November 1, 2013 6:46 pm

New York entrepreneur’s high-end fashion store in Mumbai

Le Mill co-founder Cecilia Morelli Parikh discovered the advantages of being a newcomer to the Indian city

The patterned floors in Cecilia Morelli Parikh’s art deco apartment in Mumbai are almost as striking as the sweeping sea view from her living room. Made using cement and marble tiles, the black, white and grey floors underscore the 31-year-old entrepreneur’s continuing endeavour to shape the homes and lives of Mumbai’s elite in a stylish and understated way.

One of three co-founders of Le Mill, a fashion and home store in south Mumbai, Morelli Parikh lives with her husband, Rohan Parikh, and their collie dog, in a 1930s apartment on Marine Drive, the city’s most famous promenade. The couple met in 2007, while Morelli Parikh was in Mumbai on a year-long contract with the Indian edition of Vogue. Rohan, a third-generation member of a Gujarati business family, grew up on Marine Drive and was keen to remain in the area.

After their wedding in 2010, Morelli Parikh turned her attention to their new home: “We wanted to retain all the original art deco features of the space, such as the high ceilings, the double-doors with brass handles, and the round windows in the bathrooms. But we also wanted a spare, neutral and younger look, through a specific mix of furniture by Indian and European designers,” she says.

As she was renovating the space, Morelli Parikh sensed a need for more local stores catering for people looking for a contemporary aesthetic – for those “seeking to differentiate their homes from those of their parents,” she adds. Along with fellow expats, Julie Leymarie and Aurelie de Limelette, she drew on her previous experience as a merchandiser with Bergdorf Goodman in New York to set up the first Le Mill store in 2011. The 15,000 sq ft space offers designer fashion and furniture, and has introduced several European brands to India, such as Gervasoni and Fritz Hansen.

Le Mill’s location – a former rice mill belonging to the Parikh family in a gritty docklands district – was unexpected and prompted concerns about its long-term feasibility.

But Morelli Parikh discovered the advantages of being a newcomer, with a fresh perspective on the local property market. “I think I must have seen over 40 potential store locations and they were very expensive – I could never make the numbers work,” she says. The area also had the added draw of less traffic, compared with other, more developed neighbourhoods. “Not being able to walk in Mumbai and always being in traffic drives me insane,” she says.

Loaders wait for jobs at the Crawford Market©Subhash Sharma

Loaders wait for jobs at the Crawford Market

Over time, the store engaged with the local community by hiring local residents. The perceived dichotomy between Le Mill shoppers and residents grew into a healthy ecosystem. “Some local women have gainful employment for the first time in their lives because they can care for their families and earn an income without having to commute,” says Morelli Parikh. It wasn’t long before she decided to open a second clothing store in Breach Candy, an upmarket neighbourhood, also in south Mumbai. Here Morelli Parikh wants to present “brands, sizes and silhouettes which are suited to the Indian body, Indian lifestyle and Indian functions.”

Moving to a new city was not a challenge in itself. Born in the US to an Italian father and French mother, and having studied in Paris and London, the Yale graduate thinks of herself as a global citizen. “I think that today a lot of us in London and New York have become so global that what we belong to is just the city we’re in, more than any particular country,” she says.

Marrying into a different culture was also easier than might be expected. “My husband’s family and the community were very welcoming,” she says. Since moving to Mumbai she has made many friends, largely outside the expat community.

The new venture leans heavily on the family’s established shipping and logistics business for support. “They move power plants, they don’t move ten dresses by Isabel Marant, but they’ve been able to give us their expertise, whether it’s navigating the tax system, hiring the right people or getting the right permits,” says Morelli Parikh. Rohan’s sister, Anuja Parikh, is also involved full-time with the business.

Adapting to daily life in Mumbai, however, has been more challenging. What the art history graduate misses most is an active cultural calendar, particularly “museums, theatre, opera.” She adds: “I used to go once a week to see a play, and at least twice a week to go see something to do with art. There’s not enough art, and not much of a cultural community here.”

Setting up a niche high-end business in an emerging market has had its drawbacks, especially since well-heeled Indians usually prefer shopping abroad for branded goods. “The irony is that Singapore and Hong Kong are 30 per cent more expensive than what I’m selling in my store, and my clients are still shopping in Singapore and Hong Kong,” says Morelli Parikh.

Margins are slimmer than for retailers abroad, as she wants to absorb import duties to ensure price parity between her stock and those elsewhere. The market base is limited, but growing – 60 per cent of revenues at the Breach Candy store come from a roster of 50 women.

Morelli Parikh’s biggest strength is her dual outlook. “I’m like a sponge,” she says, “I can absorb and become part of a culture very quickly.”

This perspective has allowed her to blend three of south Mumbai’s most defining characteristics: an entrepreneurial mindset, a supportive business family, and a penchant for the good life – a promising recipe for anyone in the lifestyle business.

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India’s growing interest in high-end interiors

For most affluent Indians, homes are the centrepiece of social life. Gatherings include religious celebrations with extended family, cocktail parties with business associates, children’s birthday parties, and poker nights with friends.

Since guests are usually well-travelled, one’s home has to be designed to global standards; a task facilitated in recent years by higher disposable income, a more design-literate interior design community, and easy access to high-end brands and European trade fairs. Several leading brands, such as Italy’s Poltrona Frau group, have set up showrooms or appointed distributors. In the biggest markets of Mumbai and Delhi, new home retail districts have emerged.

Interior design budgets have steadily moved upwards, despite the uncertain economy and sluggish property market. “A few years ago people were spending Rs10,000 (£100) per sq ft on interiors for a luxury home. But today, anything less than Rs20,000 per sq ft means cutting corners,” says Manish Khemka, the proprietor of Systa Works, a Mumbai-based importer of Italian furniture brands. He says his clients often spend between Rs50m and Rs100m on their home interiors.

Mandeep Nagi, design director at Shades of India, a high-end Indian home textile brand, is surprised by how much customers are spending on their homes – between Rs2m and Rs3m on soft furnishings, in some cases. A client recently spent Rs5m just on curtains, she says.

Both Nagi and Khemka also report greater customer willingness to invest in technology, accessories and hardware that is out the way or hidden from view.

“I was quite surprised when the Paola Lenti line of outdoor furniture did well with customers, since balconies were quite neglected earlier,” says Khemka. “People are now realising they want to enjoy their entire home, not just restrict themselves to a fantastic living room.”

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Buying guide

Pros

● Good business opportunities

● Growing restaurant scene

● The availability of a motivated workforce that is keen to learn

Cons

● Severe traffic and crowded streets

● Limited art scene

● A high amount of litter

What you can buy for . . .

£100,000: A two- or three-bedroom apartment in a new high-rise on the outskirts of the city

£1m: A three-bedroom apartment in an older building in a prime neighbourhood, or a three-bedroom apartment in a new high-rise in a slightly less upmarket area

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