By Neelima Agrawal
In the annals of history, India’s connection with the world of luxury has been undeniable, albeit in different roles. From being the proverbial land of large diamonds and glittering gold, to becoming the desired hub where European luxury brands like Rolls Royce, Cartier, LVMH built their fortunes selling their wares to the wealthy royals. And eventually, confined to being merely a muse to brands like Hermès, Canali, etc, that leveraged to their advantage, the availability of craft traditions and techniques at low cost. The resurgent economy in India has brought back the global luxury brands. Clearly, the more prosperous denizens of India have a huge appetite for the branded product. However, despite having the requisite wherewithal of expertise in manufacturing, access to materials and artisanship, no serious luxury brand has emerged from India. Some tried but lost their footing in the global marketplace. In such a scenario, it was exciting to encounter Aranyani, the Bengaluru based manufacturers of premium leather bags, at their preview at the Oberoi New Delhi, ahead of its launch in New York. I recalled seeing the Aranyani bag exactly a year ago in September 2018, at an exhibition in Hyatt, Delhi. The change was significant. Aranyani had reinvented itself completely, with a new logo, chic new bags for men and women, with global design sensibility, a newly refurbished website. It was time to engage with the people behind the new avatar of the Aranyani brand.
In the backdrop of the preview, I got to quiz the key members of Team Aranyani – the Founder Haresh Mirpuri who launched Aranyani in 2016, but is relaunching it again in 2019. The leading brand consultant Francois Arpels, Founder & Managing Partner – Rise In Lifestyle Craft and Luxury, who is involved in the definition and the implementation of the strategic road-map and in other finer details regarding the brand. The Barcelona based Vittoria Wührer, is advising Aranyani on the design and creative directions. Not present at the venue was the other star member of the team handpicked by Haresh at the start, Raphael Lombardo from Italy. He is the master shaper and technician for handmade craftsmanship of leather bags. Raphael comes from three generations of working with leather, where his grandfather was the first pattern maker of bags for Coco Channel.
Francois Arpels is the third generation of the famous French jewellery house Van Cleef & Arpels. He has set up his consultancy and has considerable understanding of the Indian markets. I lost no time is asking him the questions that has long niggled in my mind.
Why is it that there is no globally recognised luxury brand from India as yet?
Francois Arpels – Traditionally, Indian entrepreneurs have been more focused on building short term money churning businesses, rather than developing brands. The latter is a painstakingly long process requiring an unparalleled level of attention to the entire value cycle resulting in flawless delivery, and experienced management in the definition and the execution of brand strategies, with obsession for detail and innovation, and consistent superior product quality.
How does Aranyani fit in that context?
Francois Arpels – The western consumer is looking for luxury that is bespoke, artisan and unique, supported by an engaging narrative that generates an emotion. These are the qualities that India, with its great heritage of craft and unlimited resources for storytelling, offers. Aranyani relies on attributes that can allow it to compete on the personal luxury goods global arena. As said in Aranyani’s byline ‘Inspired by nature. Informed by India. Crafted by tradition’.
While Haresh Mirpuri, Founder of Aranyani, has put together a formidable team, will he be able to leverage the advantage? Does he have the personal vision? The detailed interaction with Haresh, as well as the young scion just inducted into the business Somshekhar Mirpuri, was insightful.
Mirpuri spoke about his successful family business of apparel manufacturing set up by his father in Indonesia, his exposure to the global apparel chains as their clients and his contribution to grow the business in new directions. He also spoke about the influence of the spiritual teacher Sathya Sai Baba of Puttuparthy, who inculcated in him a deep love for India’s beauty. This ethos that he imbibed in his fourteen formative years of austere living in Sathya Sai Baba’s school, took root in his plans for the future. Not content with merely chasing bigger profits, Haresh wanted to create his own label out of India, with something other than apparel manufacturing, something no one was doing.
What made you decide to make leather bags?
Haresh Mirpuri – Bags I feel is the great future. People never tire of a good bag, unlike clothing. My favorite has always been the Hermès bag, for its impeccable quality and finish. Also, India has an ancient legacy of leather craft. We have the skills for exquisite handwork, the essential factor for limited edition bags. I found the niche. The Aranyani bags provide an opportunity to showcase the Indian art, the mastery of handwork, bringing innovation to age old craftsmanship.
But can you match the quality standards of an Hermès bag?
Haresh Mirpuri – It is all about setting our mind to do the same as Hermès does. There are so many quality variants even among European bags, but Hermès has set itself to achieve that standard and built it into the DNA. Why can’t we do the same? I asked myself why not, especially since we already have the desired skills in our DNA. It was a question of bringing the Indian craftsman back into the fold, and guiding them to match global standards. My exposure to Italy brought me in touch with the best. I met Raphael Lombardo, who is from three generation of bag makers. He has helped me setup the layout of the plants, choice of machine, as well as training the workers. Raphael brings the international standards into the making of the product, right from patterns, up to the way you construct the product. Any material we chose has to be approved by him first.
How do you train the leather craftsman? How much time have you invested?
HM – Raphael personally trains and assesses each of them. He tells us what level of complications we can get into with each craftsman and he sets the targets for them. We follow the same concept as Hermès does. Ours is an atelier, where each bag is made by one craftsman, from start to finish. He is fully responsible and accountable for making a good quality bag. We are ensuring a highly skilled craftsman. There is no assembly line, mass production. Today if I say that I am lucky to have Raphael, it is not because he learnt for 30 years, but because his grandfather too has been doing the same. Today, his 14 year old son can make a beautiful bag. It is in the blood and I am a firm believer that it is in our blood to make beautiful things again. Our leather craftsman have it in their blood, and giving them exposure and training, we can be the best.
We were clear that it would take time to train people, as learning does not come overnight. We spent the first year learning. But techniques are powerful and we already have that. At the end of one year, we had made 800 bags. People wanted to leave because they thought I would not survive with no sales and such a huge stock. I had to convince them that we are still in training.
What about attrition? How big is your production team?
HM – In building a luxury brand, I am actually building a family. The biggest challenge is having to earn the trust and have the people believe in me as they would in their father, that with Aranyani, they are building their lives. We have reached a purchase power parity level for salaries of Europe. Raphael matches their skill level with the equivalent salary earned in say France, and lets me know. It is a simple rule. If they are convinced that no one else can afford them, and they have the right environment, they will remain. In addition, it is nurturing the craft, and helping it come back. One of them actually said that my son will come and join you. I said that is my dream. Let all artisans come back. Earlier they had patronage from the kings, and we produced the best. The IT sector is not the only thing in the world. We need to start making beautiful things again.
Currently I have seven skilled craftsman who are on par with the best in Europe. Another five are still under training. We train a batch of five at a time. We can’t take more as it is very focused. They take nine months to a year to achieve the required skill.
There is a significant shift from the earlier Aranyani bag designs.
Haresh Mirpuri – After the initial launch of our bags, we conducted a survey with 500 customers. The data we collected showed that the modern Indian has become far more contemporary in their tastes and outlook. Our design aesthetics had to match that. That is when we brought in Vittoria Wührer, who is highly skilled at translating brand and product strategies into attractive designs. She has a luxury design focus approach having worked for over eight years for European brands. We discuss the directions and she translates them with the right aesthetics.
How do you develop the design concepts?
Vittoria Wührer – I translated what Mr Haresh wanted to achieve. He introduced me to Indian history, the Aravali mountains, the flower that he drew during his travels. I translated the information in designs, which was a combination of Indian handicraft, colours, inspired by architecture, nature, applied on more western silhouettes that are classic. I tried to show the India power, the embroideries, Mother Nature with precious stones.
Haresh Mirpuri – Vittoria builds on the design based on the story concept that I work with her. She understands what I am looking at, and is able to convert it into form.The Aravali collection is an ode to the oldest mountains in the world. Udaipur is nestled in the Aravalis. Rajasthan has a rich heritage. The Kesuda flower design has inspired our Kesuda bags, a combination of embroidery and painting. The Kesuda Flower has deep significance all across India, for its beauty, its colour. There are other cities that inspire, like Bikaner, Benares, Darjeeling, Pondicherry. The Delhi bag is about the city that celebrates shopping. We have also innovation in using the age old gold and silver gilding technique on leather for our Darjeeling bag.
Where are you getting the gilding done? Are you using pure gold and silver?
HM – We use this age-old technique supposed to be from France, but it originates from India. We wanted to put it on our bags. India is about precious metals, precious stones. We found two families in Rajasthan, who have been in this for 17 generations, for the Maharajas. We brought them to our plant. They had never used ‘virq’ on leather, but we persisted for six months, and finally achieved the result. They trained our people for two months. We buy the gold bars from HSBC and make our own pure 24 carat gold foil and silver foil.
Where are you sourcing the leather? What about exotic leather?
HM – As a policy we are using the best of materials irrespective from what geography. Our leather is from Italy, which is the finest. The other hardware, the brass, zips etc are from France and Italy.
No we do not use exotic leather. In case of typical leathers, calf leather, no animal is killed for their hide. I am happy that we have laws prohibiting it. To kill a cobra or alligator just for its skin is abhorrent. At Aranyani we are committed to never using exotic leather.