India is among the world’s biggest exporters of leather. The industry holds a prominent place in the country’s economy. Yet, we have only a handful of homegrown leather brands that have managed to capture the attention of the global audience. Nappa Dori is one of them.
Eleven years ago, Gautam Sinha started Nappa Dori in a south Delhi bylane to create a leather goods company that stitches together minimalism, Indian design and Scandinavian aesthetics (cleans lines and forms). Today, it has evolved into a luxury lifestyle brand that offers travel essentials, stationery, luggage and bags, shoes, home décor, accessories, and a fine dining space, Café Dori, in the Capital city.
It’s part of a long plan that started four-five years ago, says Sinha, the creative director-founder who studied fashion designing at the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) in New Delhi. “We want to take the Indian flag across the world,” he says. The brand, which opened its flagship store in London in 2019, will have a Dubai outlet later this month.
We spoke with Sinha about his expansion plans, the luxury industry and what could help homegrown leather luxury brands make a dent globally. Edited excerpts:
Are you now completely focused on international growth?
India is, of course, home, and we do have a stronger presence here. But I don’t think we are at a full potential. We can open a lot more stores, which is what the plan is. We are opening a store in Bandra (Mumbai) soon. So India will never lose its relevance in terms of how we plan to expand the brand.
But that doesn’t stop us from exploring other countries as well. I feel that the brand and the product that the brand carries has a very international palate... it has a global audience. And why not? If you can do it, then why not? I don’t know why Indian brands stop within the country and not explore doing things outside. I want to change that.
The global leather goods market has become so crowded. Even in India, more international brands are becoming active. How are you planning to stand out?
A lot of global brands have products made in India, but you won’t find an Indian brand globally. It’s surprising; we are the leather source country. We are high on quality, craftsmanship, so why should we not promote that Indian craftsmanship outside the country? We are the first Indian brand, born here and built with key local ingredients, trying to position itself in a global arena. That’s what makes us stand apart.
Why Dubai, not, say, the US?
Logistically it made sense. Financially also. It has a diverse population and people are already aware of the brand. The US is an ocean that needs a lot of investment.
And the focus remains on leather?
No. I mean we started off as a leather goods company, and we still call ourselves a leather goods company. But I think over time, we have become more or less a lifestyle store, a lifestyle brand. But leather is obviously an integral part of who we are.
I’m curious to know, what made you fall for leather so hard?
(Laughs) That’s a long one. So, I didn’t really start my design career thinking that I will be working with leather all my life. Leather found me rather than me finding it. I was dabbling with design, doing Christmas ornaments for a company that used to export to the German market. This was 1999 or 2001. Actually, no. It was 2006. At that point, I had no formal knowledge of leather, per se, but I got an opportunity to design some belts for a Danish company.
And that’s when I actually figured out that leather is a very, very versatile material. You can do hard goods, furniture, clothing, bags. And obviously, leather has a perceived value. Why wouldn’t anyone fall in love with leather?
It’s ironic that India is a huge source of leather for international brands but we don’t have many popular homegrown Indian brands.
You know, when I did start with working with leather, I actually didn’t know anything about the market and how big it was. India was, and is, one of the biggest exporters in the whole wide world. But we were not known that much. Things have changed now but not as much. It baffles me that we are in 2022 and there’s no globally recognised name.
Perhaps, we are lacking in the marketing department.
And in terms of consumers of leather... what kind of change you’ve seen among them?
I don’t think the perception has changed that much. It is still perceived as a luxury material. It still has an added value to it.
What has changed over the years is the perception of the Indian audience towards Indian brands. I think that’s the key catalyst. Had the Indian audience not matured enough and been more receptive towards Indian brands, we wouldn’t have been where we are now. I think that’s a major shift that’s happened over the past 10 years. The 2020s is going to be a raging 20s for the luxury market.
Who’s a Nappa Dori customer?
I think you might be better at answering that (laughs). In my head, I would perceive it as an aspirational brand because we are a premium brand. In Nappa, every customer would be a well-travelled Indian who knows design and is proud to belong to India.
There’s still a perception that Nappa Dori products are way too expensive...
Yes, I get that a lot. We are charging for the design, the craftsmanship and of course, the ingredients. I don’t understand that people are ready to pay international brands that use Indian raw materials, but think a premium Indian brand should come very cheap just because it’s made in India.
There’s a whole anti-leather movement going on across the world, pushing brands to look at vegan leather. Plus people, especially Gen Z, are becoming more eco-conscious. How’s all this affecting you?
This is a topic that comes up every time and, you know, for us it’s been very clear from the start: We try to be as much as authentic and ethical as we can be, considering the circumstances and the product that we are dealing with. In terms of vegan leather, I think it’s just name play that happens in the market because vegan leather is not sustainable. It’s a marketing ploy. Leather is biodegradable; vegan leather is not, to a great extent. Yes, sustainability is a big aspect in terms of how to move forward as a brand because you have to in today’s climate. Everyone said that electric cars will not be around and the petroleum industry will never let them come into the mainstream, and look what’s happening. Now, every big car motor manufacturer is going electric. So you have to be sustainable to stay relevant. We are changing our packaging, doing a small run of production lines. We’re doing things that can and should be done, more so after the pandemic.
How was the pandemic for Nappa Dori?
Many heart attacks happened! Like whether we would be able to survive or not. Who was buying bags during a pandemic? We knew people would eventually buy bags but how do you sustain yourself till then? But we sailed through it.
Any painful learning?
That government didn’t help. There was no support from the authorities for small enterprises. That you always have to fend for yourself.
Also read: Why India needs its own ski wear