Mehendee Karan Singh always knew she wanted to work with leather — so after a degree in Fine Arts from Delhi College of Arts, she did her post graduation in leather technology and footwear design. “Everything I did after that in my career was aimed at creating a path for my own work,” she confesses. Her new line of bags, marketed under the label Coal, is thus the culmination of nearly two decades of work.
For a brand that sells luxury bags made of leather from Italy and hardware from Hong Kong, the name seems like a strange choice. “This might sound funny, but as a child, I loved steam engines. When I got to see one, I realised that the same fossil fuel that powered the engine became diamonds under pressure. It isn’t related to leather at all, but to me, that character of coal is really appealing,” she explains, on the phone from Mumbai.
Her début collection, Serenity, was inspired by “the transition of life” she observed in nature — the changing of the leaves, for instance. The bags started off as monochrome, with greys and whites predominant. “I later added a pop of fiery, happy colours, like red and orange, to give them some texture and contrast,” she explains. Her penchant for constant change and variety in life resonates in the range she has created as well: you will find everything from bucket bags to backpacks and totes to messenger bags, as well as clutches, wallets and passport holders.
Singh says she has drawn from her experience working with Tata International’s leather division and Hidesign in India, and her post-marriage move to Dubai. “The city isn’t a manufacturing hub, but is a retail market. So I became a buyer for international brands like Nine West, Shoe Mart and the Landmark Group’s private label, which involved a lot of travel within Asia. It gave me a lot of exposure and learning,” she says, of the 12 years she spent there.
About five years ago, she took the plunge and quit her job to do private label orders in Dubai for her former employers. This helped her learn about the business side of things, even as she bided her time to strike out on her own. Almost two years ago, when she moved back to India, she decided to bootstrap and put her energy into getting her designs executed. Starting with a Make in India trial run, Singh says, they found that “manufacturing was not the issue here like it was in Dubai; it was to do with the finishing and quality. So we decided to go all out and get the best raw materials, and see if that impacted the finished product”.
So their suppliers include the Italian tanneries that the likes of Prada source from, while the craftsmanship is Indian. Singh works with “young, passionate entrepreneurs” in Kolkata, whose factory workers are highly-trained and understand her vision. The idea worked, and she was happy with the results to launch. Before that, she added small touches like enamelled logos with a 3D finish, saying with a laugh, “It’s all in the details. I wanted to make sure that we could do everything to set us apart in the market.”
“I always wanted to do footwear, but I chose not to build a brand because it’s very complex as a product,” she explains, when asked if she plans other lines. “If you don’t get it right with the sizing and comfort, you’re wasting your time as well as the customer’s time and money. Plus it needs a lot of investment, the kind I did not have. With bags, I could still get the creative outlet I was craving,” she adds.
Singh has big ambitions, stating “I want my products to be on par with international brands like Prada and Armani”. She shares that she might not have the kind of R&D teams that these brands have, but she has her strengths and she plays to those. “We are craft and design oriented, and will continue to be so, even as we plan to expand to other countries. I’ll definitely be tapping my network in Dubai for our initial step outside India,” she concludes.
Coal handbags range from ₹30,000 to ₹55,000 on coalfashion.com.