For the discerning buyer

13 min read
24 Feb 2017
13 min read
2322 words
A new generation of product designers are finding niches for their exceedingly well-designed, well-crafted products

For more than three decades now, Nepali middle-class consumers were satisfied with taking home mass-produced items from these shops. But today, there is a considerable and growing mass of discerning middle-class customers who prefer products that are of a higher quality than the mass-produced, imported goods but aren’t as expensive as branded and designer products. 

In the last few years, a host of companies like Kala Kathmandu, Paila Shoes, Bhav Products and Dulla Shoes have sprung up to cater to that crowd. Most of these companies were started by relatively young founders who place a premium on design elegance and product build quality. The companies have remarkably small production teams, even smaller marketing units (most of the marketing is done over social media) and designers (usually the proprietors themselves) who have a keen sense of the trends that cutting-edge designers the world over are setting. What all this means for the discerning Nepali buyer is that they can now avail of quality items that don’t cost them an arm and a leg and which sometimes provide better value than expensive branded products.

Bhav products

Some people have a somewhat peculiar obsession with stationery and feel that their life isn’t in their grip if they haven’t posted their day’s plans in a planner or haven’t jotted down their ideas in a journal. Many of these obsessive note takers are also very finicky about the quality of the notebooks they’d like to house their ideas in. Until a few years ago, the Nepali market didn’t offer high-quality notebooks at affordable prices. The most fastidious lot would have to resort to getting their Moleskine diaries and journals from friends and family members who were visiting other countries. Today, Bhintuna “Jya-Poo”—an obsessive journaler herself—has changed all that.

While working as a freelance designer, Bhintuna couldn’t find the quality stationery she wanted. Realising there were many Nepalis like herself, she started her own line of homegrown, premium stationery products under the name of Bhav Products, which today commands almost a cult following.

To kickstart her company, she split the initial capital with a silent investor and then rolled out a rather brilliant business model. At Bhav, Bhintuna comes up with the designs, and she simply sends them to a press, with instructions regarding how many copies and in what sizes to print. The press then churns out the notebooks in bulk. After purchasing the notebooks from the press at wholesale rate, she retails them, at a markup, to the public. This model is ingenious because she does not need to hire any employees and does not need to worry about meeting full-time labour costs, which leaves her free to spend all her time on designing and marketing. Moreover, in the unlikely event of her designs failing to gain traction, she can easily discontinue the production of a particular notebook model as they are manufactured in small batches, pivot, tweak the design or start from scratch again and roll out another model in no time.

Bhintuna designs almost all her notebooks herself. Her notebooks and diaries, uncluttered and informed by minimalistic aesthetics, invite personalisation. These aspects, coupled with the subtle incorporation of Nepali elements, are what give stationery from Bhav Products an edge over the run-of-the-mill diaries in the market. Moreover, her diaries pack so much charm as well as well thought-out design sensibilities that they feel as appropriate in the hands of a teenager as they would in the hands of a businessman.  

Bhav’s biggest sellers are the notebooks with sepia-toned pages, but Bhav also offers notebooks pages in the shades of blue, pink, white and green. Customers may also choose from ruled, gridded, dotted and blank pages.

Dulla Shoes

When Ahmed Dulla first started producing and selling shoes, his company, Dulla, was a one-man-army operation. He would go get the raw materials, design and manufacture his shoes and even market them via Instagram and Facebook. He even went to the extent of delivering the products to his customers—for free.

Today, his business has grown big enough for him to hire employees for manufacturing shoes, giving him the freedom to channel all his energy into coming up with innovative designs and effective marketing strategies. Because Ahmed has, at some point, been involved in every stage of the production of his shoes and bags—from stitching them to buffing them and everything in between—he can ensure that his team can come up with consistently high-quality products. His shoes, priced between Rs 2,490 to Rs 7,990, are even taking on some of their branded and more expensive counterparts available in the Nepali market.

At Dulla’s small factory, in Baghbazaar, the shoes are assembled and stitched by hand or by operators using sewing and leather machines. Ahmed sources all the raw materials—leather, Rexene, rubber, colours, dye, PVC soles, heels and nails—from India. As for his designs, Ahmed studies contemporary trends, distills their essence and uses them as the starting point for creating his own designs.

When Ahmed launched his shoe collection in 2011, he had envisioned customers from the age group of 18 to 25 buying his products. However, over time, his shoes have started to become favoured by middle-and upper-middle class women because of the shoes’ durability, ergonomic fit and affordability.

Dulla Shoes differentiates itself from larger companies by providing exclusive services to their consumers. Dulla products are delivered to their customers for free, and the shoes can be repaired without any additional cost, should the shoes rip, tear or get worn out.

Paila shoes

Wooden brackets, each displaying a pair of eco-friendly shoes, protrude from the off-white walls of the Paila Shoes store in Dhobighat. Some regular customers do occasionally drop by to pick some of the models on display in Paila’s tastefully spartan store, but for the most part, the shoes get delivered to buyers’ doorstep by KTM Couriers.

Mingma Diki Sherpa, founder of Paila Shoes, started her line of eco-friendly shoes for a number of reasons. First, although she had worked for various INGOs in Kathmandu, she had never found meaning in what she was doing; she had always wanted to pursue what she had dreamt of engaging in when she was younger: fashion and designing. Second, she was fed up with the pollution contaminating Kathmandu and wanted to set up an ethical venture that didn’t worsen the pollution. That’s when the idea of producing eco-friendly shoes hit her. Realising that no one had addressed this market gap, she pounced at the opportunity. She first went to Italy with her (Italian) husband to explore current fashion trends there, and upon her return, she quit her stable job and ploughed her savings into Paila Shoes, which she set up in 2015.

The business model Mingma has adopted is a fine blend of cost-efficiency and eco-friendliness.

Mingma’s production process uses no chemicals and emits no harmful gases. The workshop, which is attached to the Paila Shoes store, is equipped with just sewing machines powered by a foot pedal. Most of the stitching and assembling of the shoes are done by hand by three shoemakers that Mingma has hired. The soles of her shoes are all re-moulded from soles of old, discarded shoes, and the primary fabric used for the top is allo fibre, which she sources from Sankhuwasabha.

Paila shoes aren’t the most practical for Kathmandu’s roads—dust-filled in the dry months and sludgy in the monsoons. But then the product isn’t targeted for people looking for practicality. Paila shoes cater to those discerning customers who want to use products that are not associated with unethical production methods such as the use of child labour or which harm the environment. Paila shoes are also bought by expatriates as well as people who will be going abroad. These shoes represent a coming together of finely designed shoes produced to the highest ethical standards.

Kala Kathmandu

One of the products featured on Kala Kathmandu’s website is a minimalist light box made for housing deities. The box features just the most minimal design elements, such as an arched window/doorway, to have it come across as a small temple whose entire body is its sanctum sanctorum. A bulb throws yellow light at the housed object, which can be viewed from all four sides. At first glance, the box might seem like some expensive decor item imported from some high-end designer operating out of Japan or some such industrial-production hub, and it is only after people check the price online that they realise that Kala Kathmandu is selling quality decor items at exceedingly reasonable prices.

Kala Kathmandu is a venture started by Pooja Rimal and Astha Rajbhandari. After completing her bachelors in product-design from Symbiosis, Pune, Astha returned to Nepal with a vision to start a line of sleek, minimalistic, affordable decor items that borrowed its aesthetics from Nepali culture. In 2015, she set up Kala Kathmandu with Pooja, who is the owner of CNC Crafts, a company that manufactures interior partitions, signages and false ceilings. Astha and Pooja’s business model is in some ways similar to what Bhintuna is doing. While Bhintuna outsources her labour to a press, the duo at Kala Kathmandu have a Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machine to take care of the etching, cutting and milling that go into their production process.

Because Kala Kathmandu uses a CNC machine to manufacture products, human fallibility in the crafting of the products is taken out of the equation. Moreover, the machine allows the duo to significantly cut down on labour costs. This means fewer craftsmen needing to be employed on the factory floor and better finished products. Using a CNC machine—instead of opting for a factory assembly line—also allows Kala Kathmandu the liberty to quickly discontinue a product that’s not selling well and reprogram the machine to start churning out a different model.  The turnaround time for coming up with new products is faster than in a conventional set up—the proprietors only need to hand over a new design to their CNC machine operator—and the company can then come up with new designs that are almost impossible to be made by hand.

The Kala Kathmandu duo seek inspiration for their products’ design from elements in Nepali iconography and design ethos. Kala Kathmandu started out with minimalistic lamp lights inspired by the mandala. Their stupa lamp series has been inspired by, as the name suggests, stupas in Kathmandu. That said, the products include Nepali design ideas in only the subtlest manner. Over the years, Kala Kathmandu has released many products ranging from coasters to clocks. Most of their products are made from compressed sawdust—because normal wood tends to warp and takes time to get processed—and hybrid materials that are imported from India.