Luxury comes in many guises. For Dilip Kapur, founder and president of Hidesign, it's the language of his products.
For his father, luxury was giving up everything, including a successful business in shoes, to join Puducherry's Aurobindo ashram. Ironically, the very thing that enabled his son to span the world.
“He always wanted to be in the ashram. So when I was 5, we moved here,” says Dilip, as we walk through his bustling factory, situated 20 minutes away from Puducherry town. Past women workers intently structuring handbags, huge rustling trees, a warehouse packed with crates destined for Russia.
Finally, in his office, over an appropriately dramatic leather table, Dilip explains how the ashram changed his father. “They made him what he called a chaprasi,” he smiles. “He was a watchman. A peon. Here was this big industrialist, a rich guy all his life, and suddenly he was opening doors… It taught him humility.”
Although Dilip enjoyed the ashram school, he grew restless. “I always thought America was the centre of the world.” So, at 15, he wrote to the headmaster of the Andover Phillips Academy (Massachusetts), asking for admission. “I think they found it interesting — this letter out of the blue, out of an ashram. They invited me to join. Waived all fees.”
The American experience
Dilip stayed in America for 15 years, graduating from Princeton and going on to do a PhD. “By the time I was Americanised I knew I did not want to become an American. All the Indians thought I was very stupid. But I never changed my citizenship. Even when I married an American woman… I had a deep-rooted Indian pride. And I think that's something the ashram gave me.”
When he retuned in 1977, he walked into the beginning of Auroville. “It was very idealistic. I was idealistic. I wanted to make a new world.” He was, however, not quite sure how to go about it.
So he decided to design bags, just as a hobby. “When I ran out of my scholarship, I got a job at a bag boutique called Poor Richards in Denver to support myself.” Dilip drew and designed his first bag on the roof of his house. “I sold it to a friend for Rs. 300 in 1978,” he says, laughing, “We were never cheap!”
His product, however, represented a very different kind of luxury from what was de rigueur in the India of the 1970s. “The look then was totally kitty party. Indian women thought our bags were too rough… Not glittery enough…. Everyone was carrying Chanel copies. All those dreadful bags with big Cs on them,” he grimaces, adding, “The same taste as today's shiny Chinese imports, only much worse.” He concludes, looking secretly delighted, “Everybody in India thought my product looked terrible.”
As it turned out, it was the perfect age for rebellion. Hidesign gradually evolved into an alternative luxury brand, ideal for people who scorned glossy, cookie-cutter fashion norms and homogeny.
“A German friend modelled one of our bags. The guy who was in love with her thought it was beautiful — since it was on her. He gave us our first big order — 1,800 bags.” “Then a nice hippy couple came along, and they took our bags to San Francisco.” Australia was the next stroke of luck. “A guy from Auroville went there to work in a car factory and broke his back. So he sent us 8000 dollars, imported Hidesign and started selling it.”
“Our bags reflected the culture of the late 60s and 70s, and the tastes of the young,” says Dilip, explaining how they began as a ‘hippy brand.' “They were natural, hand-dyed, with solid brass fittings. Rough-looking with big stitches. They came out of the ashram, so they were very simple. There's great beauty in simplicity.”
Although the brand has been steadily moving into a more conventional style of luxury, discovering an enthusiastic Indian market in the process, he says they have essentially stayed true to their core design values. “India was all about copies of western brands; a hotchpotch of designs. Some of it was good, yes. After all these were copies of internationally proven designs, but there was no identity. No cohesiveness. The Hidesign label is different. All our bags have a similar story. They talk of a similar lifestyle.”
Of course, there have been changes. “We've become much more feminine over the years. More couture. More colour.”
The brand launched Holii, bright, kitschy and desi, in association with the Future Group last year. Now they're working on an ultra-luxe, ultra-glamorous line called Sloka by Rohit Bal. These bags are boldly coloured with intricate work, exhaustive detailing and plenty of bling. Since this is high-end luxury, each will be priced around Rs. 25,000.
Dilip's table's also covered with drawings of sunglasses, Hidesign's next venture. “The glass is from a company called Garbo. They do Bottega Veneta, Ferragamo, Paul Smith… So it will be high quality. Very classy, very beautiful.”
Then there are his hotels. Dupleix and Promenade in Puducherry, and now a new one he's working on along with the Taj. “It's about 26 km from Puducherry, on the best stretch of beaches on the East Coast Road. Architect Jean Philippe Nuel is brilliant; it's going to have amazing interiors. Very luxurious.