Photography- Muskan Nagpal
Familiarising oneself with the swanky Dhan Mill Compound is fairly easy. Far away from the land of all things mainstream, the Compound is home to the studios of some of the most prominent creative names in the capital. One such sprawling space belongs to the homegrown Nappa Dori, also thriving internationally with a store in London. I met with the exceptionally talented owner, Gautam Sinha, and our conversation took place in his office space-cum-surveillance room which was surprisingly quiet and peaceful as opposed to the exuberant atmosphere of the cafe and retail space.
Gautam’s story began with academic mediocrity, getting bad grades and dyslexia which wasn’t diagnosed until much later in life, he told me. Yet, he continued on with his keen interest for sketching and art. A degree from NIFT turned out to be his only option as he couldn’t produce the grades for anything else. He 'dropped out' from college three years into his fashion design degree since it wasn’t something he was not particularly inclined towards. 'I won’t say I dropped out, I would say life took over,' he elaborated. His actual learning began post NIFT as he got a job with an export house, working mainly for the German market. He gained crucial lessons in running a business and how to work around trade fairs amongst other technical things. He further added, 'It was the most exciting time in my life since I was actually creating things and selling them, it was quite a rush.' This was also the time he decided to materialise his childhood dream of being an entrepreneur. It was post a soul-searching sabbatical that he was presented with an unexpected opportunity and leather finally entered his life. Without having any previous experience with leather, he replicated a belt for a company which propelled him designing belts on the side all by himself. One thing led to another and he found himself starting his own company to export his belts to international buyers. Gautam’s anecdotes pointed towards one very important aspect which is usually missing from the mass production, mass consumption model of the economy. The aspect is upcycling and he explained that, 'Leather was in my life in some way or the other, for the belts leather was coming in and all these scraps were left. I used to think to myself, I can’t waste this, I would make boxes and experiment.' His first memory of the material thus includes a deep sense of fascination that resonated due to the versatility of the material.
Gautam’s design sensibilities are an amalgamation of a fixed creative process and pure instinct. He added, 'Just going by your gut, in terms of what you want to create,' many a time he lets the artist in him take control and creates products that aren’t completely utility based. He gave the example of Nappa Dori’s leather trunks made out of sheet metal and leather straps, they were items that ended up being decorative goods but worked rather well for the brand. He gave credit to the fact that he worked on his gut instinct and produced goods that made him content. Travel plays a primary role in Gautam’s life. Not only does he draw inspiration from it but also considers it to be an alternate form of education. He spelled it out saying, 'it evolves you as a person, not only the way you think and respond to other people but in terms of culture and food amongst other things. It just opens you up in so many different ways.'
Averse to the burst of colours that usually defines 'Indianness' in the mainstream, Nappa Dori’s fairly minimal aesthetic was inspired by the man’s love for Scandinavian design. He also cultivates Indian sensibility through craftsmanship. He has brought in a uniquely Indian flavour not only through the use of handwoven ikat fabric but by also reviving old techniques like hand-stitched leather which is archaic in contemporary times. My final question for him was one that I was the most curious about. A question that usually remains unanswered by most in this capitalist era, although Gautam answered in all earnesty when I enquired about the sourcing of his leather and about the unethicality attached to the leather industry. He has had rigid procedures set in place from the onset of his journey as an exporter. Being completely involved in the process he built relations with certified tanneries while exporting to Scandinavia, relations that are still in place. He explained, 'I started using scrap leather, which was waste material. All the leather is veg dyed so we try to be as conscious about the environment as possible. We don’t use chrome that is a massive metallic element in the processing of leather.'
One of the best parts for me as I converse with these creators is the interaction I have with the craftspersons at work. Some are very eloquent and some are very shy, who hesitate to volunteer any information. At the Nappa Dori Warehouse I met with Ijaz Alam, otherwise known as Sonu by his co-workers, who had been with the label since 2011. Hailing from Kolkatta, Sonu’s family has been employed in the leather industry since 1995. A legacy passed on from his family, he explained, 'my skill has been made use of in different parts of the country including Hyderabad, Bangalore and Mumbai.' He told me in detail about the trunk, a piece that takes at least two days to be made with all it’s different components, from the canvas to the leather involved. Mainly involved with different kinds of shoes, Sonu takes as little as three hours to produce a pair despite it’s design. He starts with the pattern cut out on paper cardboard and then made in rexine or leather. First the upper part and then lower part, to which the sole is stuck. He also proudly informed me that different people specialised in different aspects so not all can produce a complete pair and that he had also trained 12-15 different workers!
Text Unnati Saini