Louis Vuitton VIPs, Lenin and Camel Polo

Just last week I corrected my Mongolian in-law’s 11 year old girl who showed me her bootleg Louis Vuitton hair bow. She read “VL”. She was showing off her English alphabet reading skills, but I corrected her and said “LV for Louis Vuitton”. She repeated it back to me once or twice, but got bored with trying to pronounce “Vuitton”.

There’s a Louis Vuitton store in Mongolia, in an upscale shopping center sandwiched between Sukhbaatar Square  and the Ulaanbaatar Hotel. Sukhbaatar square is home to a giant monument to Sukhbaatar Damdin, a Mongolian revolutionary who fought for independence from China, which later led to Communist Soviet governance. The Ulaanbaatar Hotel has been around since 1961 and plays host to dignitaries, politicians and world leaders visiting Mongolia. Out in front is a beyond life-sized statue of Lenin, who is rumored to have some Mongolian blood in him on his father’s side, and is a loved figure in Mongolian political history.  The hotel is a 5 star joint that is way beyond the price range of the average tourist looking for a nomadic adventure with the convenience of a hot shower, and its typical customer is still of the elite, diplomatic variety. Economic diplomats are more common here than political ones these days. The store has been the perfect centerpiece for any story about “Minegolia” and the boom-town economy, that has been written for the last 2-3 years.

When the Louis Vuitton store opened here, Mongolia was upgraded from country with lots of velour LV car seat covers being sold on the roadside, to a country with an actual boutique, complete with security guards at the door and sales people taught to size up the spending power of each customer that walks through the door. Books have been written about the fervent efforts to grow luxury brands around the globe, and studies have been done about who is consuming these items in these new marketplaces, and how they are able to consume them. The question I get asked most often about the LV store in UB is “Who can afford to shop there?”. I’ve been in the shop twice, and the only paying customers I’ve ever seen have been Chinese. Probably businessmen passing through, based on my years of experience people-watching in high end duty-free department stores around Asia.

The Wall Street Journal wrote about Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Christian Dior and others working hard to build a Chinese clientele and keep them. VIP customers are being treated to perks galore. Beyond personal shopping and private tours of flagship stores, some Chinese Louis Vuitton clients were flown by private helicopter to watch a camel polo match in Mongolia.

I’m not sure if this is the future that Sukhbaatar had in mind for an independent Mongolia — day-trip playground for the newly wealthy Chinese label whore *cough-sputter*–  I mean, “brand conscious” consumer. This is however the future that has been projected for luxury brands for the last five years. As the strongholds of the global economy have shifted from West to East, growth in the luxury brand market has been rising. The new Asian consumer is younger,well-traveled, and practical about wanting every-day items. It’s got luxury brands re-thinking and re-developing all over the place. I’m not sure that camel polo team sponsorship is part of that brand re-structuring, but it’s something to think about… “Team Gobi” limited edition polo shirts anyone?