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The luxe cobbler

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Remember 'Bagwati', the Hermes handbag that Farhan Akhtar treats like a beautiful lady in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and which inspires him to break into poetry? That's a sentiment about bags that Alberto Ciaschini could well share. "It's like an extension of a beautiful woman. It's like a mirror and reflects her image in its every detail. A bag is a perfect mix of tradition, style and practicality, " says the Italian in-house designer of the Hidesign brand.

Ever since Ciaschini became part of Hidesign in 2004, India's been the inspiration for his designs. His latest one has been inspired by the sari. "It's not just the vivacious colours you see all around but even the mystique of the Indian woman who looks so stunning in her traditional attire that it gets me fired up, " he says. For the designer, the creation of a just-launched, eponymous luxury collection is the culmination of a dream to create bags for the contemporary woman "who's a multi-faceted personality - pays careful attention to what she wears, is a thorough professional and has an interest in the arts. And of course, she enjoys movies with her friends but goes shopping alone. Self-confidence is the key with my woman. " And that's the reason his latest range combines the finest leather with detailed embroidery and Swarovski crystals.

Hidesign founder Dilip Kapur, 60, says he got Ciaschini on board because feedback from foreign markets was that desi products were catering only to the Indian sensibility. Two years ago, at the Colbert Committee, a luxury enclave in France, talk came around to high end products that India could offer. "The consensus was that Indian stuff is generally blingy, whereas the international buyer would be interested in products that are quintessentially Indian but with Western sensibilities, " he says. That's when he joined forces with Ciaschini.

The collaboration resulted in the merger of two luxury traditions in Hidesign - French and Italian - to create his new luxury range, Alberto Ciaschini. "I've partnered with Louis Vuitton that boasts a long 200-year history with luxury and is a tough task master. And of course, Alberto comes from the Armani stable that again has a rich heritage, vis-?-vis luxury, " says Kapur. That perhaps is the reason there's no Indian designer on board. "Luxury is still a new concept in India, " he maintains.

To begin with, Ciaschini wasn't entirely comfortable with his new association with India, recalls an amused Kapur. "It was through a friend, a sourcing director for Chanel, that I met Alberto, " he says. Ciaschini, who was already working with Armani and Loewe fashion brands, agreed but had one condition - that his association with Hidesign be kept a secret. "Although excited, he was ashamed to be associated with an Indian brand, " quips Kapur. "Now of course, it's another story - although it took Alberto about 4-5 years to get over it. "

Over the years, Kapur has noticed how the Indian woman has become "more and more aspirational". She's appreciative of the minimalistic, clean look and now wants bags that serve a dual purpose - both at the office and for an evening out. Calling a handbag a woman's most important accessory "since it's one that's at the eye level", Kapur remembers how, till about five years ago, 80 per cent of the bags women carried were mainly black or brown. Now the preference for these colours has gone down to only about 30 per cent.

Different shades of red - "that, incidentally, is the new black" - comprise 30 per cent and the rest 40 per cent are "fashionable colours" like white, green and blue. And the coming season will see a new colour - beak, which is a mix of yellow and orange, from his stable. "It's only after a study of international fashion trends that we introduce new colours, " says Kapur, a Princeton graduate who started creating handbags with just one cobbler in Pondicherry. Today he retails from over 74 stores in India and 18 abroad including departmental stores in the UK.

He laughs, recalling how disappointed his family was when he returned home after completing his PhD in International Affairs from Denver and decided to work with leather. "It all started when in 1978, to pay my way through, I took up a job in a leather-bag factory called Poor Richards, " he remembers. "I loved crafting products, and once I got back to Pondy, I decided to follow my passion". And what started as a one-man venture is now a global business with a turnover of about Rs 120 crore in India and Rs 200 crore abroad.

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