The conference room of the Hidesign corporate office in Puducherry is knee-deep in leather, literally. There are bags strewn everywhere: across the table, on the floor, on chairs. Amid this chaos sits the founder of the 36-year-old leather goods maker. Dilip Kapur wears a casual shirt, easy pants and a quizzical expression. His taste has always veered towards the classic and the brand’s second luxury line Atelier Hidesign, tentatively set for a June launch, extends that aesthetic. “Fine exotic leather and clean design with its handcrafted soul coming right through,” he says, showing samples.
With an annual revenue of more than $12 billion (around Rs.79,700 crore), India’s leather industry, the second largest in the world, has been identified as one of the 25 sectors to be part of the Prime Minister’s Make in India campaign. Kapur, however, admits to being a trifle sceptical about the actual impact of this campaign, “It is good they are focusing on this but we overestimate their (the government) capacity to help us out,” he says with a grin.
In an interview, Kapur talks about Hidesign’s expansions plans, his abhorrence for synthetic leather, and why the government should focus on peace, governance and infrastructure and get out of the way of leather goods makers. Edited excerpts:
How is Atelier Hidesign different from your first luxury line launched in 2012?
We made a lot of mistakes with the first and learnt from them. Our first luxury line, called Alberto Ciaschini after the designer, was mostly glittery bags for evening wear full of Swarovski and embroidery—beautifully done but not Hidesign at all.
Then I went to Paris and met the Louis Vuitton people (in 2007, the French luxury house bought a small stake in Hidesign). When I proudly showed it (Alberto Ciaschini) to them, they turned around and told me I was an idiot (laughs). According to them, the whole purpose of a luxury line is to upgrade a brand and understand how it relates to you. This line did not relate to us at all. This is the biggest lesson I learnt from Louis Vuitton: luxury without heritage is meaningless.
We always thought of luxury being about price but that is not so. Luxury has so much to do with the psychological feeling it gives you. In this collection, we have gone back to what we believe is Hidesign.
Your expansion plans include looking at more overseas markets…
We have been concentrating on India for the last 10 years but we used to be, at one point, largely abroad. When we first went overseas in the late ’70s and ’80s, we went in through distributors whose interest was largely to sell. They had no interest in building the brand.
This time we are clear we need to build a brand and this can happen only if you know your customers and connect with them directly. The traditional way of doing it is opening stores. This was out of question for us because we did not have the funds and honestly, brands have gone bankrupt trying to do this.
However, two things have happened that have made it possible for new brands to enter the international markets.
One is emerging virgin economies. People who are going to work with us in these economies are interested in brand-building. Sri Lanka, for instance, has been a total success for us and we are launching in Kenya in another two months.
The second is e-commerce. In countries where we were only traders, like the US, 50% of our bags are sold online directly to the end customer. Independent stores and mass-market stores are really suffering, which means e-commerce becomes really important.
As trends come and go, how do you protect your brand cachet?
Look, Hidesign was never trendy. It is of no interest to us. With trends you follow what other big brands have done—you are always a copycat. It is a great model for mass-market labels like Forever 21, Zara or H&M and they’ve done a brilliant job. But if we tried to do that, we would be third-rate.
What we do follow though are lifestyle changes, especially in a country like India where the changes are so rapid that five years is a generation. You need to listen to your customers, observe their lifestyle changes and follow them.
What is the distinctive quality of your new footwear range for women from other firms in the market?
What does a woman wear to work today? She can wear Rs.1,000-2,000 footwear that is synthetic and not very classy; and then you have the evening wear— high heels made by international brands. Where is well-crafted, comfortable, contemporary footwear that a woman executive needs, to stay on her feet, run around and still be comfortable? We are the only ones so far, and it may take a while to catch on, but we think that there is a niche here. Just like every woman needs a good leather bag, she needs a pair of shoes that looks good and is comfortable.
Cruelty-free products are becoming increasingly more popular and people are willing to pay a premium for faux-leather goods. What is your take on this?
They used to call it polyurethane or artificial leather. Now they call bags made of faux-leather, vegan bags. They are using a word that has very positive connotation for selling something that is synthetic. How can this be better for our environment?