"After years abroad… I came 'home' to a metropolis in 1968-69 but found it essentially unchanged. True, the town I had known had grown bigger, become more populous and acquired an industrial base. But at heart it had remained the charming overgrown village of the '30s and '40s and '50s; a leisurely, gracious town with quaint, old-world values…"
That was S Muthiah, journalist and historian, writing about Chennai, then Madras, in the preface to Madras Rediscovered in December 1981.
But any long-time resident of the city will tell you that even as recently as the mid-2000s, Chennai was still more large town than glitzy metropolis, known more for its sprawling silk sari showrooms than designer brands.
While malls mushroomed in neighbouring Bangalore, crowned by UB City which opened in January 2008 housing brands like Jimmy Choo and Louis Vuitton, Chennai had to be content with local designer labels, the odd high-street brand and Spencer Plaza mall that was once one of the biggest in the country but is no luxury shopping destination. But this might finally be changing.
On quiet, tree-lined Khader Nawaz Khan Road stands Bergamo, a white, three-storey building modelled on Renaissance Italian architecture and the city's first mall dedicated to luxury brands.
Bergamo (seen here) is where Louis Vuitton opened its fifth store in the country last month, after two in Mumbai and one each in Delhi and Bangalore.
Shatrujit Singh, chief representative of Louis Vuitton in India, says Chennai was an obvious choice for the next store. "It's a very big market, and one that's growing… it represents a huge opportunity," he says.
Quite a few luxury brands are setting up shop in the city, he points out and "everyone's done their homework".
The only reason Louis Vuitton did not come to the city sooner, says Singh, is lack of suitable retail space and not because of any apprehensions of the market's potential.
"This is just the beginning of our romance with Chennai," Singh adds with a flourish.
Text: Indulekha Aravind, Business Standard
Image Courtesy: Bergamo