Over the past few years, certain words or philosophies—‘cruelty-free’, ‘vegan’, ‘eco-friendly’, ‘sustainability’—have gained importance. And any new brand in the FMCG sector must tick all these boxes. As a result, conscious consumerism is on the rise. In this podcast, we speak to Nina Lekhi, Managing Director and Chief Design Curator, Baggit, on founding a ‘Make in India’ brand encompassing all these philosophies, long before they became buzzwords.
Shruti Singhal: 0.04
Durable, renewable, viable, feasible, long-term, long-lasting…these are some synonyms of the word ‘sustainable’. What began as a buzzword in conversations about the environment was applied to practices in business, agriculture, energy, and even consumption, now referring not only to forests and the natural world, but to all biological systems. The most common definition of sustainability is that of ‘sustainable development’, by the United Nations, as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
In light of this definition, the philosophy presented limitless possibilities in the world of fashion, heralding a movement that values people, the environment, creativity, and profit, in equal measure.
We’ll be hearing from a self-made entrepreneur, Nina Lekhi. She is the Managing Director and Chief Design Curator of the vegan brand, Baggit, which delivers quality bags and accessories made from cruelty-free material. With a strong background in the field of arts and design, Nina started Baggit as a teenager, turning her failure at college as a literal stepping stone to success. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation.
Thank you so much for agreeing to do this with us, Nina.
Your products made fashion accessible and affordable for young people. You too were very young when you started Baggit and reeling from the disappointment of your first year in college. But why handbags?
Nina Lekhi: 01.50
Really excited to be doing this for you all.
I started making handbags because I always found it very cool to have graphic T-shirts. So, [I wondered] why don’t we have cool graphic Canvas bags? And because I knew how to screen-print, I started doing that. To cut a long story short, failure was the best thing that happened to me. There’s a lot more that we are going to be doing now going ahead, and I just want to be very good at one thing.
Shruti Singhal: 2.20
It’s been like 30 or so years since you started Baggit. So much has changed about the economy and the world of business, the consumer and their sensibilities. Could you describe how these changes influenced your journey as an entrepreneur and how you incorporated these learnings into your products?
Nina Lekhi: 2.41
Selling-wise, I could say that earlier we used to have more mom-and-pop stores; small stores that you’d go to [in] Matanga or Dadar, where you’d have eight to ten brands that you see, and some unbranded stuff that the shopkeeper would tempt you with where he gets better margins, and you don’t know about the quality. But I think after that time came in the large format stores, which are like your Shoppers Stop or Lifestyle, and they really focused only on branded goods. I think that was the advent of people wanting to buy imported brands, the Indian brands. From then on, I think is where Baggit also stepped in, where we did our first EBO (Exclusive Brand Outlet).
When we did our first store, I felt the shift; that we became from Karkhanedaar (warehouse) into a brand. Earlier we were selling to Amar Sons, for example. In Breach Candy, I used to have exhibitions and went into these mom-and-pop stores. From then on, Shoppers Stop approached us and then came the online world, which is crazy! And we’re enjoying the fruits of it today. I think that’s the whole journey.
From the sales perspective and customer expectations, everything has changed. I think, for online [shopping], they’re looking at good pricing and discounts. I think trend-wise, there was a time when people would buy on Diwali, Eid, or New Year’s. And about ten years later when we were still planning for these occasions, my brother tells me that people don’t really buy only on Diwali; they are buying every month and things change so much.
Everything from where you buy, how you dispose of it, how frequently you buy, and so much the Internet of Things has made us go into...it’s such a huge world! I remember that we used to buy a magazine like a Femina or a Cosmo and Elle to know what the trends were. And today, we just see them on Instagram. I think that exposure has also made the customer much more friendly to what she wants, how she wants to look, how she wants to live a life, how she wants to carry herself.
And I think individualism is such a big thing; everyone is different and has their own style and I just love that. Like when you go to a New York subway, I mean the only thing that you will see is how everyone looks different. Look at their hair, look at the clothes they’re wearing, look at the colours they’re carrying...everyone is dressed so individualistically. But if you go to any street in Mumbai, you see everyone wearing pants shirt, jeans shirt, kurta tights or salwaar kameez, and maybe sarees before that, but today I think it’s so different. Everyone has their own style and flair and look; and I love that. That’s fashion.
Shruti Singhal: 5.48
True, and how it allows us to accept ourselves, without needing to follow the moulds or patterns defined by society. In that sense, what do you think it means to buy or carry a Baggit?
Nina Lekhi: 6.05
We focus on stuff that is important to us, whether it’s in a ‘Made in India’ product, [or] whether it is [in a product that is] comfortable and light. I use every bag that I design till today, that my team designs, and so does the whole team. So, we really make sure that at the cost of the price or the cost of looking fabulous, it need not be uncomfortable; your phone has to be very accessible; it [the bag] has to be lightweight and durable; your zips and stitches don’t need to give way. I think all of that put together is really for us what Baggit is, because I won’t say it is value for money, but it’s a fabulous product. And it’s not just trends, it’s evergreen; you can use it for a lot of years because of the quality and style. It’s not like a whim or fancy that goes out of fashion in the next six months, and then you have to chuck it. I think, bohot dil aur jaan se banate hai (We make our products with a lot of love and care). People tell me it lasts too long. And I’m like, ‘Okay, what do I do?’
Shruti Singhal: 7.16
The world of fashion today, especially conscious fashion, is so much more dynamic. What keeps businesses like yours going?
Nina Lekhi: 7.25
I think maybe it’s just passion for me. I still am as invested, as hands-on, in the business. I still absolutely love what I’m doing and for me, it’s not just the money, it’s just so many new things happening in the industry, and with tech today coming in, bahut maza aata hai (I have a lot of fun). For me, it is not just making money, it is [about] contributing and serving my country; and doing something that I know is important; it is not just running a business.
And making in India is very important and critical for me. And I know it’s going to happen for India; I know that India is going to become a place where the world is going to come to buy, because the kind of products, the kind of pricing that India can give, no one can beat. And I see India, not only as a manufacturing hub, but even as a place where you can buy fashion on the world map. And I see more brands doing that, and we’re getting huge opportunities already coming our way.
Shruti Singhal: 8.32
This really brings me to my next question. Make in India has become a policy now. But when you started Baggit, everything from manufacturing and design was done in India. How did you bring about this philosophy, which is now a mission-vision statement for companies?
Nina Lekhi: 8.50
For me, it was important to do whatever I did, ethically or importantly, what my heart wishes. And I think we went the ‘Made in India’ route long ago. And I think, today, we are the winds of change; we are at a benefit today, because we are the only guys who are manufacturing in India. You can see the Chinese pricing go up and the dollars are going up. Punya karte hai, toh accha hi hota hai. When you serve and think about everybody, it’s going to work; there’s no doubt about it.
Shruti Singhal: 9.27
Right. Could you compare the advantages and challenges of starting businesses today, as opposed to the 80s when you started Baggit? Because now there are so many B-school programmes, even government funding for startups, funding initiatives, and even venture capitalists are so more accessible now than earlier. Do you think it’s harder for startups today to break even and turn profitable?
Nina Lekhi: 9.54
I think maybe the infrastructure and the money that you require now is much more, because there are many more players right now. That’s one thing that I feel and see. Secondly, if you’re motivated enough, and because you get this huge kick, you have got to do it. You have to survive; you have no way, no option...so you will put your everything [into the business].
I remember I used to take a cab home and I used to look at the meter card, and say, ‘Okay, I have 25 bucks in my pocket.’ And when I see it [the meter] reaching 25 bucks, I would get out and walk home the rest of the way. We need that kind of push and determination to make it happen.
Jaise humare baap-dada bolte the...main toh footpath pe soya tha..merko toh bees rupay milte the...(How our fathers and grandfathers would say...I used to sleep on the footpath...I used to get Rs 20...). They were much more hardworking. We have seen those kinds of tough times maybe, and today’s kids don’t face that kind of push or that kind of adversity; and I think you need a lot more to invest because there’s so many more players; you need funds for getting a tech team together. So, I think it is far tougher today.
We were very lucky when we started early, but I think it is good to start early. I tell my daughter too, she’s 21 years old and she’s into music. It just helps to start early because you never know when you [will] become a brand and reach somewhere. I know it's easy to get a cushy job and have someone to pay your bills and that lifestyle right from the beginning. But really, is that lifestyle so important? Don’t you want to invest in what you're going to have with you ten years, twenty years down the line?
Shruti Singhal: 11.45
Sure. That’s an interesting question to keep asking yourself. The idea of Baggit came to you when you observed that people were selling sloganed T-shirts, but not that many stylish bags. So, clearly, observation and awareness of the market are crucial for an entrepreneur. What advice would you give budding entrepreneurs?
Nina Lekhi: 12.06
Many times, even I think that I’m not so good at what I do. But I think the path shows up slowly. So, I would go to the store, and just attend to my customers. I believe that my customers are my God, Gandhi keh ke gaye the (as Gandhi ji once said). And once you believe in it, whatever she [the customer] tells me, I look at it as the Bible. Okay, this is what the need is. And then I keep going on that path, getting one stack on another. And then I see, maine toh imarat khadi kardi (I built a monument from scratch). So that’s how I do it; maybe the right way or the wrong way. But it shows you the path, and slowly, when you’re aligned, or when you’re at it, it will speak to you. It’s the universe, the customer speaking. When you consistently go and look for it, it happens.
Shruti Singhal: 13.15
Yes, that makes sense. When starting a new business, one usually turns to immediate family and friends for support, later turning that into a more concrete involvement, if required. From your experience of running Baggit with your family, what should family-owned businesses keep in mind in their journey to innovate and scale?
Nina Lekhi: 13.41
I think a lot of family-run businesses, especially in the designer world of apparel and handbags, still exist without funding. And obviously, it has its pros and cons. And I think as you grow the company, you need skill sets that maybe you did not need in the beginning. In the beginning when you hire people, you just see, ‘okay, this is a good person and he can work’, and he learns whether it is sales or production. But as your organisation grows, you need people who are ready and have experience in that particular skill, and you need professionals. It’s a good blend of having professionals, and people who’ve been there for very long; they may be family, or they may not be family, but they become like family because they spent ten years plus with you; and we have many in our organisation who spent an entire lifetime with us almost and we are really proud of them.
But there are some downsides if I’m being honest. If someone has been with us for many years and they have their own bureaucracy or their way of doing things or not budging or still being in the past. I think love does it all. It could be even a professional from outside who would not think the same way as you think. If you really can inspire, and dream together, things can happen. And I think the best blend is to mix them together. Easier said than done but it’s possible and it happens.
Shruti Singhal: 15.25
Do you think family businesses tend to gravitate towards traditional and bureaucratic processes? How should they balance the complication that probably comes with a family business?
Nina Lekhi: 15.43
Many times, they could be people who’ve been in the system more, understand that there is a risk to something, and it can’t be done. And also, there is a younger child in the house, let’s say there’s a 20-year-old kid in the house who doesn’t understand risk at all, right? So, it could be an executive with you, who doesn’t understand the risk and the policy. And there’s an HOD who may be stuck in their way. But I think of getting the right balance: there is a sensibility in experience, in people who’ve been there and done that for many years. But I think in today’s world, younger people bring in tech, new ideas and freshness. Similarly, I think [in] a business also, you can’t have only young guys, because you need some experience, and strategy. So that’s how I look at it.
Shruti Singhal: 16.41
Over the past few years, certain words and philosophies like ‘vegan’ and ‘cruelty-free’ have become very popular, and any new brand or product in the FMCG sector now has to tick all these boxes. But you started Baggit before any of these words became buzzwords. Could you share the thought process that led to this? Was it a conscious choice?
Nina Lekhi: 17.07
With the pandemic, it is hitting us much harder, right? Look at the environment, look at the climate zone, and look at everything that Mother Earth has been telling us, and saying it for a really long time. I think when you’re really in touch with your own self, and you’re not just thinking, ‘I need to touch this goal of profitability,’ you’re looking at the business as a wholesome space where you’re giving the best product to your customer and the best experience to your employees and all the stakeholders. If you look at it from that perspective, I think [you would be] going the route that we are to making sure that everything that we use is recyclable if not biodegradable.
But I don’t know where the customers are really, you know. We’ve done some fabulous stuff, where we’ve gone to the borders of India and gotten bags made out of cane. But I think this is more [popular] in the West; maybe in India, they [customers] expect it [the product] to be cheaper, because if it is natural, it won’t last that long. I guess it will take a little while for those consumers to become more aware, but by then, we are still making sure that all of our products are recyclable at least, if nothing else.
People need to be more aware. And I'm doing my little bit like putting up stuff on Instagram. But we need to create more awareness of what we are consuming and what we look for when we buy.
Shruti Singhal: 18.44
Right. Do you think then this trend of conscious consumerism is likely to continue when we are out of the pandemic?
Nina Lekhi: 18.52
I think it will grow. Customers are going to become more aware. You know, like, earlier we were not so aware of what we used to eat, right? If you see our grandmothers telling us aloo ke parathe kha lo, ghee mein fried food (eat aloo parathas or food fried in ghee), but today you see people looking for healthier options whether eating more fruits and vegetables. It may take a little while longer than the western so-called ‘developed’ countries.
People will slowly gravitate towards it, and Baggit is ready with the stuff that they require. Because it is really in my heart and my passion, to do stuff that’s good for the earth, but also to do innovative stuff, to do new things. It’s so exciting! I think all designers or creative people would agree that doing something new is like the ultimate achievement.
Shruti Singhal: 19.47
Yes, I understand. What challenges are you working on right now? What are you looking to solve?
Nina Lekhi: 19.55
We're going to become an international brand; it is my dream to help in bringing back the economy of India, even if it’s a 1% contribution...by selling ladies’ fashionable handbags, in all these premium locations and seeing the world flaunt Baggit handbags, an Indian brand.
Shruti Singhal: 20.19
That’s an inspiring dream. Becoming an international brand also means staying on top of local and domestic brands, competing from newer entrants, and this entire ecosystem is further fuelled by e-commerce platforms. Could you talk about how you dealt with any competition along the way?
Nina Lekhi: 20.41
Yeah, I remember there was a time. We [had] opened our first store at Kemps Corner, which was like the most happening area in Mumbai at that time to go and shop. We opened our first store called Excess, and there was a shop nearby called S-Beda. And this guy would copy every fourth design of mine and I used to really get upset. Once I got so upset that I went to his store as a customer. Luckily, the owner wasn’t there. And I said, ‘Humara copy kiya hai tumne!’ (You copied our design!) I started shouting at the guy. And we still laugh about it. But now I’m not bothered; I’m very cool and calm.
For example, right now if you see the entire industry is discounting left-right-center and you know, a lot of it is fake discounting. But that’s the industry and there are different players. You just enjoy the game, and you do your bit; you just focus on what you want to do and your ethics and what you believe in. You stick by that rather than getting affected by so-called ‘competition’.
Shruti Singhal: 22.01
Right. Some quick questions now. What was your first Baggit bag or accessory?
Nina Lekhi: 22.08
The first Baggit bag that we made was an off-white canvas bag with rope handles. It had this graphic thing of ‘I'm confused’, where the ‘s’ in the word ‘confused’ was ulta (reversed). I think that really showed my state of mind because I had just flunked in college and started the screen-printing course.
Shruti Singhal: 22.27
Do you buy non-Baggit bags?
Nina Lekhi: 22.30
Yes, just to do R&D (Research & Development).
Shruti Singhal: 22.32
Where did you first endorse or advertise a product?
Nina Lekhi: 22.37
We did hoardings and TV advertisements later. Before that, the first shoot which we did was for our first store Excess at Kemps Corner; it had this little window display of four feet by six feet, that you can see when you walk by, as that’s a very walking kind of area. We had a shoot with this model, Mia. She was a big model at that time, but she became big, actually, after our shoot, and we had got her at a very reasonable price. And we had her pose with this bag which didn’t sell that well. The minute we put it [the display] up, the sale of the bag just shot up; it was hardly selling two pieces in a month and started selling 30 pieces in a month [after we put up the display]. So that was my first taste of marketing, even though it was just a window display, not really a hoarding.
Shruti Singhal: 23.26
When did you feel like you had made it?
Nina Lekhi: 23.39
I think our first store at Atria, which was the most inconvenient mall, highly priced, but was too close to my house, and I had to do that store. It did so badly financially for us, but it just took us on the map of a brand. And I felt at that point, we made it; obviously, there were the next two stores that came up immediately after that, which made us break even. Then we were cruising.
Shruti Singhal: 24.00
Right. Why do you want to set up stores instead of selling through outlets?
Nina Lekhi: 24.06
I think setting up your own stores gives you brand visibility, the brand feel and language when a customer walks into the store. They know by the visuals, by the way you put up your products in the store, and how you talk to them. I think that's really important because a large format store is like a marketplace. So many of them are so cramped nowadays, and they have no look and feel either. It’s not an iPhone or a Samsung phone that I’m buying.
Ultimately whether it’s apparel or handbag, you need to touch and feel the product. Because so many times when you buy stuff online, and when it comes home, you feel it’s not very nice, the finishing isn’t good, or the colours are not correct. You can do that [buy online] when you have a lot of time on your hand. But sometimes you just need to buy something that you need [urgently]. That’s why, whether it be tier-II or tier-III cities, we are looking at franchisee stores; because our pricing, like how you just said in the beginning, is really beautiful and we’ve understood different kinds of consumers. Tier-II cities versus a store in the Palladium for example, and we’re getting the product better for that customer—what’s the colour she would want, how would she want it structured, what handle length she would want—understanding all that.
Shruti Singhal: 25.31
How do you keep your staff, your employees or stakeholders engaged?
Nina Lekhi: 25.37
I think all of us have one vision and one mission. Also, we have this program called Siddha Samadhi Yoga, which my Guruji has brought about in our lives. We all meditate together and come from the same understanding of creating and manifesting. That is one language that everyone at Baggit speaks and understands. And that, I think, really binds us.
Shruti Singhal: 26.04
Thanks so much for this pleasant, honest, and thought-provoking conversation.
Nina Lekhi: 26.09
I really enjoyed this. Thank you so much.
Shruti Singhal: 26.13
Life and business present us with many foreseen and unforeseen challenges. But my takeaway from this conversation is that we should be true to ourselves and our values, and in so doing, we might just achieve our dreams, and even make a difference to our society, our country, even our environment.
Thanks for tuning in. Take care and stay safe!
Nina Lekhi, Managing Director and Chief Design Curator, Baggit