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Indian leather takes a global flight

fashion-and-trends Updated: Jun 26, 2007 14:18 IST
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As Western luxury brands target India's rising rich, a local leather goods firm aims to turn the tables and become the country's first global fashion marquee.

Hidesign, based in the former French colony of Pondicherry in the southeast, logged $80 million in sales at home and abroad last year and is seeking to ride on an international fashion name to penetrate markets abroad.

It is in talks to sell a 20 percent stake to French fashion house Louis Vuitton, or LVMH, which is now assessing the Indian brand's value, chief executive officer Kunal Sachdev said in an interview in India's high-tech hub of Bangalore.

A preliminary agreement is in place before the investment, said Sachdev, 42, adding that Hidesign will also collaborate with Louis Vuitton in setting up a leather factory near Chennai in southern India. Hidesign, which runs 12 stores overseas including in China, Russia and South Africa, wants to increase that number to 50 in three years, he said.

The brand is sold from Australia to the Middle East, Europe and Africa, and can be found on the shelves of multi-brand department stores such as House of Fraser, John Lewis, Magasin Du Nord, Selfridges and Myers.

"There are no previous examples of an Indian brand establishing a footprint overseas; Hidesign is the first," said Arvind Singhal, who heads retail consultancy Technopak.

"There is a retail opportunity in the mass prestige market for products that are not as expensive as Gucci nor very cheap," he added.

"Hidesign will appeal to those who cannot spend $2,000 but can afford $250."

A tie-up with Louis Vuitton will give Hidesign international respectability and recognition, enabling it to compete overseas with brands such as Coach of the US that fall in the same segment, Singhal said.

Hidesign was founded in 1978 as a one-man workshop by Dilip Kapur who began handcrafting leather bags, jackets and other accessories, becoming one of the best-known brands in India where it now operates 18 boutiques.

Kapur makes a virtue of going back to traditional leather tanning methods, using natural vegetable oils and dyes in his products -- hand and computer bags, briefcases, wallets, belts -- to give them a distinctive shine and feel.

Hidesign avoids pigments and lacquers that make real leather indistinguishable from synthetic versions; its oil-tanned ranch leather is very lightly dyed and then covered with natural oils.

The brass buckles and rivets are individually sandcast and handpolished in a tradition that goes back to the old European style of saddle making.

Such products may appeal to environmentally-conscious consumers but that may not be enough to open the doors of the world's biggest shops to an emerging company with aspirations to become a global player.

Hidesign's international expansion depends on it being able to open exclusive stores in prestigious outlets that are prepared to let out premium space to only the most exclusive brands, said Sachdev, the company's CEO.

"In building the brand internationally, we have to go the exclusive-store route," said Sachdev, who runs Hidesign from Bangalore. "Just advertising won't give customers an idea of the brand they are buying, the philosophy behind it." That's where Louis Vuitton comes in.

"The fact that Louis Vuitton is associated with us would open up the doors internationally for us in terms of opening stores and widening our global presence," said Sachdev, who is targeting 30 per cent growth in annual sales.

Louis Vuitton, which has one store each in New Delhi and Mumbai and may soon open a third in Bangalore, is trying to expand in India, a nation of 1.1 billion people, as are other international luxury brands.

Hidesign's local market knowledge will be useful to the French fashion house although the brands will remain independent, said Sachdev. India's consumer market is expected to grow five-fold to $1.5 trillion by 2025 as a fast-growing economy boosts the personal incomes of a youthful population, according to the consulting company McKinsey.

"After China, India will be the next growth story," Yves Carcelle, CEO of Louis Vuitton in New Delhi, said recently. "But right now we are (at) the beginning."