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The rebranding of Asia

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaCould David Copperfield make India disappear? Delhi Airport has. It's a neat trick. Airports are dumping Asian heritage in their rush for hoity-toity designer brands.


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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Designer brands dominate airport duty-free shops

Welcome to Asia and a little bit of our rich cultural heritage

I WAS passing through New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport when the thought struck me that it would be fun – and impishly prudent – to steer well away from all that Hong Kong mall designer brand glitz to pick up something local, authentic, Indian and, above all, cheap. Not that I was being a skinflint. After all Gandhi had showed the way to true thrift fifty years before – not that any Indian was listening – opting for simple homespun cotton over anything Harrods or Saks might trot out.

The very same cotton and silk has returned to bite us with astronomically priced labels from Dior to Gucci. But why pander to nouveau riche measures of friendship by the carat? That feeble preoccupation is a stupendous burden to both pride and pocket. I suddenly recalled, perhaps even fondly, how decrepit uncles and aunts would gather round at Christmas, having dug deep into their savings, to produce a pair of socks or a brace of handkerchiefs. “Santa sent this?” we’d chorus in dismay, trooping off sadly holding aloft our prizes as our parents thwacked our heads demanding a smile.

I’m not decrepit yet, though I’m getting there at a goodly clip. But socks? Nah. I needed Indian trinkets, the kind that put a smile on the face of nubile women, bringing them at a canter for intriguing handouts. Stirred by visions of an onslaught of importunate flesh, I started my trawl of the new Terminal 3.

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As a schoolboy I would visit Mussourie, then a wondrous Himalayan hill station, and pick Rs1 earrings at the flea markets to distribute to starry eyed girls at my school in Delhi. This won much adoration but not a whole lot more, and my friends and I continued our vigorous exploration of impending adulthood intently reading underlined passages from Harold Robbins.

{My friends and I continued our vigorous exploration of impending adulthood, intently reading underlined passages from Harold Robbins...

We wondered what it meant when someone said “Aaaarrgghhh I’m coming.” Why didn’t they simply say, “I’m coming (or going, for that matter). Would you like to come along?” And who was Aaargh? Some wild Scotsman? A deranged caveman? The Oxford dictionary failed to enlighten us with its definition of aargh – ‘an expression of anguish, horror, rage.’

I looked around. Where were the tie-and-dye scarves, the stitched leather, the silk sarees, the cotton kurtas? I found, Salvatore Ferragamo, Swarovski, Victoria’s Secret… all very Indian I suppose, if this were 2050 and the world economy had finally come full circle to the days when Mughal India was a commercial powerhouse rather than puff-and-sag samosa economy.

Ishana, my go-to store with its chill-out music and fabulous buys was already deep into its morph from a repository of excellence to a depository of tourist junk. I looked harder. But India was in retreat. Glaringly visible in its place was a full blown recolonization of the subcontinent by big brands and pseudo-schmick Euro-schlock.

I wondered why any sensible Italian traveller would come to India – braving mosquitoes, dust, traffic and Delhi Belly – to buy Ferragamo shoes, or a why the French beau monde would totter into New Delhi’s T3 bleary eyed at 3am – fresh from a trip to the magical Taj – to shop for Louis Vuitton. It’s almost as daft as an Indian flying to Hamburg to buy sarees, unless it were a clever cover for a Reeperbahn expedition.

The story’s the same at airports around Asia. Local ingenuity is being tossed aside for muscle brands that can afford to pay a premium rent. Small home brewed designers (who are the very breath and soul of a Paris or a London) are nowhere to be seen.

The duty-free shopping at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi is monopolised by a company called King Power, with the result, every store sells the same limited stuff and of a uniquely depressing quality. There is a smattering of excessively priced silk from Jim Thompson but, on the whole, the airport is wall to wall Chanel, Dior, BVLGARI, Burberry.

Singapore is no different. Nor are Kuala Lumpur, Dubai, Doha, Seoul (Incheon), or Shanghai. What ails Asian airports and why do they not reflect the vibrant and rich cultures they claim to represent?

Airports should be grand showcases of any country’s rich and diverse art, textiles and handicraft, a tour de force to dazzle and engage millions of bored travellers – with money to spend – not a giant shelf for mass produced souvenirs from China masquerading as local tribal endeavour. And this is where national vision falls short. In fact there is no vision. The chase for dollars (read higher rents) has turned Asian transits into a remarkably dull experience.

It is time for local brands to fight back. In Asia’s capitals they are fighting a rearguard action not just at airports but on major shopping streets where giant flagship stores are bulldozing family enterprise with shameless alacrity. In Hong Kong, small restaurants that have been awarded Michelin Stars are alarmed. They do not want a star. Why? Because their landlord will up the rent. Be it a restaurant, or a fashion name, local ‘brands’ are an endangered species.

It is time for the appropriate government ministries – or private sector bodies entrusted with airport management – to intervene. And for sensible airline passengers everywhere – and not just those of literary bent like me – to stand up and shout, “AARGH.”

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