Minding Their Own Business(es): Smriti Sain Of Chiaroscuro
“As an ambitious 20-year-old, you crave growth…and I was no different,” says Smriti Sain, founder of New Delhi-based leather goods company Chiaroscuro. Born in Mumbai, and brought up primarily in Pune, Sain studied accessory design at the National Institute of Fashion Technology, New Delhi. After landing her first job with a design-driven manufacturer, she worked with tanneries, tanning artists, designers and international brands. With her growing interest in design, the 32-year-old found herself in Milan, enrolling for a master’s degree in fashion at Domus Academy. Her master’s eventually got her a job at an Italian brand in Parma that makes leather handbags. Because the experience was so complete, she describes herself as feeling “full” and longing for home.
After returning to India, Sain leveraged her experience in working with leather and set up leather goods brand Chiaroscuro in the capital in June 2015. Chiaroscuro manufactures a variety of neatly crafted and thoughtful leather goods and accessories that are beautiful, versatile and practical for the modern Indian woman. But in a country that’s flooded with a host of international brands churning out designer arm candies, I wonder what nudged her to work with handbags — and moreover, leather as a material. “Bags tread the fine line between fashion and design. There’s just the right balance of utility, functionality and aesthetics. I could never work with something just technical/industrial or purely ornamental,” explains Sain, expanding, “Leather has an organic base and when tanned thoughtfully, it ages and evolves with use and time. There’s a kind of poetry and commitment about this material that resonates with everything Chiaroscuro stands for. We live and breathe sustainability. Thoughtful buying. Thoughtful usage patterns. Leather as a material embodies this.” It’s worth noting that all the leather used by Chiaroscuro is upcycled. The company works with middlemen, factories and tanneries to hunt for stock lots left over after production cycles. “Uniqueness is not a quality that is cherished when mass-producing, but we celebrate it in each of our pieces and love the fact that no two of our bags will ever look exactly the same. There is responsibility and consciousness in this mode of sourcing,” she states.
Chiaroscuro currently employs 12 artisans and one apprentice — all male — who work in ‘single artisan mode’, which means that each artisan is responsible for producing one entire product from beginning to end. “At Chiaroscuro, we do things the artisanal way. Assembly lines dilute the craft. In general, the ‘one maker, one product’ mode also creates a connection between the maker and his creation — there is a sense of responsibility. It brings the respect and pride back for the craft back into the artisan,” she asserts, adding, “Each product goes out with a Polaroid of the artisan that has made it. The website showcases a photo of the artisan that has made each listed product. When feedback comes in, it goes straight to him. This drives people to work thoughtfully,” details Sain. “Giving artisans their due is only right. Numerous unnamed artisans have lived out their lives and passed on. I can think of at least 10 famous Italian sculptors that contributed to St. Peter’s Basilica, but I don’t even know the name of the architect of the Taj Mahal.”
Chiaroscuro’s done beautifully for itself, and Sain has found success as a young female entrepreneur in India. But, she says that the period prior to setting up Chiaroscuro was one of creative uncertainty and financial instability. “Working as an entrepreneur is hard — and more so when you’re a woman. You deal with external agencies whose judgement of you or your capabilities is coloured by the fact that you are a woman or that you are younger than them. Leather work is dominated by artisans who are male and who hail from a completely different social stratum. The socio cultural differences are gigantic. Having a woman in the driver’s seat is a drastic shift for them.”
As Chiaroscuro grows and expands its horizons this year, Sain signs off by outlining the little things that have contributed to making her brand a success. “Chiaroscuro’s focus has always been the product, and that’s what’s seen people buy into the brand. Then there’s passion — without passion, there is no depth. Not being formally trained as a business person has been a blessing. It has allowed me to visualise things freely and do them independently without worrying about how things must be done or how things are traditionally done. Creatively, it’s been good to work alone, at least at the beginning — it allowed me to create my vision without any compromise whatsoever. When I took certain decisions — such as refusing to subscribe to mainstream PR gimmicks or stock with any retailer — I met with plenty of naysayers. But these very things are what make Chiaroscuro what it is today, and I am unafraid of doing things differently.”