio is rapidly changing and we see more and more women involved in the sport. Simultaneously, we have also witnessed the purchase power of women rising in India, where they seek collaborative opinions and collective influencers such as social media engagement and other digital experiences to finalize their purchase decisions.” She adds, “We will see more and more mobile and Internet penetration on the increase this year, which will be the driving force of this growth change. We have a new global digital strategy and sports marketing strategy in place for 2017 which is La Martina’s new driving force in customer engagement and outreach. Our focus this year is transcending the old and moving towards an era of digital evolution and new customer experiences. We believe that ‘Experience’ is the new brand of today.”

Current outlets and expansion plans: Sharing more on the growth of La Martina Eliana shares, “Being in the luxury business means one must withstand patience and financial commitment. It takes minimum 3-5 years to see a luxury brand in a profitable position. I think we need to look at this not from a prospective of 2-3 years, but a long-term perspective of a 2 decades market. Our market concentration has always been Delhi & in 2015 we opened Hyderabad, which are vital building blocks for the brand. However, we are always looking at widening our target audience and outreach to newer markets. Due to the huge real estate problem (lack of quality destinations) we plan to roll out our next flagship store in another metro city by 2018.” 

Challenges faced and immediate competitors: “High customs duties & mall rentals add a lot of pressure to the sustainability of a brand since there are huge initial investment and operational costs before the get-go. Ideally the rent should be pegged at about 10-12% of the total revenue for a brand to do well. We do expect some trajectory in some new mall developments over the next two years across Delhi & Mumbai to help ease the real estate problem. This is presently a major concern, since there are not enough real estate players to offer the right destination. We don't have direct competitors in India, however Polo Ralph Lauren and Etiqueta Negra 'ride' on the same traditions,” shares Eliana.  

Advice for other brands that are planning to enter the market: Eliana shares, “Due to the lack of high-street culture in India and the fragmented retail environment scenario, one must target medium-traffic luxury mall environments, which attract aspirational and luxury customers. The level of brand visibility, awareness, and footfall traffic a brand receives from a highly luxurious retail environment, are key ingredients to its initial success. One must also be aware of the downsides of doing business in India, where foreign exchange rate fluctuations, rigid import duties and super high rentals are the actual ground reality.”

Advice to the young entrepreneurs:  There’s no real secret to success; if you live with true intention you will never fail whatever you set out to do. Always be at the top of your game. Be true to who you are, no matter the challenges or obstacles. Even if the whole world is against you work hard in silence. Run your own race, who cares others are doing, what’s important is ‘are you progressing’?

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