Fea­ture | Hidesign

The Iconic Brand Turns 40

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In 1977. Dilip Ka­pur, fresh from his PH.D. in In­ter­na­tional Af­fairs, af­ter years of be­ing a hip­pie in the United States, re­turned to In­dia. But it was to cre­ate a utopia of world har­mony at Auroville, Puducherry and to fol­low his hobby of de­sign­ing and cre­at­ing leather bags. The first bags were dif­fer­ent from those be­ing cre­ated in Europe and the United States at the time. In this is­sue of S&A , we lay down the brand’s his­tory...

In Pondicherry, the French left a legacy of tall, cool colo­nial build­ings, cre­ativ­ity and cos­mopoli­tanism. One was Sri Aurobindo Ashram and Auroville have brought a con­tin­u­ous stream of rebels, free­dom fight­ers, hip­pies and spir­i­tual seek­ers in search of world har­mony. This in­ter­na­tional min­gling with a hos­pitable and warm Tamil so­ci­ety cre­ated an in­no­va­tive pop­u­la­tion of artists, crafts­men and dream­ers that con­tin­ues to in­spire Hidesign to be creative and out­ward-look­ing to­wards the world. To­day the iconic brand turns 40, and its founder Dilip Ka­pur shares with us its his­tory and the suc­cess of the brand.

In­spi­ra­tion

Dilip first met Yves as the Pres­i­dent of Louis Vuit­ton at Le Du­pleix, Hidesign’s first ate­lier. Spon­ta­neously and un­ex­pect­edly, he generously of­fered to share the tal­ents and more than 150 years of ex­pe­ri­ence of the most ad­mired lux­ury brand in the world. He made Dilip aware that great brands take decades to build, that the jour­ney and story of every brand is unique and pre­cious.

A rebel is born

In 1977. Dilip, fresh from his PH.D. in In­ter­na­tional Af­fairs, af­ter years of be­ing a hip­pie in the United States, re­turned to In­dia. He was back to cre­ate a utopia of world har­mony at Auroville, and to fol­low his hobby of de­sign­ing and cre­at­ing leather bags. The first bags were dif­fer­ent from any­thing be­ing cre­ated in Europe and the United States at the time. They were nat­u­ral and eco­log­i­cal, the prod­ucts of skil­ful crafts­man­ship; they con­vey a mes­sage of free­dom, equal­ity and non-dis­crim­i­na­tion. The bags hit the coun­ter­cul­ture stores of San Fran­cisco, Lon­don and Mel­bourne and im­me­di­ately es­tab­lished an un­der­ground rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent.

Re­launch­ing Iconic Bags

Its ear­li­est bags were a small range of in­no­va­tive bags that were a pure ex­pres­sion of ad­ven­ture, travel, clean de­sign, won­der­ful ma­te­ri­als that felt good, and a non-con­for­mity that was stamped through­out the col­lec­tion. As it has grown with large col­lec­tions and teams of mar­ket­ing and de­sign pro­fes­sion­als, it still looks back at its icon bags with great love as be­ing the purest Hidesign bags. The Icon Col­lec­tion re­launches the ear­li­est bags, main­tain­ing the same pu­rity re­flected in the orig­i­nal bags: veg­etable-tanned leathers, solid brass, cot­ton and leather lin­ings, and de­signs that have stood the test of time for the last 35 years.

Veg­etable-tanned leathers

The brand has al­ways ad­mired the beau­ti­ful patina of old veg­etable-tanned leathers, with a nat­u­ral vari­a­tion in colour and the bril­liant gloss of used leathers. It sees hand colour­ing leather as an art, and when done with skill, the leather glows softly in shades that are darker or lighter but never uni­form. Dilip was taught to hand colour each nat­u­ral hide by a Floren­tine mas­ter. The brand’s leathers are in­di­vid­u­ally hand-coloured with a brush and pol­ished with waxes. They have the same glow and nat­u­ral tone we ad­mire in mu­seum mas­ter­pieces; they fol­low the same tra­di­tion of lov­ingly rub­bing each leather in­di­vid­u­ally.

E.I. Leather

When he first started work­ing with leather in Den­ver, USA, he was told the rare leather im­ported from a premium UK sup­plier was ‘E.I. leather’, the finest veg­etable-tanned leather for hand colour­ing. The leather has a lu­mi­nous blond colour that no other veg­etable or chem­i­cally tanned leather is able to repli­cate. The leather is strong and has a lively bounce.

E.I. leather was con­sid­ered the finest leather for lux­ury footwear and bags in the UK and Italy.

To his sur­prise, fur­ther re­search showed that E.I. stood for ‘East In­dia’, and the leather orig­i­nated less than 100 miles from his home town of Pondicherry. The dis­tinc­tive qual­ity of E.I. leather came from the use of barks, seeds and oils na­tive to South In­dian moun­tains and forests — and of course, from a knowl­edge and craft per­fected and handed down from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion over cen­turies. The art con­sists of soak­ing hides for 40 days in wat­tle bark and my­robalan seeds, and then rub­bing the tanned leathers with pungam oil, a na­tive oil that makes the leather sup­ple.

“When I first started work­ing with leather in Den­ver, USA, I was told the rare leather im­ported from a premium UK sup­plier was ‘E.I. leather’, the finest veg­etable-tanned leather for hand colour­ing. The leather has a lu­mi­nous blond colour that no other veg­etable or chem­i­cally tanned leather is able to repli­cate. The leather is strong and has a lively bounce.”

– Dilip Ka­pur Founder, Hidesign

His ex­cite­ment that the finest leather in the world came from my na­tive area led me, on his re­turn to In­dia, to search for the source of this spe­cial leather. To his great dis­ap­point­ment, tan­ner af­ter tan­ner that he vis­ited in­formed him they had stopped us­ing the E.I. process and shifted to a new, more modern process of chrome tan­ning. As in Europe and the United States, most tan­ner­ies had dropped E.I. leather in favour of chem­i­cally tanned leather in or­der to min­imise costs and time, and due to a short­age of skilled crafts­men.

The dis­as­trous re­sults were ap­par­ent around all the tan­ner­ies. Where tan­nery waste wa­ter had once nur­tured sur­round­ing fields, now these ar­eas were poi­soned deserts with a high in­ci­dence of can­cer and skin dis­ease. Farm­ers and tan­ners, tan­ner­ies and the en­vi­ron­ment, once bound to­gether in a sym­bi­otic and mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial re­la­tion­ship, were now en­e­mies.

Thus be­gan his search to find the last re­main­ing skilled tan­ners of E.I. leather and to ded­i­cate Hidesign to re­search more in­no­va­tive meth­ods of tan­ning, based firmly on a her­itage that had once cre­ated the great­est leather in the world. It’s been an ad­ven­tur­ous jour­ney of col­lab­o­ra­tive in­no­va­tion with the keep­ers of one of the world’s great­est tra­di­tions. This quest has es­tab­lished Hidesign as a leader in the newly fash­ion­able area of ‘eco­log­i­cal tan­ning’.

Love for Brass

Though brass is the pre­ferred metal for many In­dian gods, it is rarely used for buck­les and other bag fit­tings. The painstak­ing job of in­di­vid­u­ally pol­ish­ing a brass buckle is too com­pli­cated, time-con­sum­ing and ex­pen­sive for most com­pa­nies. Yet when faced with the choice of us­ing ei­ther zinc al­loy or steel buck­les that have been elec­tro­plated to re­sem­ble brass, Hidesign de­cided to re­dis­cover the art of brass buck­les through the mas­ter crafts­men in In­dian tem­ple towns. These masters con­tinue to sand­cast every buckle, hand fil­ing and pol­ish­ing them on soft cloth brushes as if they were sculp­tures of the gods. Af­ter all, the brand ex­pects its bags to last as long as a brass sculp­ture.

Equal­ity and Free­dom

The cul­tural rev­o­lu­tion of the 1960s was a re­bel­lious mix of pol­i­tics, mu­sic and style. As the rebels got older, they turned their en­er­gies to busi­ness, and cre­ated new forms of en­ter­prise that con­tin­ued to up­hold the orig­i­nal val­ues of so­cial and po­lit­i­cal free­dom and equal­ity. Hidesign has al­ways at­tempted a sim­i­lar blend of busi­ness and so­cial

val­ues. Dilip Ka­pur was the founder of the Third World Lib­er­a­tion Front at Prince­ton Univer­sity, and his ac­tivism at the time bred in him a great dis­like for racism, apartheid or dis­crim­i­na­tion of any kind. Hidesign’s first ad­ver­tise­ments and vi­su­als re­flected this merger of pol­i­tics and fash­ion.

First Ad

The brand’s first ad­ver­tise­ment, show­ing a naked black sailor and a white girl, was deeply con­tro­ver­sial and banned from many shops and the me­dia. But the ad­ver­tise­ment was an in­stant hit. The 1970s and 1980s saw Hidesign bags be­come a cult brand among the highly fash­ion­able cus­tomers of Cas­tro Street and Haight-ash­bury in San Fran­cisco, Por­to­bello Road in Lon­don, and the al­ter na­tive stores in Mel­bourne. It was not un­til the 1980s that Hidesign first broke into main­stream stores in Lon­don.

Its beau­ti­ful im­age of Mr. South Africa drew howls of protests across the con­ser­va­tive world of re­tail and the me­dia. It was too con­tro­ver­sial for the newly free South Africa. It was banned out­right in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. In In­dia, Hidesign was hauled up be­fore the Press Coun­cil and ac­cused of be­ing ob­scene. But the im­age did lead to an award for ‘Best Ac­ces­sory Cam­paign’ of the year in Europe and In­dia. The brand thinks ‘Black is Beau­ti­ful’; af­ter all, it is the qual­ity of the skin that mat­ters, not the colour.

New Kid in the Block

In the 1980s fash­ion world, full of pedi­greed Ital­ian and French bags, Hidesign bags stood out, not only for their earthy nat­u­ral­ness and re­bel­lious po­lit­i­cal mes­sage, but even more be­cause they were made in In­dia. An In­dian brand that had a dis­tinct iden­tity: unique in its de­sign, its emo­tional com­mit­ment to ecol­ogy and its in­sis­tence on us­ing a great, nat­u­ral leather that was older than any Euro­pean leather.

Hidesign was es­tab­lish­ing it­self as a unique hy­brid brand. On the one hand, it was re­ly­ing on crafts­man­ship from the In­dian cob­bler caste, and us­ing brass cast­ing and tra­di­tional East In­dia leather. Hidesign’s cul­tural iden­tity was clearly linked to the cul­tural rev­o­lu­tions that swept through the Western world in the 1960s. Ini­tially, the brand had no In­dian mar­ket. Cut off from the world by a closed, so­cial­ist econ­omy, Hidesign’s home coun­try missed out on the great changes in western so­cial, sex­ual, mu­sic and po­lit­i­cal norms. For its first seven­teen years, Hidesign sold suc­cess­fully in ur­ban cen­tres of dy­namic fash­ion lead­er­ship: San Fran­cisco, New York, Bos­ton, Lon­don and Mel­bourne. The end of apartheid in South Africa saw Hidesign grow in Jo­han­nes­burg and Cape Town. The fall of the Com­mu­nist Gov­ern­ment in the Soviet Union saw Hidesign’s first shop open in Moscow, and since then it has rapidly ex­panded to seven stores in Rus­sia.

Com­ing Home

The open­ing up of the In­dian econ­omy saw hun­dreds of thou­sands of In­di­ans dis­cover the world of fash­ion as they went to study, trade and shop in the West. The year 1990 saw Hidesign open its first store in In­dia, in its small home town of Pondicherry, fol­lowed by stores in Mum­bai and Delhi. In nine years of rapid growth, Hidesign dis­cov­ered a love af­fair with In­dia. In­dia is now its big­gest mar­ket, hav­ing sur­passed the United King­dom in 2009. Hidesign is no longer just a western brand; to­day it is ex­pand­ing in In­dia, Malaysia, Rus­sia and Sri Lanka. Hidesign has be­come part of the in­cred­i­ble change sweep­ing across Asia. This is an ad­ven­ture that has only just be­gun.

There is no mass pro­duc­tion, no assem­bly line. Every bag is in­di­vid­u­ally num­bered, hand cut and put to­gether by groups of three or four peo­ple. Its cam­pus is ar­ti­sanal, and train­ing is through a long ap­pren­tice­ship with a mas­ter crafts­man. While the de­sign spec­i­fi­ca­tions are ex­ten­sive and de­tailed, every crafts­man has a dis­tinc­tive style of ‘con­struct­ing’ the per­fect bag.

So­cial In­ter­ve­na­tion

The In­dian caste sys­tem has placed cob­blers at the bot­tom of the so­cial sys­tem, among un­touch­ables and out­castes. Trapped in a sin­gle skill set and job, they were tra­di­tion­ally at the mercy of higher caste land­lords. But the cob­blers’ in­her­ited un­der­stand­ing and love of leather, fine-tuned to per­fec­tion over the cen­turies, makes them the finest pool of skilled leather work­ers in the world. Those who work at Hidesign feel freed from so­cial im­pris­on­ment, en­cour­aged to ed­u­cate their chil­dren, and em­pow­ered to join the great In­dian rush to­wards pros­per­ity and free­dom.

A small co­conut thatch hut, a clean mat on the floor for seat­ing, a foot-pedal sewing ma­chine, a large black flat

stone, a sharp knife: this is the con­text in which Dilip learned from the cob­bler Mu­ru­gan, who was the first per­son to join Hidesign. Mu­ru­gan taught him the art of work­ing with leather, skills he had in­her­ited over gen­er­a­tions. He was the most fa­mous cob­bler in Pondicherry, an il­lit­er­ate artist who could cre­ate beau­ti­ful pat­terns, a per­fec­tion­ist who knew every as­pect of leather work.

In re­turn for his knowl­edge, the founder sat with Mu­ru­gan and taught him how the Ital­ians hand colour leather, how a bag is con­structed and never just stitched to­gether, and the im­por­tance of the fall of a bag so that it looks gor­geous on a woman’s arm.

Times change, and Hidesign has cer­tainly changed since it was founded. The small rebel brand is now a leader in In­dia, one of the largest mar­kets in the world, and a strong brand in sev­eral other coun­tries in Europe, Amer­ica, Asia and Africa. Cor­po­rate lead­ers, as­pir­ing grad­u­ates straight out of busi­ness schools, and young house­wives as­pire to a brand that was once an out­caste from the main­stream mar­ket. But the val­ues that in­spired it to cre­ate Hidesign con­tinue to guide. Its icon bags con­tinue to be some of the most ad­mired and beloved cre­ations. They em­body a brand phi­los­o­phy that ex­isted at our found­ing, and that is still in the brand’s hearts.

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