WARSAW – There is a smell of perfume in the air and salespeople dash between white leather armchairs and handbags worth thousands of euros.
Welcome to the first Polish Louis Vuitton store, which opened in Warsaw earlier this month. I am here to meet Robert Eggs, president of the French luxury brand for Northern Europe.
The 47-year-old, who made the switch to luxury handbags after selling coffee for 17 years at Nestle, visited Poland six times before finding the perfect location for Luis Vuitton’s 270-square-meter store.
Before settling on the upscale Vitkac department store, in one of Warsaw’s busiest shopping districts, the French luxury-goods maker analyzed pedestrian traffic in different corners of the city, observed shopping habits, and visited the stores of its competitors. “In retail you need to experience everything by yourself," Eggs explains. "Observation is the best method, but it takes time.”
The brand also polled Polish customers in Louis Vuitton stores in Munich, Berlin, London and Paris about the planned location of the future Warsaw store and got great reactions. “That was the final confirmation for us,” says Eggs.
Louis Vuitton is the flagship brand of French conglomerate LVMH, which also owns such luxury brands as Bulgari, Givenchy and Dom Perignon. According to the Sanford Bernstein sell-side research firm, Vuitton handbags generate a half of the operating income of the LVMH, and a revenue of 7.4 billion euros per year. That's seven times more than Poles spend per year on luxury goods in total (excluding cars), according to KPMG.
Nevertheless, the Polish luxury market enjoyed a 50% growth during 2000-2010, increasing much faster than the global luxury market, which is currently worth 210 billion euros.
"The Polish market recorded a solid rise, but that is not the only element we take into account," Eggs says. "Demand and potential are also important to us, and the latter is quite big in Poland. About 30% of luxury labels still aren’t available here."
No discounts, no sales
Eggs is not keen on talking about prices, although he reveals that the cheapest thing in the Warsaw shop is a calendar refill – 149 zlotys (35 euros). The lowest price for a bag is 2,100 zlotys (492 euros), while the most expensive piece from the exotic series – made of python, ostrich or crocodile leather – goes for more than 85,000 zlotys (19,920 euros).
When I ask how many of those bags they hope to sell, he answers: “2,700 BMW cars were sold last year in Poland. That’s quite a lot considering the price of these cars is 50,000 euros.”
“Fifty thousand euros for a car is not the same as 20,000 for a handbag,” I point out.
“Ask women. Many would prefer the bag,” he answers.
“A buyer often behaves irrationally, so there is no way to tell who will buy what in the Warsaw store,” explains Eggs. "I visited our shop in the south of Italy once. There was a young boy, at most 16 years old, who came to buy a leather belt for his mother. The few hundred euros he paid were mostly in change – he had been saving the money for two years. When you witness that kind of situation you understand that the age, the education or the income aren’t the most important factors for our brand,” he says.
The label is strong enough to have a very simple sale strategy: no sales, no discounts and no outlets. Products are available only in the Luis Vuitton stores. Though I could swear I saw a Luis Vuitton shop in the British luxury brands outlet in Bicester Village, near Oxford.
“That is not possible,” Eggs says.
“But I was there a couple of months ago and saw it with my own eyes,” I insist.
“We are not there,” he says.
Sneering, I check the website of the outlet and realize I need to wipe the smile off my face: There are Burberry, Fendi, Furla, Kate Spade and Prada stores but no trace of Luis Vuitton.
Louis Vuitton doesn’t bargain, and the label insists that its employees know why. Salespeople are invited to participate in workshops held in the firm’s six French sites, so that they can witness how much heart is put into the creation process.
“Are you not going to stay for the press conference?” asks Eggs. “That’s a shame because you'll miss out on a flute of an excellent champagne.”
As I head toward the exit, a man in a suit and a short haircut suddenly stops me. “Open the bag, please,” he orders. I cannot believe it. I still have the words about the brand’s prestige ringing in my ears. The security guard has to repeat: “Open the bag, please.”
Do they intend to treat their high-net-worth customers this way, or is this just a special bonus for special clients and the press at the opening day? "There are many people inside the shop today — finishing touches are still being carried out — that is why everybody is searched," says Magdalena Bulera-Payne, Louis Vuitton’s public relations consultant. "I have been undergoing this procedure myself for a couple of days, but be assured, it will not become a habit and our clients will not be searched like this.”
Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?
BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.
The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.
This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.
Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.
"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.
Can you trust environmental officials?
For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.
This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.
It could have sunk because of the rain.
After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.
The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.
"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.
"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.
Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water
A questionable claim
That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.
"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.
He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."
Living in pollution
The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.
"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.
He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.
The mining work should have been stopped long ago
Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.
The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.
In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.
The mine has affected the landscape around the villages
Resisting lignite mining
The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.
The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.
They were dependent on others' land for work.
Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.
In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.
The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.
"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.