New Delhi: Hidesign is a hippie brand that was born in the late 1970s. Today, it’s a flourishing 30-year-old that is mainstream in both its availability and its brand values. Dilip Kapur, founder and president of the Puducherry-based company, is now straddling the upmarket, luxury end of the business with Louis Vuitton buying a stake in his company and also wooing the value-conscious Indian shopper with Holii, his partnership with Kishore Biyani’s Future Group.
He talks to Mint about building a brand and selling genuine leather handbags in the time of synthetic rip-offs. Edited excerpts:
Out of the bag: Hidesign is diversifying into accessories; its range of sunglasses will be launched in March.
What is Hidesign about now? Is it high-end Louis Vuitton or affordable Holii?
Louis Vuitton happened because we were a very lonely brand. When I started becoming successful, all kinds of people began to approach me and say we want to buy a stake in the company, we want to make it big, you have a great brand but you are not doing a good job with it—which is still true. But that’s a price we were always willing to pay, we didn’t want to sell out at the cost of our independence. But Louis Vuitton was an offer we couldn’t refuse, in a way. There is a big difference in saying we are an international brand in the sense that we are available internationally and saying that we are an international brand that is recognized internationally. How do you move from this to that? I think we need partnerships for that. We don’t have the knowledge and would have taken too long to find our way. That’s why we decided to accept this offer of help, in a way, from Louis Vuitton.
Holii started with Kishore Biyani bugging me for two years saying, “Dilip you don’t understand India”. So Holii helped me go back and realize aspects of our heritage which emotionally affect us and reflect that in a product. It’s a 50-50 joint venture, which is now eight months old. The first five months, Holii was doing 70% of the targets we set. Then we started advertising and people started seeing it around, talking about it and suddenly we jumped to 120%.
At the moment, most Holii stores don’t have products. So we are quadrupling production.
How do you expect the luxury market in India to unfold?
For international luxury brands, India is a tiny market right now. When I talk to the CEOs of these companies, they say India is going to happen from 2015 onwards. Their huge hope is that India will be like the Far East where they are completely oriented towards European luxury brands. But is India going to go that way? I have no idea. I think it’s way too simplistic. Emporio (the Delhi mall that houses luxury brands) is the best thing that happened to Indian luxury brands. They are in the same place as Western luxury brands and suddenly the consumer goes upstairs (to stores of Indian designers) and sees this amazing stuff with incredible work with a price tag of Rs3 lakh. Then she comes downstairs to the international luxury stores and sees something that seems much less value— in her eyes—lot less work and it is priced even higher. So they go back upstairs and buy.
What will Hidesign focus on in 2010?
One of the exciting things we realized is that the privatization of airports has been fantastic. We are discovering that it is an incredible retail space for brands that talk to that aspect of modern life, which is work, career, travel and international lifestyle. Hidesign is right smack in the middle of that. So airports are a very big story for us. We are in Hong Kong and Heathrow. Now we are setting up our own store in Vienna airport, which is the crossroad of central Europe, where our shop is right next to Swarovski—the most important Austrian brand. After a year and a half of hell internationally, when the leather good luxury segment collapsed by 40%, we have seen positive growth in the last quarter. So, internationally, I think 2010 will be the year when we come back to life, internationally. This year, we will also expand our product portfolio. The first range of Hidesign sunglasses will hit stores in March. We are also launching a line with Rohit Bal that will be ultra luxury with a definite Indian sensibility.
What about change style sensibilities, doesn’t the assault of cheap, synthetic knock-offs worry you?
It’s a question that haunts me routinely now. The easiest way to be successful and make money now is to copy the best bag designs in the world. With the Internet it is so easy. So how do we compete against that? I am not stupid to say that our designs are always the best. Synthetics are the greatest segment of the market. You offer someone an opportunity to buy something and use it for three months and then throw it away. They are not relating emotionally to it and so they’ll just think it’s cool and use it and then just throw it away.
In a way, the partnership with Louis Vuitton helped me reinforce what I was beginning to doubt. All the successful companies in India and China have essentially looked at what’s successful abroad and copied it here. But it is not a solution for the long term. If you have a long-term view of life you need to be yourself, you need to be independent and you need to have a reason to be there.
Who would you want to see carrying Hidesign bag?
You and her and her (points at women in the hotel lobby). I really want to be part of this modern story, the explosion of the young Indian into the world. That to me is much more exciting. I am not concerned any more about whether I am being carried by the society woman. I used to worry about that earlier, but now I am not interested in them.