Too Sexy, By Far

Jul 7, 2006 | Gloria Vanderbilt

Too Sexy, By Far

Economic Times (Corporate Dossier),  7th July 2006

Back in the ’70s, when jeans were a coveted product in India, available only to those few kids whose relatives made trips abroad, we heard the story of one Mohan Murjani, a Hong Kong based entrepreneur who was creating waves in the American markets with a range of designer jeans under the label ‘Gloria Vanderbilt for Murjani’.

For the deprived citizens of a closed economy, this sudden rise of an Indian brand name in global fashion was astonishing to say the least, and though branded jeans would continued to elude us for two more decades, everyone was rather proud of Murjani, and the name attained iconic status.

Murjani followed up his initial success with the creation of Tommy Hilfiger in the ’80s, providing the then little-known designer with the financial backing that enabled him to grow to the $1.6 billion brand he now is. A financial crisis in the group forced Murjani to sell Tommy Hilfiger Inc in 1988, but by then he’d already ensured a place for himself in fashion history.

Murjani’s now back in business, this time with a plan focused on India. In a market that’s moved from craving branded jeans to casually consuming the most expensive designer wear, Murjani is launching some of the world’s biggest brands – Gucci, Jimmy Choo and yes, Tommy Hilfiger, the brand he once owned 100%. And no, he doesn’t view this phase of his career as a come down. “This is special – building a business in India is a dream comes true for me,” he says.

“Besides, I have these jewels in my basket, brands that every Indian business house has tried but failed to get.” Murjani’s Indian summer is being looked after by his son Vijay, who moved from New York to Mumbai to take up residence at the Wellingdon Mews four years ago.

The group company in India, innocuously named Brand Marketing, has tied up with six global brands since then, including Build-A-Bear Workshop Inc, a retailer of customised stuffed animals. Pradeep Mansukhani, former head of sales at Marico, who has recently joined Brand Marketing as COO, says, “We expect to have at least 16 brands in the luxury, premium and speciality categories in the next three years, and we’re in the process of creating the organisational structure to support this.”

The 60-year-old Murjani leaves it to his executives to talk about future business plans. He’s at his animated best when talking of the past, of when his father, an immigrant from Sindh who went on to build the world’s largest garment factory in Hong Kong, threw a party to announce his retirement.

The senior Murjani then went off on a cruise, leaving his son, freshly graduated from the Babson Institute of Business Administration, USA, to run the operation. “I had no love for manufacturing,” Murjani recalls. “I was into marketing and my first initiative was to set up marketing companies in New York and London.”

Murjani credits his wife Guni for his hugely successful foray into denim wear for women. The two were on holiday in the south of France when Guni went into a small store and bought herself a pair of jeans. “I asked her why she needed to buy here when we were making jeans for very major brand and she said, ‘Because these jeans fit me’. I realised it was true – none of the major jeans brands were tailored to the body shape of women.”

Murjani then set off on a project to create a range of tight fit jeans for women and when he was sure he’d got it right, he got the American heiress-socialite Gloria Vanderbilt (the ’70s equivalent of Paris Hilton) to lend her name and promote it in a series of television ads.

Moderately priced and available in departmental stores, the label was a major hit. “Most Americans found it hard to believe that it was owned by an Indian,” says Murjani. “They assumed I was an Italian.” Next, Murjani was ready to move into high margin haute couture and this time he decided to keep the corporate brand in the background and promote a designer.

“When I first met Tommy Hilfiger, he was thinking of changing his name to Tommy Hill because people couldn’t pronounce Hilfiger,” recalls Murjani. “I told him to stay with his unique name.” Murjani had become so famous by then that former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi sought him out on a visit to the USA, and asked him to help market India to the rest of the world. Murjani at first agreed – then backed out.

“I called the Prime Minister and said I was sorry, but I just couldn’t handle working with the bureaucracy, which obviously resented my role,” he says. But Murjani later did get involved in setting up the National Institutes of Fashion Technology under the ministry of textiles.

This international fashion czar also happens to be spiritually inclined and he’s been associated with the Sadhu Vaswani Mission, Pune, and involved in several charitable causes, mostly in the area of rural healthcare. With a business that’s fast growing, Murjani’s now looking forward to more frequent visits to India. And thirty years after he first created a sensation, a new generation is set to hear of the Murjani name once again.

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