MERAKI is a company based in India that is redefining fashion by bringing art and storytelling to their custom— made bags. The founder of MERAKI, Yosha Gupta, created the company in order to make folk art more accessible and to empower modern day artisans. MERAKI produces leather bags that incorporate a myriad of folk art forms across India, and every bag is hand painted by a local artisan. Not only is each bag unique and beautifully crafted, but they are also sustainable and ethically manufactured!
See below for a Q & A with the founder of MERAKI, Yosha Gupta
How did MERAKI come to be?
Art has always been a very big part of my life whether it be performing arts, fine arts or the folk arts. I have been organizing Indian classical events in Hong Kong for the last 8 years that I have been living here as part of a volunteer organization which have been attended by thousands of art aficionados purely for the love of arts and have long standing deep relationships with all the artists I have worked with.
In fact, I loved folk arts so much that everything right from my clothes, jewelry, my own bags, the furniture in our house are all handpainted by Indian folk artists. Over the last couple of years a lot of people started asking me where they could get bags like mine from, what especially made a huge statement was when I got a Gucci handbag handpainted by our Madhubani artist Ranjeet Jha, everyone just loved it and it was obvious that there’s a market for this. The rest then followed- and the business took a life of its own.
Can you tell us about the crafting process of these handbags?
Our handbags are being sourced from trusted suppliers both in India and in Hong Kong/China. In fact in India, two of the factories that we source from are also run by women entrepreneurs who have their own brand of bags and have leather craftsmen who have been working with them for a long time and are experts in the trade. The whole process of getting the bags handpainted is quite complicated as we are already working with more than 50 artists across India and we trust them enough to send our products over to them so they can work in the comfort of their own homes in their own villages and towns. That adds a lot of logistics to the business as we need to send detailed designs and discuss colour palletes with them and a lot of coordination to meet timelines, but this way we ensure that we reach out to and work with the best artists across different art forms instead of only restricting ourselves to artists who are in big cities and easily accessible.
How have you found MERAKI is economically empowering the artisans you are working with?
With our artists and artisans, we ensure that the commercials are much better than what they would be if they made paintings of the same size and that they are also a part of the upside when each bag is sold. Since I come from a financial inclusion background I am now also working on an entire plan on financial inclusion for our artists like bank accounts, savings, insurance, how to accept digital payments etc and i hope to implement this soon.
It is also important to keep the younger generating learning these art forms and to that end we have also launched a crowdfunding campaign to help fund an art school in Madhubani region in Bihar in partnership with an NGO to help teach madhubani art to young girls to help them get economically empowered.
What has been the biggest challenge bringing MERAKI to a global market?
Handpainted handbags is a completely unexplored segment with very few players globally, a few companies like Louis Vuitton have experimented in creating limited edition collections with artists like Jeff Koon, so we are almost creating this category. And being the first in a category means that we are also learning along the way, each leather is different and there are many different varieties of paints to experiment with. Customers or rather our patrons also have a lot of questions around how long lasting the paint is and how the bags actually look handpainted as we are mostly selling online, so a lot of customer education is required to be able to create trust.
Folk arts seem to be slowly dying due to haggling tourists and young locals not carrying on the tradition. How is MERAKI challenging this issue?
Yes, you are right art and craft is really undervalued in our country and everyone has a mentality to haggle down the prices thinking that these are ‘unbranded’ products. Creating the ‘artisanal’ high end positioning is key and in countries like France, artisanal products are really highly valued and considered to be a part of the luxury segment. That’s where I feel more companies like us that start focusing on each particular craft or art and introduce quality measures to create higher end products and good branding with good storytelling is extremely important.
Tell us about the ethical fashion piece behind the brand.
We are working hard to ensure fair and sustainable practices across each part of our value chain. While sourcing leather, we are trying to find more eco friendly options like eco leather and a big collection of our bags have been made with eco leather. While sourcing from factories, even though we are a small brand right now we are trying to source from factories that follow good standards. While working with artists, we ensure that the commercials are much better than what they would be if they made paintings of the same size and that they are also a part of the upside when each bag is sold. The entire mission behind Meraki is to bring patronage and economic empowerment to our artists get them the recognition that they rightfully deserve.