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Dinaz Madhukar: Purveyor of Luxury

  • The executive vice-president of DLF Luxury, talks to Mint about pioneering luxury retail in India
  • Before making the big switch to luxury retail, Madhukar worked with Taj Hotels for 25 years

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Dinaz Madhukar, 55, is explaining the parameters of a good bag. “Bags are a weakness for me, but they need to be very functional,” she says. “I like my bags with structure and compartments, so I can put my laptop inside. I hate carrying laptop bags, and I hate carrying multiple bags.”

Bags are just one of the fashionable things she loves—Madhukar is known for her beautiful handloom saris, and loves a great pair of shoes as much as her bags.

Madhukar calls herself a shopaholic, and it is only fitting that she believes in retail therapy. As executive vice-president of DLF Luxury Retail & Hospitality, she has helped bring some of the world’s biggest luxury brands to India. I am meeting Madhukar at MKT, a conceptual dining space at The Chanakya, DLF’s newest luxury mall in Delhi’s Chanakyapuri neighbourhood. Formerly an iconic theatre, the space now houses flagship stores of Hermès, Chanel and the country’s first Ralph Lauren store, as well as Indian brands. With 17 fine-dining options on offer, across live kitchens designed by New York’s Rockwell Group, MKT aims to offer a culinary experience that lives up to the space.

“We realized that we needed two things (at The Chanakya)—the right kind of brands that would pull in footfalls by themselves, and an anchor that will not be linked especially with the retail aspects,” Madhukar says about MKT. “We came up with a concept of how we can work with Avni (Biyani), on integrating Foodhall into the space and doing the food and beverage ourselves.” Running a luxurious gastronomic space (it’s too chic to be called a food court) with multiple live kitchens and cuisines is no mean feat. Before spearheading operations at The Chanakya, DLF Emporio, DLF Promenade and the Lodhi Hotel in Delhi, she spent over two decades working with the Taj Hotels, finally becoming the general manager of Taj Connemara, Chennai.

At first glance, Madhukar looks intimidating—tall, often dressed in saris, and blessed with a deep-throated voice that can shut down any boardroom. Chat her up, however, and she’s full of light and laughter—she describes herself as bindaas, referring to her upbringing in Mumbai. The youngest of three siblings in a Parsi household, her childhood was carefree.

She did most of her schooling as a boarder at the Bai Avabai Framji Petit Girls High School in Bandra. She was a good student, with an insatiable appetite for reading that continues to this day. “I am one of those people who takes everything that comes to her as reading material. By the start of the year, I would have already finished my textbooks.”

Madhukar went on to study commerce at Bhavan’s College in Mumbai. But it was her typing skills that got Madhukar her first job. “In those days, Parsi parents would send their daughters to secretarial schools as an assurance that they would get jobs,” she says. She heard about openings in the Taj Hotels’ international travel and trade department and walked in for an interview. “They liked my test and took me on a two-day trial,” she says. “Later, they told me that they took me because I apparently told them that I would also take them on a two-day trial, to see whether I enjoyed working with them.”

Madhukar worked with the group for 25 years. After her father’s death, she moved with her mother to Bengaluru and joined the Taj Residency, where she helped open the business centre and worked in guest relations. This is where she met her husband, who worked at the property’s front desk. The story of their marriage in 1988 could give any 1980s Bollywood film a run for its money. Apprehensive about marrying outside the community, Madhukar kept it a secret. “I called my siblings (on phone) but told them not to come. I got ready in the morning like I was going to work, changed and went to court, got married and came back home in the evening.” Her mother found out six months later—she was furious. “She gave away everything that belonged to me. I had nothing except my uniform on my back,” says Madhukar.

“My husband said let’s use this as an opportunity to build something for ourselves.” She moved to Yemen in 1989 to live with her husband, who had moved to the Taj Sheba Hotel. Madhukar was posted in the F&B division, and deputed to run the speciality restaurant. “I had two-and-a-half staff (one of the chefs worked part-time) to run a 100-seater restaurant with a seven-member Filipino band and four cuisines—Chinese, Indian, Arabic and Italian. I was the manager, hostess, order-taker and counter chef.... I love challenges, but I was also given a lot of liberties,” she says.

As a working mother (her son was born in 1991) in a hectic environment, she found her support group in the hotel. “He grew up as a community child—everyone on the staff took care of him,” she says. Madhukar lived in Yemen for six years, working even during the Iraq-Kuwait war. She returned to Bengaluru in 1995, switching from operations to training. She was expecting her second child, a daughter.

After Bengaluru, Madhukar moved with her family to Kochi—her husband was deputed to the Taj Residency there. She took up the position of training manager for Taj Kerala Hotels, based out of Taj Malabar Resort & Spa. Her work took her all around the Kerala backwaters, to Dubai, and even back to Yemen, but Madhukar switched back to operations to spend more time with her children.

After Kochi, Madhukar was posted as accommodations manager at the Taj Krishna in Hyderabad; this was followed by a stint as resident manager of Taj Mahal Delhi, and, finally, the Taj Connemara from 2007-10.

Then came the big switch from hospitality to retail. “I would get bored very easily. Every three years, I would get a craving to move on—I would change my department, or city, or hotel,” Madhukar says. “DLF caught me at the right time, just as I completed my three years (as general manager).”

DLF offered her a job in 2010. DLF Emporio launched in 2008, but the luxury market was at a nascent stage.

Her experience in luxury hotels came with its advantages. “We had to work a lot on perception and as a (former) trainer, I knew well how to work with perception. People assumed India was a dumping ground for luxury brands, so we used to have LED screens to showcase the latest runway collections,” she says. “We introduced hands-free shopping, concierge services and stylists-on-call to enhance customer experience. We worked with the brands to curate the right window displays (especially during sale season).”

A decade is a long time in a mall’s life cycle, but DLF Emporio, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2018, is still going strong.

Madhukar and the DLF team have incorporated learnings from Emporio into the conceptualization of The Chanakya. A more intimate and compact space, The Chanakya is bringing newer names into the spotlight, especially Indian brands—Perona, Good Earth Shalimar, Janavi, Grassroot by Anita Dongre and Nykaa Luxe. New international brands, including Brunello Cucinelli and Alexander McQueen, too are slated to launch this year.

With so many brands entering the country, Madhukar highlights the need to develop the market. “Whenever I am pitching (to international brands), I pitch India first, and then Delhi. India is a two-city market (for luxury): Mumbai and Delhi. The consumption trends in both cities are unique,” she says. “Now, many brands are asking to come in—including niche brands. The market itself has matured—earlier, it was all about the logos, and we can see the transition that has happened.” The entry of affordable luxury brands like Kate Spade, Michael Kors and Coach has also made a difference. “The growth (of the luxury market) is faster because we have entry-level brands. For you (a customer) to make the jump from 10,000 to 30,000 and then to 1 lakh is much easier. And once you use a product, you understand its value.”

Educating clients about the value of luxury, says Madhukar, can be the real game-changer. Both DLF Emporio and The Chanakya host experiential events, from fashion previews to culinary workshops. “We do a lot of sessions on artisanal luxury—for instance, we recently had Santoni’s artisans show how their shoes are stitched (in DLF Emporio).”

Madhukar’s hospitality experience explains her emphasis on such events. “It all came from the transition of being a customer to a guest, and what we would like to do with them. We pair up with like-minded brands...,” she says.

Her work may keep her on her toes, but Madhukar thrives on work-life balance. Her husband, who now works in real estate, and daughter have moved to Delhi and Madhukar makes ample time for her family and hobbies—still a bookworm, she reads late into the night.

As we come to the end of our meal, she reveals her other passion. “I wandered lonely as a crowd,” she starts, reciting William Wordsworth’s Daffodils. “I have a phenomenal memory for poetry and there’s always a book of poems on my Kindle.”

As for work, you will often find Madhukar walking through DLF Emporio and The Chanakya, trying to get the pulse of the guests. She has a favourite table in MKT from where she gets a bird’s-eye view of the space, another habit from her days in hotels. “When I need to think, I go to a corner behind the pantry—nobody goes there.”

Who says a mall can’t be a sanctuary?

Currently reading

‘MOSSAD: The Greatest Missions Of The Israeli Secret Service’ by Michael Bar-Zohar and Nissim Mishal

Go-to handbag

TODS Crossbody

Last vacation

Florence…I love walking around the Duomo. And culture walks around the city.

Favourite sari labels

Neeru Kumar and Taj Khazana

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