Looking up at the façade of JK House in Breach Candy from the entrance, you can hardly see the top storey. If the sheer stature of the structure isn’t imposing enough, a 45-foot marble canopy abuts the building and, in it, Lala Kailashpat Singhania is seated on a throne that once housed a statue of Queen Victoria. Since its inception in 1925, The Raymond Group has dethroned many others, while steadily establishing its dominance over India’s industrial landscape.
In Mumbai, even under an overcast sky, the Singhania lineage and legacy is safely set in stone — within this elaborate gothic shelter, and metaphorically, of course.
Despite the rain, which is threatening to play spoilsport, we trudge into Raymond’s relatively new Atelier at JK House, for a sit-down with group head honcho Gautam Singhania. Here the marble is brand new, intricate carving makes way for clean lines, and contemporary design is used to inspire — right down to a giant, room-defining video wall. The Atelier is an ode to luxury; a space within which the well-heeled can create customised shoes, ceremonial wear and even jeans. The bespoke suit may be the cornerstone of this business, but when you can customise even a T-shirt to exacting specifications, the temptation to truly indulge yourself is overwhelming.
Indulgence appears to be a recurring theme when it comes to the man in the hot seat. From fast cars to luxury yachts and private jets, extravagance seems commonplace for Gautam Singhania. He can wax eloquent on Lamborghinis, Ferraris and McLarens — “To a layman they may seem similar, but they are very, very different,” he asserts — and his lifestyle merits a question on the Bombardier Challenger 604 business jet he’s been criss-crossing the globe in for some time now. It is only as we peel away at the façade, and go beyond the obvious, that a complex, captivating picture emerges. You’d never imagine it, but an auto rickshaw is parked alongside Mr. Singhania’s many supercars — “A bespoke auto rickshaw with a wild music system!” — and the Bombardier jet we’re curious about has been marked for sale on the day of our meeting. “I am extremely disciplined, contrary to what one might imagine,” I am told, and the proof is overwhelming. For years, I have heard about Gautam Singhania’s legendary parties and his penchant for living life in the fast lane. Yet, seated across from me, is a man who works until midnight all seven days of the week, while juggling his commitments at a terrifying pace.
The other Gautam takes off with his posse of pals for a five-day getaway — “We were away only last week,” he says, while I imagine what a wild time that must have been — but this Mr. Singhania is steely-eyed; with even my tried-and-tested banter failing to elicit much of a smile.
Clearly, compartmentalisation is his specialty. The father who allows his two little girls “every liberty a daughter may take with her dad,” is at odds with the tycoon who can hardly stand for the camera for long enough to have a few good shots taken. Contradiction, it seems, makes for the complete man — and this makes Gautam Singhania far more fascinating. A death-defying racer with a passion for life. A man undaunted by car crashes or familial discord. Both disciplined and indulgent, but with single-minded purpose.
“When I set my mind to something, then I work at breakneck speed. This Atelier went from concept to completion in less than 45 days,” says Raymond’s Chairman and Managing Director. It seems like the impossible made possible, but that’s what you get when the man in charge constantly has his pedal to the metal. Does this need for speed make it torturous when bureaucratic issues cause delays and snags? “You do run into problems sometimes, but that’s okay. What’s not in your control is not in your control,” Mr. Singhania retorts. The things he can control, however, are specified with clarity and executed to perfection — The Atelier itself being a case in point. “Being part of Raymond, I always had the privilege of telling them to make this for me or that for me… sometimes it was a custom pair of jeans or even the pin I am wearing today,” he says, pointing to the gold and diamond Raymond mnemonic on his lapel. “At some point I simply said, ‘Why can’t we do this for our customers?’ and so The Atelier was born. It soon evolved into a complete bespoke offering, from leather accessories, khadi, ethnicwear and perfumes to a staggering range of shoes. Now I find myself wearing Raymond 95 per cent of the time. I give them the concept, they draw it, get an approval and execute the job.”
For a man who knows what he wants, this is the ultimate thrill — like being in the driver’s seat even when it comes to his wardrobe. But while fabrics and fashion are a large part of his business, cars and motor sports are his premier passion. Having founded the Super Car Club (SCC) in India in 2009, Singhania has dedicated himself to promoting motor sport in our neck of the woods. He is no longer perceived as an aficionado alone, but as a force to be reckoned with. He is a titular member of the World Motor Sport Council (WMSC) and his association with the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) gives the region bragging rights — it isn’t just a matter of personal pride.
“My job (as a member of the WMSC) is to really promote motor sport in this part of the world. I’ve done that for many years anyway, but this makes it a little more official. And I’m enjoying it. India now has a representative in the world body, which is a good thing. It’s always good, in any sport — whether it is the International Olympic Committee (IOC), where Nita (Ambani) is a member, or whether it’s the International Cricket Council (ICC), where we have a number of people in leadership roles. I personally see the potential for motorsport in India to be very large. We haven’t even scratched the surface. With Gaurav Gill receiving an Arjuna Award — it is the first time in our history that any motorsport driver has been conferred with this honour — motorsport itself is being recognised as a sport, as opposed to something people do for fun. I am extremely happy to see this and I think it will give a big fillip to the sport.”
The serious aspect of the sport aside, cars are Singhania’s sacred space — not so much his downtime distraction, but more the fervour that fuels him. He refuses to commit to a favourite car, or even tell me how many he owns. The only time he chuckles is when I press for a number — “Is it an ab tak chhappan situation?” I ask, and he responds, “I can only say I own a few cars.” These ‘few cars’ keep him perennially enthused; dreaming up novel ways to push the envelope with projects that an amateur may consider ‘tinkering,’ when, in fact, they are so much more. “I am always researching new cars and new projects — it is my way of relaxing. I am constantly doing different projects. I do whatever I fancy. Many projects start off with a “Hey, why don’t we…?” and then we develop the idea. Many of these ideas come to fruition, while others fall by the wayside. We may decide that the project isn’t worth it, that it is not going to work, or that it may be too complicated or too expensive for what we are trying to achieve, but sometimes we have exceeded our expectations and built something special.”
For Singhania, racing proves to be a metaphor for life in many ways. Despite two horrific accidents — one as a bystander at the Ferrari Challenge in Monticello and the other at Rockingham while testing a car — this tenacious tycoon keeps coming back for more. “The only way to overcome fear is to face it,” he says. “Crashes don’t make me nervous. They make me more determined to bounce back. I believe life is a journey, not a destination. Reviving yourself is a continuous process. I wouldn’t call myself indulgent, but I do indulge in life. I do what I want to do. I aim for balance in all things, but I never hold back.”