Rachna Luthra had a 20-year-old Louis Vuitton handbag, unusable in its jaded condition.
While trying to find ways to restore it, Luthra came across The Leather Works, a leather goods restoration and personalisation service that uses the power of social media, especially Instagram, to not just promote its services but also educate people about ways of refurbishing their luxury leather bags and other accessories. “The results were amazing. It looked like it was from the latest Louis Vuitton collection,” recalls Luthra, owner of furnishing store Palette in Ahmedabad, after receiving the restored bag. Since then, she has had several of her designer shoes and bags restored, a few of them with customised artwork to rejuvenate an older or plain design. “Three simple lines with my initials painted on an old Michael Kors handbag or the New York skyline on my plain white sneakers transformed these pieces.”
The Leather Works is among a growing number of specialists in the space of luxury accessory and footwear restoration and customisation. They offer quality restoration, with each piece getting a different treatment based on the damage. The expert care includes sourcing replacement materials, deep cleaning, stitching, mending, recolouring and adding embellishments and artwork to revive footwear, handbags, wallets and belts.
Among the reasons for the slow, but steady, demand for restoration of used luxury pieces are sentimentality and nostalgia. The people behind such platforms also say that customers are often motivated by ethical and environmental reasons as well.
Delhi-NCR, Mumbai and Bengaluru generates most of the business for these platforms services, but there is growing interest from other cities as well. “Hyderabad has now overtaken Mumbai and Delhi for us and there are growing orders from Ludhiana and Amritsar,” says Ahmedabad-based Sanjana Gupta, founder of The Leather Works. “I also have clients in the Middle East and the UK who appreciate the quality and affordability compared to similar services abroad.”
Social media has played a vital role in helping these platforms build their digitally savvy customer base. Take Sneakinn, for instance. It is a Delhi-based premium shoe and bag care service, started by Sahil Jain and Arunima Singhal in 2020. “I tried regular dry-cleaning services for my sneakers, but they never did a good job with them,” says Jain, a sneaker enthusiast.
Sneakinn started from a room on his terrace. “We hired one person, teaching him what a Jordan is and how it needs to be treated.” Despite starting in the pandemic, they were encouraged with the initial response of two-three daily orders, which has now grown to 60 daily orders, serviced by separate teams for cleaning, colouring, bags and shoes.
Sneakinn primarily targets the 18-30 age group. A happy byproduct for them has been customers’ family members seeing the results and sending in their shoes or accessories.
The $3.01 billion Indian sneaker market is expected to grow 5.88% annually, according to Statista. Pushing the numbers, along with retail sales, is the resale market, where, for instance, ₹20,000 sneakers can sell for a few lakhs, with sneakerheads hungry for limited edition and rare assets. “We wanted to be in a complimentary space to this resale market, contacting several re-sellers on Instagram, offering coupons for our services to their customers. It’s mainly word-of-mouth and social media promotion that bring in our clients,” says Jain.
Futstep Professional Shoe Care's Amit Pandey follows a similar marketing strategy as well. A shoe enthusiast since childhood, Pandey gained experience in the sports shoe business during a three-year stint at a Reebok showroom. While there, he realised that there were no worthy restoration services for expensive sneakers or footwear, and neighbourhood mochis were unable to achieve the required quality. He started Futstep Professional Shoe Care in Nashik in 2009, expanding to Mumbai in 2015.
His customers are mainly in the 20-40 age group, many of them sneakerheads. From about 1,200 pairs a year when they started, Futstep now services 15,000 pairs annually, with customers across India including several Bollywood celebrities. “(Actor) Harshvardhan Kapoor, one of India’s biggest sneakerheads, really helped us in the pandemic when business was hit. He sent in a few pairs of his sneakers, liked the work, and gave us a shoutout on social media. That was a real breakthrough for our growth.”
Managing customer expectations for a restoration service requires patience. “Indian customers can be difficult, expecting restoration to result in a brand new item. Often, we ourselves do not know what the exact outcome will be,” says Pandey. The process includes arranging pan-India pickups of the items, after which they are closely examined and a quote provided. “We share photos throughout the process, to keep customers in the loop and manage expectations of the final results,” says Gupta. This is time-intensive and intricate work, most of it done by hand, and services can range from a few days to a few weeks.
Finding the right artisans to train in specialised high-quality care of these expensive items is also challenging. Pandey sources and upskills talent mainly from the cobbler community, while Gupta works with art college students for customization. When it comes to restoration, Gupta works with diploma holders who have experience in leather and shoemaking.
“All our artisans have a background in handcrafting leather goods. We also provide them with training required for restoring luxury leather articles,” says Tabish Ahsan, director of Delhi-based Colorspa, which started in 2009 and now receives a few thousand monthly restoration and repair enquiries.
Part of the challenge is handling the expensive items vigilantly, and restoring them carefully while preserving their original look. Jain recalls keeping a customer’s ₹32 lakh 1985 Jordan 1 Chicago’s by his bedside because he was nervous to let them out of sight.
Repairing iconic features of a product can be daunting. Pandey had to remove and replace a peeling Nike swoosh on a pair of ₹1.75 lakh sneakers. “It was intricate work, with multiple trips to Dharavi to find matching material. We stitched it on and applied a spray for a matte finish. I was nervous about the client’s reaction, but he was, thankfully, thrilled.”
Gupta took a month to research and transform Luthra’s plain beige Louis Vuitton handbag, repainting it rose gold and adding the Louis Vuitton monogram pattern in 3D. “About 20 of her friends contacted me after that to get their bags restored.”
After the release of The Game Changers, a 2019 documentary on plant-based nutrition, The Colorspa had several clients requesting their leather bags be replaced with vegan leather. “It was challenging replacing the material and maintaining the bag’s originality,” says Ahsan.
When it comes to prices, here's an approximate break-up: ₹1,000 onwards for deep cleaning; restoration, ₹2,500-10,000; and customization between ₹3,000-25,000.
In this age of constant consumption, is it difficult to convince people to spend ₹15,000 on restoring older belongings, rather than spending it on a newer piece? With luxury possessions, the answer is no. “If you purchase ₹4,000 shoes, a ₹10,000 restoration may not make sense. But people don’t mind the same investment for a ₹1 lakh pair of genuine leather Guccis,” says Jain.
Consumers are also now increasingly aware of the environmental and ethical impact of constant consumption, and such services prolong the longevity of their belongings. They also celebrate nostalgia. “From what we’ve seen, it’s quite difficult for people to discard their luxury leather articles because they hold sentimental value. They would rather restore and repair them, than replace them altogether,” says Ahsan.