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Alber Elbaz, the Israeli creative director of the iconic French fashion house Lanvin, said sometime back that his definition of luxury was wearing a pair of Tod’s shoes on the dusty streets of India.

Would the same observation apply to carrying a supple Céline Phantom tote on a crowded Mumbai local train? It would echo Elbaz’s sentiment of mixing luxury with utility, a sort of high-low necessity for everyday use, rather than preserving something expensive for a special occasion.

After all, it’s just a bag. But is it really? Or are we buying into a dream? It’s not just about style and status. In today’s currency, a luxury bag also translates to utility and strength; a refinement that suggests something new but timeless. Céline is one instance, but in a span of six years since the British designer Phoebe Philo took over as creative director, she has created bags that have got the formula right: They are luxurious (handmade in Italy from the best possible leather), statement pieces synonymous with stealth wealth (priced at $3,000, or 1.9 lakh and upwards); they are iconic yet logo-less (the winged trapezoidal shape has inspired every bag maker from high street to haute couture players), and are seen on global style influencers. Stylish, luxurious and yet functional bags by Hermès, Gucci, Alexander McQueen, Dior, Fendi and the new generation Louis Vuitton, without screaming monograms, have similarly influenced the luxury landscape. The Hermès Birkin is in fact an enduring metaphor.

But no such statement bag has a made in India address so far.

India is home to some of the most luxurious and distinctive textiles in the world, an amply catalogued and illustrious jewellery tradition, a nation with recognized manufacturing prowess, and one of the largest back-end producers for products by numerous global fashion brands.

A look by Gucci for Autumn/Winter 2014
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A look by Gucci for Autumn/Winter 2014

Yet we don’t have our version of what fits the modern definition of a luxury bag. A quality defined by Dilip Kapur, founder of the Puducherry-based leather accessories maker, Hidesign, as “handcrafted product with a distinct identity and exclusivity".

“We have enough heritage but we have not evolved outside it. And the idea of a luxury bag really depends on the consumer," says Kapur, whose company celebrated its 35th anniversary this year. To ring this in, Hidesign released a limited-edition collection of its iconic bags. But it is yet to produce a statement bag.

“I don’t see India producing a luxury bag very soon. I blame that entirely on the mindset of the Indian client," says Chennai-based Tina Malhotra, co-owner of Evoluzione, a chain of multi-designer fashion stores. “Indian customers believe that manufacturers are more quality conscious abroad, which deters them from buying expensive bags made here," she adds.

In effect, we still need a Prada or a Chanel to complement “heritage". Last year, when designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee dressed actor Vidya Balan for the Cannes Film Festival, he accessorized her Khadi sari with a black, classic, quilted Chanel bag.

A limited-edition fabric bag by Pyre Ghee
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A limited-edition fabric bag by Pyre Ghee

The overall perception of India as a cheap manufacturing destination continues to hold. “It is difficult to shake off the ‘cheap’ tag," says Ayesha Malhotra, who set up her own leather handbag label, Java Plum, last year. With leather sourced from Italian tanneries, her bags command a starting price of 15,000. Yet she often meets people who would much rather buy a Marc by Marc Jacobs than an “Indian" bag for that price. “One of my biggest frustrations is people telling me that the quality of my materials and craftsmanship is too high and an Indian brand would do better by offering cheaper, lower-quality products," explains Ayesha.

Provenance is clearly vital in luxury. “Our cultural indulgence never led the way for any particular Indian brand to become a front-runner in the luxury bags segment," says designer Suneet Varma, the creative brain behind a line of Judith Leiber minaudières. “If you look at the way the Orient dresses—the Middle-Eastern women with their abayas as well as the women here—it’s always about ‘matchy-matchy’. They are used to localized bags like the potli, made from the same or similar cloth as their outfits," says Varma, who has been creating sculptural bags, inspired by Indian royalty and opulence, for Leiber. He even recreated the potli using dramatic crystals.

“Why must a luxury bag only be made of leather? Instead of trying to outdo Italian and French craftsmanship, we need to focus on our heritage to create handmade, functional and heirloom pieces for Indian women," says Aditi Prakash of Pure Ghee designs. She works with artisans from different regions of India for high-quality textiles to make everyday wear and limited- edition bags.

A Judith Leiber clutch by Suneet Verma
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A Judith Leiber clutch by Suneet Verma

“Give us a few more years. With foreign or corporate investment, we’ll get there," says Sabyasachi, adding that the entire infrastructure—designers, brand builders, photographers—must come together.

“Great luxury and heritage takes time and we are on our way," says Kapur. “Would anyone have thought Italy would create luxury in the 1960s before La Dolce Vita became famous?"

Bag that thought.

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