"Ignorance has been bliss for me,” says Gautam Sinha, sipping his afternoon shot of espresso. “Had I listened to people, there wouldn’t have been a Nappa Dori today.”
Thirteen years ago, when Sinha began the luxury design label from a rented scooter garage-turned-shop in a quiet by-lane of south Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village, some well-wishers suggested it wasn’t a great idea to spend one’s life savings on a concept as niche as creating products like leather travel bags and accessories that pushed a minimalistic design language in maximalist India.
Even the Indian shopper was a bit surprised: Why would anyone spend upwards of ₹10,000 to buy a made-in-India leather trunk—an old-fashioned travel companion of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s—or even ₹4,000 on a canvas-meets-leather bag, with clean lines, minimal ornamentation, and almost Scandinavian simplicity?
But Sinha, an alumnus of the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), Delhi, was determined. With ₹4 lakh as investment and one employee in a Lado Sarai workshop, he wanted to build a home-grown brand for the urban Indian who was travelling the world and wasn’t shy of flaunting a made-in-India product. He wanted to offer nostalgia as well as the fine craftsmanship of the country.
At present, the brand crafts products that straddle luxury and functionality. This includes metal trunks clad with heavy grain canvas fabric and leather straps, worth over ₹17,000; a leather ruler that costs ₹800 and has embossed measures in centimetres or inches; and a soft leather handcrafted backpack for nearly ₹20,000.
“My customers were only expats in the first two years,” recalls Sinha, 44, when we meet at Café Dori, a 5,800 sq. ft café in Delhi’s fashion retail hub, Dhan Mill, that he started as an extension of Nappa Dori in 2017. He’s wearing a black round-neck T-shirt and a pair of jeans and sports shoes—almost a uniform for him.
“Hauz Khas Village was then an upcoming retail hub for indie brands,” he continues. “Many foreigners came just to explore the area. That helped my store; I sold products worth around ₹20,000 in the first month.”
Today, Nappa Dori has become a lifestyle brand that employs over 200 people. It has 11 stores across India and the UK, with a 3,500 sq.ft outlet in Dubai being the latest launch. Sinha’s clients, including celebrities like Sonam Kapoor Anand, Naomi Watts, Eva Longoria and Nimrat Kaur, are spread across the US, Japan, Germany, Finland and Singapore.
Collections of men’s leather shoes and home décor, including tableware, rugs, lighting, rugs, kitchenware and home furnishings—all rooted in the simplicity of design—have been added to the starting menu of travel bags, wash bags, wallets, and laptop covers. There’s also Café Dori, the brand’s extension in the form of pet-friendly cafés, in Delhi, Gurugram, Mumbai, Chandigarh, London and Dubai, serving French, English and east European cuisines.
“We are soon adding clothing as well,” says Sinha. In terms of annual revenue growth, he claims 100% year-on-year growth in numbers, but doesn’t share any figures.
The brand did take a severe hit during the pandemic, considering people were hardly looking to buy travel goods. Sinha had to shut three Delhi stores, including the first store in Hauz Khas Village. “I thought it was time to wrap up,” he says. “But then we decided to launch a home collection, and it worked.” He plans to launch stores in Bengaluru and Pune soon.
The brand’s growth is not surprising. Nappa Dori has remained a unique concept over the years. Despite India being among the world’s biggest exporters of leather, there are only a handful of homegrown leather brands that have managed to capture the attention of the global audience. This is especially true in the space of leather travel accessories.
In 2010, when Nappa Dori was founded, the leading leather-goods brand in the organised sector was Hidesign. Its utilitarian design language was relatively more suited to Indian tastes and pockets but the Puducherry-based brand, known for bags and wallets, wasn’t focusing on luggage. International brands like Louis Vuitton, on the other hand, were the sole preserve of luxury shoppers.
Consumer tastes too have evolved. The Indian shopper is much more open to the idea of buying luxury products from home-grown brands than a decade ago. A recent Bain & Co. report predicts that by 2030, the market for luxury goods in India could hit $200 billion (around ₹16.6 trillion); it was $2.5 billion in 2021.
When he started Nappa Dori, Sinha didn’t actively study reports to seek out gaps in the luxury market. He says he just “needed to earn money”.
Growing up in rented apartments across Delhi and watching his single mother work tirelessly at her small export unit while raising him and his brother, Sinha wasn’t certain of his career path but knew early on that he wanted financial security. He was also interested in art. During free time at home and school, he used to copy Archie comics into his notebook. It satiated his constant urge to be visually stimulated. “I am dyslexic (something he discovered at the age of 30), so I have always been better with figures and maps instead of words and letters,” he says.
His class XII results weren’t great (“I just couldn’t deal with accounts”) and he decided to apply to NIFT since he enjoyed drawing and because “with such a low percentage, Delhi University wouldn’t entertain me”.
His first job after graduation was creating Christmas decorations for an Indian company in a Nizamuddin workshop; these were then exported to Germany. Earning ₹14,000 a month, he was happy. On the side, he was investing in stocks after borrowing an initial sum of ₹5,000 from his mother. “I used to live with my mother at the time, so I would save all the dividends,” says Sinha, who now lives on his own in a rented apartment in the Capital.
It was fun, for two years. His next job, after a six-month sabbatical, was making leather belts for an aunt who used to export leather goods, among other things, to clients in the Netherlands.
“Before that, I had no formal knowledge of leather. In fact, when I was asked to make belts, I took my mother with me to Karol Bagh to buy leather. I had no idea about the names of the different kinds; the sample was in my hand the whole time. I figured out what kind of leather I needed only by touch,” he says, laughing. “Gradually, I 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?”
During an earlier interview with Sinha, I had asked him whether his outlook towards leather had changed following the ethical concerns around it. His answer then was similar to the one he gives this sunny afternoon: “For us it has been very clear from the start. We try to be as authentic and ethical as we can be (in sourcing), considering the circumstances and the product that we are dealing with (he sources leather from across India, and, recently, from Italy).” He dismisses suggestions that vegan leather may be a more sustainable option. “It’s a marketing ploy. Leather is biodegradable; most types of vegan leather are not.”
As his appetite and imagination for creating leather goods grew—he was making and exporting leather menu covers, besides belts and accessories for international hotels—the desire for his own brand increased. The idea of Nappa Dori started taking shape in 2007-08 “but I was struggling with the name”, says Sinha. “I had come up with the name Kaske (as in, we tie our belts and wristbands tightly, or kaske in Hindi) but I wasn’t happy. One day in my office, I noticed pieces of leather and thread, the two things I work with every day, and there it was—nappa (soft leather) and dori (thread). I asked my mom and brother, they liked it for a travel bag and accessories brand.”
Why the focus on bygone era trunks, though? “I grew up in the Delhi Cantt (Cantonment) area, where I saw those silver metal trunks,” he replies. “I wanted to make them pretty. Same with Café Dori. I am a coffee addict and couldn’t find decent coffee anywhere in Delhi, so I decided to build a place where you can come and enjoy what I think is a good cup of coffee. People don’t know what they want, you have to create things for them. That’s what I have learnt in these 10 years.”
He has also learnt to delegate, which is an important lesson for an entrepreneur, he says. Yet, while he has teams to handle most things, he continues to design the stores. “We have solely built ourselves on word of mouth. No ads, no influencers. It has been a slow journey but I think it has helped build a more solid brand,” he says.
He is often told his products are too expensive. “We are charging for quality. You don’t bargain when it comes to international brands, do you? We (Indians) might not know how to market ourselves but we are better than anyone else in the world when it comes to design. Design is in our blood.”
Like many other founders, the pandemic forced Sinha to think more deeply about the larger picture. For him, it is to build a brand that takes the India story to the world. “I want a store in a Scandinavian country. If international fashion houses can come to India and showcase our own embroideries to us, why can’t we take our designs to them?”