Anvar Alikhan charts the rise of Indian leather goods brand Hidesign and uncovers the secrets of its success.
Hidesign started out as a two-man leather craft workshop, set up in a thatched hut on an investment of US$400. It has evolved over the years into a well-positioned international, but affordable luxury brand, sought after for its artisanal quality and ecological values. And its standing is endorsed by the fact that LVMH has acquired a stake in the company.
Today, Hidesign markets its line of distinctive classic contemporary leather bags, accessories and footwear, styled for the well-travelled global professional, through 80 stores in India, and a distribution network spread across 25 countries, including the UK, USA, Australia, Russia, China, Malaysia and South Africa. The brand has been featured in publications like GQ, Vogue, Elle, Cosmopolitan, as well as The Economist and the Financial Times.
Hidesign's brand journey has been a fascinating one. It began with Dilip Kapur, who, having done a PhD in international relations in the US, returned to his home town of Pondicherry, and began to pursue his hobby of designing leather bags, with the help of a local cobbler. Kapur saw himself as a creative designer, not a businessman, and he did it all purely out of his passion for leather – his love of its sensuousness, its fragrance, its warmth. His first business break, he says, was when a friend offered him Rs300 (US$4) to buy one of his bags. With time, a demand built up, mainly from overseas, for Kapur's radically designed, luxuriously crafted bags. A friend ordered 1,400 bags for the German market; others started selling the bags in Australia, the UK and California – mainly in alternative stores, not mainstream ones, given the bags' dramatic, unconventional designs. But, as Kapur says, "What gave me satisfaction was designing the bags – and not the profit we made, or the number of countries we established ourselves in. For the first 10 years I didn't even know how to read my profit and loss account." It was this pure, unbusinesslike pursuit of excellence, ironically, that helped build the Hidesign brand.
The year 1985 was a major landmark for Hidesign, when John Lewis, the UK department store, began to carry its line of leather products. By 2000, the brand had established itself in a range of overseas markets, from Russia to Malaysia. It was only then that the company turned to marketing its products in India itself – a market that now contributes 65% of its global sales. In 2001, Hidesign appointed Italian designer Alberto Ciaschini as its lead designer. Today, the company has three design teams, based in Milan, London and Pondicherry, to create its innovative cult designs.
So what is the essential secret of the Hidesign brand? "We love the naturalness, warmth and feel of leather," says Kapur. "Not hiding that is a big part of what we do. Our ecological values continue to be very, very important to us. We still use huge amounts of vegetable tanning, probably more than any other brand in the world. And we are among the last few big companies in the world that doesn't have assembly-line production. Every single bag is individually hand-crafted by small groups of people. These three things define the DNA of the company. And that's what gives our products their unique soul."
But another major factor in the evolution and success of Hidesign is, of course, the involvement of Louis Vuitton, which took a stake in the company because it 'liked the home-grown nature of the brand'. Louis Vuitton advises Hidesign on key issues of branding, marketing and training.
Hidesign has been growing consistently at 20–30% per year, but the brand is now at an inflection point. And the question is, where does it go from here? Hidesign now needs to go beyond being just an artisanal leather brand to become a complete lifestyle brand, moving increasingly into accessories and, ultimately, apparel (as other similar luxury brands have done). A key challenge, however, is that as more global brands enter the Indian market, size will matter, so it will need to invest in rapidly ramping up its scale, without diluting its distinctive identity. This, in turn, will help generate the resources to drive the global markets where the brand's larger longterm future lies. Meanwhile, interestingly, Dilip Kapur, Hidesign's maverick founder, continues to teach international relations to students in his spare time.