Inai: A space for Indian leather craftsmanship

A spacious, well-lit factory, a faint smell of leather, and many workers buzzing around greets me as I pull up into the driveway on the outskirts of Chennai. I’m here to see how Inai, a Chennai-based leather accessory company makes their products.

“Honestly, I’m far from a bag designer. I studied graphic design at DJAD in Coimbatore, so entering this field was a whole new ball game for me”, says Sruti Ashok, the founder of Inai. “Once I started reading up and learning about sustainable fashion, however, I knew I wanted to be involved somehow. And seeing all the piles of high-quality leather that used to be stacked at a corner of my dad’s factory, I realised why not use them in some way and create bags?”

Every manufacturing process comes with its fair share of waste, and leather products are no different. Leather used to pile up, unused, in corners of her dad’s factory, Sruti says. These weren’t used or soiled leathers either; rather, they were rolls of fine Italian leather that was leftover from the manufacturing process.

From small scraps that are cut off during the patternmaking, to large rolls rejected by a brand due to changes in design, or concept, or defects, she realised that this “waste” leather was a great place to start imbibing the sustainable practices that she had read about. And so was born Inai.

“My process of creating a bag starts from what leather is available and unused, and then I create a design based on the material. I’m basically upcycling beautiful, high-quality leather that otherwise goes waste. To tell you a little more about the material, the leather my dad uses for manufacturing is sourced from Italian tanneries, & after being treated and dyed, bags are created, sewn, and assembled here.”

Each piece is made by a small team of about 8-10 artisans who bring her ideas to life. “Since I don’t have a background in accessory design, there was a lot of trial and error – from silhouettes to prototyping, I needed a lot of help in figuring out how and what to design in the start – I still do!”, Sruti says.

“My master craftsman, Ilayaraja, has been a godsend in that regard. He has been making bags with my dad for years, and his expertise in the field has helped me refine ideas, and learn all about the different factors that affect a bag’s design and output. Every design I’ve made, I usually go to him first to get his sign-off on whether it’s possible or not. The entire team here helps me understand the manufacturing process better.”

For Sruti, it’s important that each element of her designs is thoughtful, and emphasises on craftsmanship. The process of making a bag is a craft, especially if it’s making a bag that’s built to last. You need a high level of skill to create a bag that leverages the best materials into an investment piece, based on the design provided by the designer.

“You know, when we talk about craftsmanship, it’s French craftsmanship that comes to mind first, especially in the world of creating bags. But the expertise to create a beautiful bag exists here too”, she shares. “An item made in India, using the same materials as an Italian bag wouldn’t be considered as a ‘luxury’ item (like how a Louis Vuitton bag might be, for example), despite us having incredible proficiency in creating goods of the same standard. And I want to showcase that we can create goods that are of incredible quality that leverage sustainable & ethical practices.”

Looking around the factory, with workers assembling pieces, edge-painting the straps, and truly involved in every step of the process, it’s a flurry of activity. It’s almost 6 PM, which is when everyone leaves for home. “We treat our workers here like family, and give them set hours and good, fair pay. It’s important to us.”

With a growing business, a determined girlboss at the helm, & truly championing upcycling, what’s in store for Inai in 2019? “I’m looking to evolve and learn, and I’m going to continue working on reducing & making best use of the waste that’s generated, especially the tiny scraps. I also want to create a vegan line from a sustainable fabric, expand outside of India, and create menswear products in the future, so watch this space!”

This was the first episode of Moderas Behind the Scenes (Moderas BTS), a new series that takes you behind the scenes of businesses doing incredible work in sustainable & ethical fashion. Featuring Sruti Ashok, founder of Inai Story. // @inaistory on Instagram

Photographs by Rishika Nath // @ri.shi.ka on Instagram

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