For almost a decade post starting his business, he was unable to read his profit and loss statement and today this man is a proud owner of a brand that has managed to generate interest from the international luxury giant Louis Vuitton. We are talking of Hidesign – a cult brand for those who love their leather. The annual turnover of the brand in India today stands at Rs 150 crore in addition to the business they generate overseas through their distributors. To extend that ‘wow’ expression you are still holding; Dilip Kapur, the proud owner of Hidesign started off with just about Rs. 25, 000 and with the help of a local cobbler. STOrai traces the interesting, inspiring, innovative and amazing story of Hidesign over the years.
For Kapur, it was natural to get himself associated with a line of business that had an element of nature in it. Why do we say so? Today, the brand is recognized leader in the research of the ecological use of vegetable tanned leathers for its leather goods. Learning from the centuries old skills of tanning with natural seeds and barks, the brand has created fashionable leathers that age exceptionally well. Hidesign vegetable tanning uses extracts from the barks of Wattle trees and seeds of Myrobalan. Adding to Kapur’s association with nature, a clue can be drawn from his upbringing as well which comprised of being raised in Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry from the age of six. From there his next destination was schooling at Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts. After graduating from Princeton University in International Affairs, Kapur completed his PH.D at University of Denver, School of International Studies in International Affairs. An internship at a leather factory was his first encounter with something that was soon to define his career path. Post his internship he applied at several companies and was offered a job at Poor Richards, a company with a small factory for handmade and hand dyed bags in Denver.
Encapsulating the beginning of the brand, Kapur says, “This short stint was what made me re-look at leather and became a lifelong passion for me. I decided to return to Auroville and wondered what to do next. To keep myself occupied I started making leather bags. What started as a hobby soon caught on the interest of people passing by and I landed up with larger orders. Hidesign was born out of the need to be distinct from the uniformity and synthetic flatness of the mass market. It was almost like giving shape to my instinctive aversion to painted, patented leathers that lose all semblance of naturalness.” Explaining the concept behind the name, “The name, it was hide (leather) and design with ‘de’ in shadows. Later our consultants from London made it one word, Hidesign.”
Executing the Idea
All of the great entrepreneurs of this day and age started off small and Kapur is no exception. Not only did Kapur have scarce resources to begin with in terms of finance but also manpower for his great idea included just his own self and a local cobbler. Talking on this further, Kapur shares, “I started Hidesign with a capital of Rs 25,000 and one cobbler. Through a friend of mine, a German buyer saw my bag and he ordered 1,400 bags from me. Imagine, I had just started my business and had only one cobbler working for me. After six months, I supplied 200 bags. That was all I could make. A friend who was staying in Auroville went back to Australia and was working in a car factory. When he broke his back, he got $12,000 from the company. He came back, bought my bags, and sold them in Australia. He was quite successful in it. That was how we reached Australia. One of his cousins living in England saw my bag and was impressed. She started buying them for the UK market. Then, somebody who visited Auroville from California saw my bags and started selling them there. What gave me satisfaction was designing bags and not the profit I made or the number of countries we conquered. I didn’t know how to read my profit and loss account in the first ten years.”
Hidesign was sold only in the international market, first in Germany and then Australia. Says Dilip, “We had only the rebels as our customers in the first ten years. It took us ten years to conquer the mainstream market. That was with John Lewis, the major super market in the UK buying our products. By then, the whole culture had changed and people became less conservative and more casual. It is the amateurs who were passionate about the product who first started selling Hidesign products.” When the brand started selling in India in 2000, they sold only 6 per cent of their products here. “We could not first find a distributor here in India who understood our products. So we opened our own stores, first in Delhi and then in Bengaluru. A year-and-a-half ago, India became our biggest market; half of our sales are in India. Our customers are from the age group from 25-35. Today our biggest growing markets are in Asia; Malaysia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka,” adds Kapur.
What makes the brand Stand-Out
Talking about the USP the brand holds, Kapur says, “Hidesign is well known for its contemporary designs that stay current for many years. We are not trend led and prefer to create modern classics. Over the years as the brand has grown and is increasingly perceived as a luxury product the designs have also undergone change, they are more refined, urban, sleek and lighter compared to our heavy vegetable tan leathers from 10 years ago. Most Hidesign customers appreciate the eco- friendly leathers, our solid brass hardware and hand crafted quality.”
Hidesign has three design teams based in Milan, London and Pondicherry all working together to create two new collections a year. In addition to the seasonal collections, the brand has classic range, products that in some cases have been made for thirty years with minimal changes and which our customers continue to appreciate. Adding further he says, “Every season reflects our mood. It is a reflection of how we feel and how our customers feel. We bring out 50-60 new styles every season. There are new colours, new leather developments and updates like laptop sleeves, ipad covers and ipod holes in messenger bags to meet customers’ needs.”
A walk into any of the Hidesign stores spell out a natural feeling of well-being due to the ambiance which is not only calm but in a way luxurious too. Shares Kapur, “Hidesign is an internationally successful brand in the “affordable luxury” category. The feeling of luxury comes from providing an exclusive product and service through the exclusive ambiance of our stores that is custom made and shows the luxury of the product. Hidesign shops are made from high quality materials that are natural: solid brass, real leather and wood. The personalized service provided at our stores and shop in shop counters informs the customer on the exclusive nature of Hidesign, advises the customers of what is best suited to their needs and in case of a problem promptly try to solve their problem.”
Reaching out to the Customers
As a brand with tremendous recall, Hidesign had humble beginnings. With a strong product that instantly connected with the user, word-of-mouth communication took Hidesign to newer markets and newer customers. Its relevance to consumer needs, its ability to fit into their lifestyle and inspire them has been the biggest contributor. By taking lead and creating a strong identity for itself the brand has managed to motivate the customer to look beyond great design and quality and move towards an eco friendly lifestyle. Elaborates Kapur, “Hidesign has always kept pace with its consumers. We started print advertising in select magazines that fit the customer profile a few year back. Public relations, events like Hidesign’s annual fashion shows, region and occasion specific promotions have increased credibility and recall. As the Hidesign customer gets younger and more media savvy, we have also moved along with them. Hidesign is now working at increasing its online presence through its revamped website (www.hidesign.com), and social networking sites like http://www.facebook.com/hidesign and http://www.twitter.com/HidesignHQ. Entrance of international brands has brought in a sense of competition, increased activity in terms of promotions and growth in advertising out reach. This is creating larger numbers of customers who are aware and learning to make decisions. An aware customer is a huge plus for a brand like Hidesign.”
Hidesign established its first custom designed factory in Pondicherry, India in 1990. Adhering to his commitment to nature, Kapur has taken due care in the construction of his factory. Says Kapur, “You will not find asbestos anywhere in the factory. You will see minimal use of paint, only solid raw brick fired from local earth by Ray Meeker, the well known low cost ecological building expert, himself. The place is all grass. Ray built ponds, waterfalls and streams into the layout of the factory. We try to reduce the amount of pollution we generate and try to find ways to reuse resources. All waste water from the tannery is filtered using RO before it is let out. All water in the factory goes through a natural process of filtration in the water bodies we’ve built as a part of the landscaping and is reused. We use only vegetable extracts for tanning as far as possible. All waste material is separated and reused or sold for reuse. We do not burn anything. Lunch time at Hidesign is pretty much outdoors, under the trees, sitting on rock benches and tables.”
At Hidesign no work space holds more than 100 people at a given time with ample organized workspace for every artisan. Says Kapur, “We prefer to call it a workshop and not a factory. For us the concern for ecology is an ongoing search for better healthier ways to live and work. It comes out of believing in it and making it a core value. We believe that the way you work should reflect your brand – Hidesign does not have a system of mass manufacture. Our work is a craft, and each bag is individually handcrafted by a team of 3-6 artisans.”
Staying true to its core values, Hidesign has extended its concept of lifestyle by opening two luxury boutique hotels in Pondicherry – Le Dupleix and Promenade. Le Dupleix is a 14 room luxury hotel, nestled in an 18th century French Colonial villa. Now restored and modernized, the hotel is an architectural landmark evocative of the life of Nawabs and historic Governor of Pondicherry, General Marquis Joseph-Francois Dupleix. Elaborating about the hotel, Kapur proudly shares, “Each room is unique in style and furniture – the penthouse suites are stunning with a combination of ultra modern look and sweet smells of old Burma teak. The delicate balance between modernity and tradition gives Le Dupleix a sense of warmth and regal refinement. The Courtyard restaurant serves a wide range of Mediterranean and Pondicherry cuisine with a strong emphasis on organic and fresh sea food. Dining under the ancient mango tree in the Courtyard, you are transported in the old world with the best of international cuisine. The Governor’s Lounge Bar is an experience of its own featuring a magnificent piece of embroidery by Jean-Francois Lesage. The intricately carved ceiling, part of the beautiful wood work commissioned by Governor Dupleix, is one of the finest examples of French Indian art.”
Elaborating further, Kapur says. “The Promenade is located on the ocean front with most of the rooms overlooking the shimmering waters of the Bay of Bengal. With a lively lounge bar and two restaurants, the Promenade is a dining destination in the city. The Lighthouse – its rooftop restaurant-overlooks the ocean.” When one looks at the properties by Kapur, it is difficult to miss the common thread between both luxury hotels which comprise of the attention to design, a unique recipe of traditional architecture and modern feel which mirror the strong sense of style statement of Hidesign. Says Kaput, “We associate luxury with superior design and high craftsmanship. Serving organic foods in our hotels or offering natural and ecological leathers are our way of engaging our consumers. Our brand value is built through pampering all the senses and feeling good about its intrinsic worth.”
Recently the brand introduced a line of sunglasses which are high on design and quality both. Shares Kapur, “I want our brand to be relevant and one that improves the lives of those who use them and makes them happy. We want to stay natural and ecological. That is very important to us.”
– Zainab Morbiwala
As penned for STOrai magazine