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arm candy

India's bag ladies


With the recession, experts predicted the end of the eye-wateringly expensive statement handbag, but women today are still spending thousands on arm candy. While foreign labels dominate, Indian designers are no slouchy pouches. The jewelled 'potli' or that tangerine clutch you eyed at a party could be the work of a desi accessory designer.

Jewels in the clutch


Fashion has always been a passion with Malini Agarwalla. So when she decided to branch out of the family business to set up her own company, a little over 10 years ago, it was an obvious choice. "At that time, while Indian clothes designers had gained prominence and acclaim, very few Indian accessory designers had come to the fore, " says the Mumbai-based designer. In addition to this gap, her love for handbags helped her decide her niche - designing handbags. "Focusing on one product range initially allowed me to build a platform from which I could start developing a label which stood for quality, luxury and innovation. " Malini married desi bling with Western silhouettes to create accessories that paired very well with ethnic ensembles.
She started off with a few projects and collections before deciding that she wanted to set up her own label - Malaga, which is a blend of her full name but also has an easy recall since it's the name of a famous Spanish resort. Malini, an MBA in finance, was not professionally trained to make bags. "But my designs evolved with my learning. Starting from simple silhouettes in Western and ethnic designs I steadily expanded my expertise and knowledge of fabrics, cuts and weaves to understand structure and design in a more intricate way. Now, the shapes and looks of my creations are more sophisticated, more wide-ranging, with Malaga's trademark embellishments coming to the fore. "

Designing a bag is not easy but it can be fun, says Malini. "There are different considerations - whether it will have a hard or soft structure, the main material component (like, metal or fabric), what the story of the collection will be, will its base support layering or ornamentation. " There is also the factor of practicality : if a clutch is too heavy, or the handle is too flimsy, will it be useable? Keeping all this in mind, the first cuts of silhouettes are drafted. After comparing them, the final silhouettes are chosen and tweaked in the design process. Later, a foam sample of the silhouette is made to see whether the drawing can be translated accurately onto a physical object. Next, materials are chosen and combined, altered, tweaked and fused to create something unique. As a stylista herself, Malini prefers to carry a deep purple shoulder bag from her Flamore collection. "The leather flowers embroidered on this collection are done in black on this particular bag and the style and combination of colours allows me to carry a sophisticated bag that is versatile in use and complements different outfits. " Her clients tend to prefer special occasion bags, especially those created for weddings. "These days bejewelled or embellished Malaga clutches are a hot favourite with my clients. But colourful batuas, neutral crystal bags or couture jeweled minaudieres also get picked up. " Abroad, however, her clients are more likely to follow seasonal fashion trends. "While my crystal bags do predictably well in the Middle East, buyers in Japan gravitate towards the subtle sophistication of my Flamore collection, " says Malini. She has now expanded her product catalogue to include belts, costume jewellery and footwear. Earlier this year she launched Malaga Bespoke - the haute couture label that specialises in designing customisable, bespoke, precious jewellery and precious jewelled minaudieres. Her pr?t label, Pimento by Malaga, targets a younger, office- and college-going crowd.


Funky meets earthy


She designed her first handbag at the age of 12 using some felt and beads. That was play but now, bags are a passion with 26-year-old Dhruva Patel whose work unites funky and earthy. Having grown up on a farm, she loves using leather dyed in earthy shades like muddy browns, bottle greens and taupe with canvas, silk and tapestry.

Daughter of a cardiologist who practises organic farming in Ahmedabad and a post-graduate from NIFT, Chennai, Patel dabbled in design at a leather export house that manufactured goods for labels like Liz Claireborne and Tommy Hilfiger.
Realising that luxury labels that are made and designed in India are no different from those made overseas, and that, in fact, most are crafted here with the best materials sourced from the world over, she launched her accessory label 'Dhruva' in 2008.
Putting bright colours on the rack paid off. Her signature collection has snazzy wristlets, funky clutches and other arm candy. Her bags share shelf space with international labels not just in India - she retails out of eight stores - but also abroad.

Her work has been featured in style sections of numerous fashion magazines. A thousand 'Likes' on Facebook further encouraged her to launch an e-shopping facility on her website to cater to online shopaholics. The Chennai-based Gujarati girl says her designs are for strong-minded women who don't shy away from colour. "My bags have colour, texture and a design story, " says Dhruva, who has notched up some Bollywood clients as well. Along with design, functionality is extremely important to Patel, whose products are priced between Rs 700-9, 000. "I follow the fashion forecast to a certain extent but I also try to use some elements from what is going on around me. Even a great cup of coffee can get my mind ticking, " says Dhruva who is inspired by the works of Marc Jacobs and Anya Hindamarch. Almost all the handbags have a name that represents their character. So Mabel is a cheerful red while Pepper is a zingy ochre.
Sourcing good leather is a tough task but living in Chennai with its proximity to leather industries helps. Dhruva, who says she tries to source the best quality leather, makes sure that she doesn't let a single scrap go to waste. She now plans to expand into open footwear and lifestyle products.

So why are women so obsessed with handbags? Patel says she understands the mind of bagwatis (Remember the Hermes in Zindagi Na Mile Dobara ?). "A bag is an extension of oneself and represents one's moods, personality and cravings. Bags share our happiest and saddest moments and that's the reason we cannot have enough of them. "


Desi purse strings


Meera Mahadevia started off designing garments. She soon noticed that her customers often walked in wearing Indian clothes but the bags they carried were Western brands. "The bags jarred against the Indian textiles. So I decided to start designing bags rooted in the Indian sensibility, " says Meera, whose bag venture dates as far back as 1985.

True to the spirit with which she started her venture, her bags draw from a wide range of Indian techniques and textiles. Her designs have been inspired by the wood carvings of South India, the gold-leaf work of Rajasthan, the inlay work of Agra and also Buddhist textiles. The clutches, couture bags and totes are made with a wide range of materials including brass, copper, hand-painted leather, precious and semi-precious stones. Meera further ensures that each of her handbags is "completely handmade" as she believes that "the human hand is the best manufacturing tool". All these add up to unique, one-of-a-kind pieces which are both contemporary and traditional.
"My bags are meant for women with a discerning eye, those who can look beyond a brand name, " says Meera, who exports to the US, the UK, Japan, the Middle East and other countries. Her handbags are used by Bollywood celebrities like Rekha, Kareena
Kapoor and Bipashu Basu. Meera's bags are showcased at the Newark Museum Gallery in the US. where she was honoured for her contribution to design.

Meera believes that constant learning is essential for her work. She started out as a textile designer but also completed a Master's degree in Indian Aesthetics from Bombay University four years ago. She also derives inspiration from Bharatanatyam, saying that it ensures her "mind is completely empty, allowing me to connect with energy". Her bags are available at multiple boutiques throughout India such as Kimaya, Melange, and Ogaan. They are priced between Rs. 5, 000 and 25, 000. Meera is currently working on affiliating her company with other brands, both domestic and international. Her new collection for Spring/Summer 2013 will be out in August.


Fair leather friends


The texture of bread crumbs or a fresh track on the radio, anything can trigger an idea. It is this ability to find inspiration in the mundane that drives Ketchup, says Nikhaar Budhiraj, the brains behind the fashion label that makes bags for women.
Two and a half years ago, Nikhaar was all set to begin work at an IT firm after graduating with a degree in computer science. But the global recession put paid to her plans - her offer letter was put on hold and she was jobless for two months. The 24-year-old decided to start on her new career - designing handbags.

Ketchup has been around only for two years and has launched two test collections, but it has managed to impress the market. Nikhaar was one of the accessory designers who got to showcase her collection at the Lakmê Fashion Week, Fall/Winter 2011 in Mumbai. The LFW show was the encouragement she needed to know that she was "on the right track and heading in the right direction". For her, the hardest part of designing a bag is translating abstract ideas into sketches. Designing allows her to combine the imaginative interplay of ideas with technical details - something no engineering class teaches you. "Those classes were 100 per cent mathematics and zero per cent creativity, " says Nikhaar.
Her website says that Ketchup designs bags, which can cost between Rs 5, 000 and 15, 000, "range from feminine to rock-influenced for the fashionable young". Each bag is a limited edition, and aims to provide "affordable luxury for all the beautiful young women in the world".

The Ketchup team consists of Nikhaar, who handles the marketing and designing work, her "master ji" who converts the designs to patterns and craftsmen who fashion the patterns into final products. Ketchup is currently showcasing its collections at multi-designer fashion houses such as Kimaya and Araliya in Pune. These bags are also available at online boutiques such as "designemporia. in" and "indianhanger. com", which offer worldwide shipping. Ketchup has recently started designing a pr?t-a-porter collection as well. Nikhaar, who currently lives in Delhi, intends to further expand Ketchup to make it available in all the metropolitan cities in India. She also intends to set up a website to reach a global clientele.


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