EDITIONS
Startup

The Kantha Bag story- when modern handbags meet traditional Bengal art

Libza Mannan
29th Oct 2017
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Kolkata based, Maheejaa Bags aims to revive the traditional Bengal kantha craft in its range of leather bags. The brand not only creates stylish products but is also helping rural Bengal kantha artisans get recognition in the fashion world.

Kantha is an age-old craft of Bengal where rural women have been creating hand embroidered intricate designs without much formal technical schooling. Traditionally this embroidery is used for quilts, dhotis, sarees, shawls, pillow covers, dupattas, and even in men’s wear and home furnishings as well.

Rapid urbanisation and lack of recognition of kantha artisans are leading to the slow death of this ancient art form. Promoting innovative fashion, Maheejaa is employing kantha designs in a unique way - by using leather.

According to Sibani Basu Sen, Founder and Director of Maheejaa Bags, each bag is designed keeping the customer in mind. The bag is spacious with many compartments, separate pouches for cellphone, wallet, etc.

“Most of our bags are multi-way, and one can carry them in more than one way,” she says.

The Kolkata-based startup works with local artisans and uses their work innovatively to create a new style statement in today’s fashion world.

Tracing the beginning

 Maheejaa Bags was launched in October 2016 by Sibani Basu Sen (43) and Ankush Basu (25). Sibani has over 17 years of work experience in the development sector and was associated with organisations like CARE India and Access Development Services. During this period, she worked extensively with artisans across Bengal. Her long years of experience in the sector made Sibani aware that though there was sufficient work for the artists, the cash flow was a big constraint.

Embroidering a full-length saree or dupatta takes about four months to complete. Also, the new generation lacked patience. The challenges motivated Sibani to revive the kantha craft in a novel way and carry forward the art, which is at the brink of extinction.

“In October 2016 we came up with our first collection of 20 bags, which sold like hot cakes. I realised giving them small patches of designs to work upon, not only increased their efficiency but also gave them a good cash flow and which in turn kept them going,” adds Sibani.

Ankush Basu and Sibani Basu Sen

Ankush is a graduate from National Institute of Fashion Technology, Chennai. Prior to Maheejaa, he worked with Reliance Brands in Mumbai and has hands-on experience in designing. He also won a National Award for product design at the Central Leather Research Institute (CLRI).

Sibani expanded her team to include expertise in fashion merchandise and business development.

Reaching a larger customer base

“Ours is a niche product targeting a defined customer base belonging to the upper middle class. This class is quiet a large segment of the Indian population, whose purchasing power is ever increasing,” reveals Sibani.

Maaheejaa Bags

To reach this section, Maheejaa is adopting multiple models - web-based sale, direct sale and channel sale for generating revenue. Besides its offline sale through stores and participation in exhibitions, it is also planning to use other channels like the Google ads, Facebook ads, use of bloggers and influencer marketing.

Maheejaa has sold products through various e-commerce platforms like Jaypore, Lime Road and its is own site. For offline sales, the company has tied up with various boutique and culture and heritage oriented stores like Boithek in Bangalore and Oxford store in Kolkata.

The label, which is currently focused on B2C sales is aiming to enter the B2B market soon.

The journey so far

Currently, the brand is bootstrapped and is planning to raise funding through Standup India scheme, for setting up its own unit and bring down production cost. The startup has also started a crowdfunding campaign for leveraging a promotional budget and is planning to tie up with various government initiatives and schemes, hoping to expand its reach globally.

Some of the Maaheejaa products at display

The innovative brand is driven by a six-member core team and 10 artisans.

The brand which initially started off as a partnership firm, did business for two months during the last financial year and within two months the brand clocked a turnover of Rs 3 lakhs. Post March 2017, Maheejaa gradually transformed itself into a proper entity – Maheejaa Bags Pvt Ltd.

“Our revenue has already reached a double-digit figure and we aim to touch a much better figure by March 2018,” reveals Sibani.

The brand is also into corporate gifting (leather diary, travel diary, laptop cover etc.) and recently launched a range, Maheejaa essentials, which includes men’s wallets and a variety of stationery items like pen stands, pencil boxes, coasters and more each with a touch of kantha.

Moving forward, the company plans to revive other art forms besides kantha in combination with leather.

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