By Hand From The Heart is a curated Makers Market event in South India. Upcoming Events: 22nd Edition: 2nd – 3rd February '18 in Coimbatore | 23rd Edition: 16th – 17th – February '18 in Chennai.
Meet Smriti Sain, the principal designer and founder of Chiaroscuro a leather design studio based in New Delhi. Her workshop made leather accessories are artisan crafted with pure leather; we chat up with Smrihi about her craft venture, leather products and the pure leather she works with. Here’s her story.
A bit about yourself and Chiaroscuro
I am a leather accessory designer by profession and passion. A graduate from NIFT Delhi, I worked in the leather export industry for a few years before moving to Europe to pick up a masters at the Domus Academy in Milan. I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to work with Coccinelle, a beautiful Italian brand of leather hand bags based in the sweet little town of Parma. But my love for India and the strong desire to build my own workshop and brand made me move back to India in 2010. I spent my time as consulting & lending my design abilities to various brands including Ritu Kumar, Woodland, Willis & Walker, Napapijri, All Saints, Topshop and Tommy Hilfiguer. Chiaroscuro was a work in progress all along. I put it together bit by bit. I struggled for long. To find the right concept. To create something that had meaning. And would bring real value. I saved money. Whatever I could. And then spent it little by little, building each element of the label one at a time. One machine at a time. One worker at a time. I fussed over each little detail. In fact we had a full year where me and my lead artisan maker just made bags. A whole load of bags. Without showing anyone or of course selling them. And then it was a matter of putting an end to incessant perfectionism and just opening our gates to the world! We started out officially quietly on my 30th birthday a little over a year ago. And as cliched as that sounds, there has been no looking back ever since. Chiaroscuro is not a brand. It is a workshop initiative where our effort is to make simple and classic styles in good quality leathers & craftsmanship that together create a product that will last and bring you happiness and joy without being unnecessarily expensive. We are committed to pure leather and its craft and its artisan makers.
How would you describe what you do; and how long have you been making and creating?
We make beautiful things, bags in particular. Our motto/mission or so called punchline is just as simple as that – “We Make Beautiful Bags.” Our artist’s canvas is leather. Much like a canvas, so much is possible with this material, its all in the hands of the tanner, the finishing artist and then of course the artisan maker who crafts the final product from it. I personally have been in the leather industry for a little under 10 years now. It is pretty much the same for each member of our team of artisan makers – each started out straight out of school, in workshops in Kolkata, picking up the craft, honing their skills over years before moving to Delhi in search of more respect and returns for their crafting ability. We all identify with each other to a certain extent. All nomads from other places, moved to this metropolis in search of a purpose. Chiaroscuro gives us all a safe place to indulge in a craft that we love, create beautiful things that give us joy and allow us to see our creations being used by beautiful people. Its our safe haven.
The leather you craft with is ethically sourced. Explain.
First thing to mention is that leather is a by product of the meat industry. Animals are not killed for leather. This is disallowed in India. Many countries internationally allow this and this is how you have leather from exotic skins – python, alligator, crocodile, ostrich, deer etc. But India does not. The leather we source comes from all over the country. We have the ability to produce really good quality leather in all our leather producing regions – Chennai, Kolkata, Agra-Kanpur and Jalandar. As a brand we do not ask any tannery to produce any leather for us. We upcycle leather. This means that we pick up stock lots from the tanneries and use them to produce our bags. Stock lots accumulate for various reasons. The industry perpetuates a need for perfectionism – pristine leather skins, all exactly the same. This is all in an effort to augment mass production – a thousand bags, each an EXACT REPLICA of the other. The Indian leather industry has been oriented to cater to the mass production needs of high street international brands that come to India to source a base product at rock bottom prices. What this means is that individuality is killed. Any leather skin that is slightly different from the rest, that stands out for any reason whatsoever is rejected. This creates a huge wastage of perfectly beautiful tanned material. We CHERISH such individuality. It lends a uniqueness to each of our bags. So when we say that no two of our bags are ever alike, we really mean it. Most of the leathers we use are tanned used vegetable tannins and dyed with vegetable colors. These are more caring toward the environment. Leather is a natural material. Biodegradable. It is not plastic. Non leather materials like PU, leatherette etc are just plastic coated fabrics that are extremely harmful to the environment. Furthermore, a good leather bag lasts for years and years. There is never a need for use and throw. You may get bored of your leather bag but it wont tear. This for us is complete end to end reduction of wastage.
“Workshop made”. What is involved.
This is 2 fold. One – we stand firmly against contractual labor. What does this mean? Most large scale productions happen in sweatshops, yes there are many in India. Working conditions are appalling. Workers get no stability. Daily wages prevail. Worker welfare is a non existent concept. Why does this happen? Simple. To reduce costs. Again, this is all oriented this way to get “Made In India” to achieve a low priced base quality product. We stand firmly against this. India is about produce great creations. World wonders. We need to reclaim that image. Each of our products is only produced in our own workshop. No outsourced production. It might be slower but it is the right way. Two – our bags are not made in an assembly line. Each bag is made by one artisan from beginning to very end. I always give the example that the fact that you are an expert chopper of onions does not make you a great chef. Leather craft is an art. It must be preserved in its truest form. Only a truly talented and gifted artisan maker can do all the processes involved in make a leather bag – cutting the leather (this a art in itself), splitting the leather, pasting the panels, stitching, painting the edges, putting the finishing touches. Working this way is our way of keeping the craft alive. And of course it guarantees that we value highly skilled craftsmen. The quality of their workmanship speaks for itself. When you hold one of our bags in your hand, you know you are holding a beautifully crafted product.
Tell us about your artisan team.
We are at 6 senior artisan makers right now. Apprentices come and go. It takes time for us to train workers to come to a certain level of crafting. Initially we attach them to one of our artisan makers as assistants but once we feel confident of their abilities, they start to work independently. The team is a mix. They are all in their later 20 or early 30s. Everyone has a strong character but we all blend well together. They all have an artistic demeanor. They look for appreciation for their work. Some take feedback more personally than others. One or two are quite the singers to the radio. One is a real clown – always making everyone laugh. All in all, its a great dynamic and we are constantly adding to our team as a growing label. There is a sense of pride in their work. You see it in their eyes when they pose with their finished bags for photos for our website. They sign their names with such definite habit now (the bags go out with a signed note from the maker). Each feedback email or photo from a happy customer gives them quiet joy. You can see it in them. Its all very very wonderful.
What are you bringing to By Hand, From The Heart.
We are bringing our complete line of designs from the smallest minis, pouches, wallets, slings, shoulder bags, hobos and totes. It will be the prefect place to see all the styles in person and choose the right one on the basis of you carrying needs and body type. We will also be bringing along a lot of leather options to be able to mix and match the styles with the leather qualities and colors.
What/who inspires you?
Humility inspires us. The rusticity of this country inspires us. But mostly we are driven by utility and carrying needs.
Describe your work premises & what is a typical day at Chiaroscuro, like.
Our studio is small and cozy. We have a few rooms but everything stays open. Nothing is ever closed away. Its all part of creating an open atmosphere of exchange and honest opinions. The workshop is the center of our being. Its all happening here. A typical day starts at 9.30 with the radio coming on and the boys entering in one by one and settling at their workstations to create. Sometimes you hear them arguing. Sometimes they are pulling each other’s legs. A lot of times we are humming or singing. Its chaotic and busy most days. The sun rises and sets and the buzzing continues on. Its an all encompassing bubble we create in. We spend so many hours together and so closely, dealing with each other. I think we all know and understand each other very well now. I know everyone’s family, their dramas and joys, their medical histories and some little dreams and goals. We have 2 chai breaks and I like making chai for everyone. Everyone eats lunch together. Its really like family.
What is your favorite Chiaroscuro pick right now? And why?
Oh my, its like choosing my favorite child. Not possible. Each bag has come out of a certain carrying or styling need. We don’t unnecessarily add new designs every season. Its wasteful. When something works, then why shouldn’t it continue on? But the effort is to try and cover more carrying needs. Utility really guides the designs.
What’s the best thing about being a craft design entrepreneur?
It feels likes work that brings real value. You are making something tangible. That will last for kingdom come. There is nothing impulsive about it. There are no short cuts. It slow and beautiful.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten along the way in building your business?
I honestly feel like I haven’t gotten great advice! But I have to admit I’m not one of those that seeks advice. I also don’t welcome unsolicited advice! I’m one of those lets-jump-in-and-figure-it-out kind of people.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned since starting your business?
Patience. I have learnt some and still grapple to learn to have more. Building something real and long lasting takes time and forbearance, many sacrifices, a whole load of love, passion and hard work.
My first job would ship me off to the factory and tannery in Chennai every season. I would spend up to 6 months each year in the city. But I was never able to really explore it out of the the industrial areas. I am looking forward to getting some time to get a sense of this beautiful metropolis which its rich culture of food, textiles and temples.
Smriti Sain, Chiaroscuro, New Delhi, will be at the By Hand From The Heart: MAKERS MARKET – 18th Edition
Friday – Saturday, 5th – 6th August, 2016
10:00 a.m – 8:00 p.m
Crowne Plaza Chennai Adyar Park
132, T.T.K Road, Alwarpet, Chennai – 600018, Tamil Nadu. India