On an overcast evening in Pondicherry, when the seaside promenade is closed to traffic and pedestrians take over the road, a steady stream of walkers parade into Exhibition House to check out home-grown brand Hidesign’s “Icon Exhibition”. The narrow strip of a gallery plays host to large framed images that attempt to capture the Hidesign story in pictures, even as an array of glass boxes display the Icon collection — 11 timeless, classic bags that encapsulate the brand’s philosophy, ideology and design aesthetics. That India’s leading leather goods manufacturing company has turned 35 is enough reason for Pondicherry to celebrate and for founder and president Dilip Kapur to look back wistfully. For a Princeton graduate with a PhD from the University of Denver, who stumbled upon the Hidesign idea while simply exploring a leather-crafting hobby, Kapur has single-handedly built the brand from a one-artisan workshop to a 3,000-strong company that has made its presence felt internationally and invited investment from Louis Vuitton. From the days when he “didn’t give a damn” and when his ground-breaking advertising campaign — featuring a black man and a Caucasian woman — became a talking point, to eventually toeing the line and becoming market-savvy, Kapur weighs in on the last three decades and wonders if it may be time to not play safe again.
From a brand with an alternative fan following internationally, to selling from most malls of repute in the country — how do you look back on your journey with Hidesign?
I’d done a PhD. Business and bags were not at the core of what I was doing. So, it could stay a hobby and I could take all the risks I wanted to. At that point, I was rebelling against the mass-produced stuff that was available in the market. I personally loved all things natural. What drove me then was how I liked to work, with my hands, my feelings and designing aesthetics, without any concern for sales
Then the brand became successful and outlets like Selfridges were buying our products. We thought differently, became more professional and built a factory. But we only got directly in touch with our consumers when we started our store in India in 2000. That’s when we started seeing Indians buy our products and relate to them. That changed the nature of the business. We became far more conscious of different parameters, the consumers and what they wanted.
Today, again, we are at the cusp of a major change. The pressure of time seems to be greater now, because I know that in another five to seven years I don’t want to be working. So, in these intervening years, I want to mentor and create a clear ideology of the brand. The ‘Icon Exhibition’ really made us think about this, and it made all the people in the company get in touch with the heritage and values of the brand.
With the Icon collection, you’re re-launching some of your earlier pieces. What was the basis of your selection?
I selected the ones that, to me, were the purest Hidesign bags that reflected the spirit of the brand with their vegetable-tanned leathers, solid brass fixtures and cotton and leather lining. These are bags that people have liked over the years and they’re also some of my favourites. Every single one of them was designed by me. So, it was important that I relate back to them. It’s an interesting mix of purses, satchels and briefcases. If you look at it — the men’s bags are pretty utilitarian and the women’s bags are all crazy. Back then, I couldn’t care less about what others thought. That, I think, lends a huge amount of innovativeness and inventiveness. Now, we are much more concerned about customer preferences. So, maybe we take less risks. The danger lies in losing that courage and becoming more mainstream. That’s a dangerous place to be headed to.
Is that something you hope to rectify?
We have to find ways. Because you have this huge burden of a business, stores and distributors who depend on you, one ends up taking less risks. Considerations like who’s going to buy the bag, why will they buy it, how many will I sell, eventually come up and make you question your motivations. Our basic product is still the same, as unique as ever. The personality of the brand needs to be re-focussed.
We’re very closely connected now to the consumer in India, but maybe somewhere we need to say, ‘Ok, I don’t care if they don’t like it. We need to stay true to ourselves’. We were never people pleasers, now we’ve probably become people pleasers.
Over the last 35 years, what have become the cornerstones of your brand?
I love the naturalness, warmth and feel of leather. Not hiding that is a big part of what we do. Our ecological values drive us and continue to remain important to us. We still use huge amounts of vegetable tanning, probably more than any other brand in the world. And, we are among the last few big companies in the world that don’t have assembly-line production. Every bag is individually hand-crafted by small groups of people. Those three things define the DNA of the company. That’s what gives our bags soul.
You’ll be diversifying into footwear by the end of the year.
It’s part of our natural progression as a lifestyle brand. We’ll only be making shoes that have leather on the outside and inside. We’ll be telling people: ‘Put your feet inside and let them breathe’.
How do you plan to propel the company into the next 35 years?
As more and more international companies come into India, size will matter. We need to grow almost three times bigger than we are today, and do it quickly. Will it lead to doing things we’ve never done before, like private equity? I don’t know yet. It’s also very important, especially in the international market, to re-focus and clearly define our identity and market what we are.