A NIFT-graduate who studied design in Milan and worked with Italian fashion house Coccinelle, Delhi-based Smriti Sain admits that she had a “dejected” view of the domestic market for Indian-made leather accessories. “Most leather goods made here are exported abroad,” she says. “Yet, ‘Made in India’ comes with the tag of being mass-produced and cheap-labour-based. Even though we have the technical know-how, as a country, we don’t pride ourselves on our designing ability — we always outsource from abroad.” The desire to challenge that perception prompted Sain to introduce her Delhi-based leather goods label, Chiaroscuro.
Over a span of just four years, the brand has earned itself a dedicated social media following and a strong reputation for craftsmanship. One Instagram review reads, “I love the Lizzies, and can’t wait to use the Jamie” (referring to product names).
This weekend, Chennai gets a whiff of the Chiaroscuro charm at the third edition of My Cup of Tea, the curated pop-up show featuring niche handcraft labels from across the country.
From start to finish
In a bid to create handbags “with a soul” and to bring her designs to life under one label, Sain started working with a leather artisan in 2014, funding the entire venture herself.“Today, we have 13 artisans in our workshop,” she shares. “Each works on one handbag at a time, end-to-end — right from cutting the leather to adding the finishing touches. It is unlike sweatshops, where artisans work on a single aspect of the process. Here, our bags are dispatched with a signed note from the artisan who made it,” she explains.
Chiaroscuro’s focus on sustainability is strong. In a detailed manifesto on its website, the brand professes to sourcing only upcycled leather (unused leftovers from the existing leather and meat industry), and to using mostly vegetable dyes for colouring and only handloom fibres for lining.
With over a decade of experience in the design world (including a stint with Ritu Kumar), Sain admits that her atypical business model posed some initial challenges. “I had to train artisans who were used to the assembly line system,” she recalls. “But that has stabilised, and I think we have an atmosphere that values an artisan’s workmanship. It’s a collaborative effort with the artisans because each one has spent 10 to 15 years in the industry. They are so excited to have a customer tag them on social media, and to know that someone is using the product they created from scratch,” adds Sain,”
Not the same
Recent collections include a range of tan bags that features Gond-style animal and fish motifs, each hand-painted by an in-house illustrator. The designer is quick to emphasise that Chiaroscuro’s focus is on being “handcrafted but not handicraft.” The difference, she explains, comes from the emphasis on artisanship. “We do sometimes look to Indian art forms, but our bags always look minimalist. I love flipping through old archives and visiting vintage markets for inspiration,” says Sain, who is the only designer on the Chiaroscuro team. “Someday, I hope to work with the Shantiniketan style of embossing leather to make shoes,” she admits.
In Chennai this weekend, Sain promises novelty, even for the Chiaroscuro veteran. “At the exhibition, there will be a couple of styles we haven’t done before — a duffel and a workbag, and some older designs in fresh colours, that aren’t online yet,” she reveals, going on to add that Chiaroscuro also monograms pieces on request.
From 10 am to 8 pm on Saturday and Sunday at The Luz House. Details: chiaroscuro.in