Nappa Dori’s Main Man Gautam Sinha’s Road to Success Is Freakish
Nappa Dori’s Main Man Gautam Sinha’s Road to Success Is Freakish

Fuelled by mad instinct, perseverance and seriously good creative design

If you go by a playbook, Gautam Sinha should’ve never really been a successful designer. He started Nappa Dori in 2010 for no other reason than to make some money. He did it by selling a few ad-hoc products in a minuscule store in Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village, without having the chops of running a brick-and-mortar. He opened Café Dori, a cosy F&B space, in Chhatarpur's Dhan Mill Compound when it was a disregarded warehouse—well before other designer ateliers crowded the space. He stealthily took his brand global, to London and Dubai, launched home décor, and, most recently, menswear—while making zero noise about it. Most unfathomable of all, he hates socialising, and you’ll almost never see him at a fashion party. And here we are. Sinha’s name-dropped in the fashion, design and cultural space for kickstarting what is undoubtedly India’s most formidable homegrown leather luxury goods brand. Café Dori’s expanded and is a hotspot for an informed set of cool folk. Nappa Dori, as a whole, has consistently maintained its ethos of outfitting understated, clean and delicious leather goods that are a class apart—favoured by fashion enthusiasts who seek quality over quantity. But it’s really Sinha’s foray into menswear—elegant everyday clothes that are tailored to make you feel like a man—that’s defining his prowess as a creative polymath. 


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Tell me about the evolution of Nappa Dori.  

Gautam Sinha: It was started on a very different note altogether. When I started Nappa Dori in 2010 it was about doing something where I could make money. The only way I could do it was creatively. I’m massively dyslexic and wasn’t strong academically, so I would’ve never been an engineer or the like. I was working in a company before, which provided me with a bit of knowledge of how a business works in terms of handling buyer accounts and doing production sheets. So, I started the brand with a hole-in-the-wall shop in Hauz Khas, without a plan. I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone. Usually, people try putting their product into different concept stores to see how the market works and I was like ‘Okay, let’s start a store’. I designed a few pieces to see what sticks and what doesn’t. And we morphed into something bigger than expected pretty quickly. It worked in my favour because I could control every element of every product and how the brand could be showcased. 


Fashion is a serious business. How did you manage to get by without really having the ammunition for it?  

GS: I’ve been blessed with the fact that I didn’t know much—where you do things in a certain way that are a little offbeat and people are not there to tell you how it’s done. Once you know too much about business, you’re a lot more critical about the decisions you’re going to make. Ignorance is bliss in that aspect. I did make a lot of stupid decisions and took a lot of risks, but they kind of paid off. 


Was putting out a minimal aesthetic a means to tap into a gap in the market at the time or an extension of your personality? 

GS: I was working and designing products for a lot of companies in Scandinavia. It resonated in the way I ended up doing my design. I love minimal themes and simple lines. That’s my philosophy in how I live my life as well, and that is reflected in how I design products. I obviously didn’t know if it would stick or not. It was a tiny little store with a wooden Nappa Dori written on it with a random assortment of products. I am a visually strong person and kind of OCD where everything must be aligned a certain way and has to work in my world. It luckily clicked with the audience at the time as well. 


How did you get into F&B? 

GS: Café Dori was an offshoot of what we’d done with Nappa Dori in a way. I’m a massive coffee addict and I’d always struggle to find a place where I could go get a nice cup of coffee, sit down and just have a moment. I kept telling my team that we needed to do something or create a concept space that’s a little more immersive. Café Dori came about after almost two years of iterations of what we wanted to do; how we wanted to cater it; what the menu would be. It started in Dhan Mill eight years ago when that place was not known to anyone. It was a big risk to start in a place that was like a warehouse complex. There wasn’t a single retail store there. Everyone told me that I was completely mad. But I’ve always followed my instinct in these moments, and I felt that there was an opportunity to create an experiential concept store. I also think that leather and coffee go well together—it’s a sensory experience. I told my team that we’re doing the café as a point of experience and not a point of sale. If you’re trying to focus on a point of sale, it loses its relevance. The idea was for someone to come in, grab a cup of coffee, have some eggs and immerse themselves in the design elements surrounding them. It started slow, picked up and became way bigger than what I expected it to be. I think I’m running two different businesses now; an F&B outfit and a luxury leather goods brand. 


Café Dori, Colaba, serves up Pan-European Café vibes in one of Mumbai's most iconic locales


You’ve never wavered from your USP or conformed to trends. Has that ever hurt you?  

GS: I’m a believer in the fact that consistency pays off in the long run. What we’ve done, and something I’m proud of, is that we’ve been consistent in the way our DNA has formed. We’ve not pivoted too much towards trend-based things. We believe in classic silhouettes, a little bit of nostalgia, and simple designs, and that’s worked over the last 15 years because it’s now engraved in someone’s mind how Nappa Dori would be. And people understand and know what they’re going to get from us. We’ve however been evolving in our ethos. Our audience has matured with us over the years. We’ve cultivated that social fabric in society which is needed when you’re trying to build a brand. Everyone’s going for valuations and the quick turnaround. You can’t make legacy brands like that. 


Would you consider funding? 

GS: At some point, yes, for sure. We’re completely bootstrapped so at some point we might need to go into that. But there are certain brands in the world that have done it on their own. It may have taken them 100 years to do it. Now things are such that you don’t have the liberty of time. Sometimes you do reach a certain saturation point where you need to expand further, and you might need an influx of funds for it. But we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. Right now, we’re sailing on our own and are happy. 


Glimpses of the Nappa Dori factory


How would you define your target audience? 

GS: The way I perceive myself as a man; the way I consume fashion and products; and the way I work, is a slower churn—I don’t buy too many things. I’m mindful of that aspect and try to cater to an audience that is like me. If I buy something I want to keep it for a long time. I believe that men have a stronger emotional connection to a product than women. We play on that. We try to create bags, accessories and now, clothing where we’re mindful of getting an emotional connection because if you do that with men, they’re going to keep coming back to you. It’s like a relationship where you get into your comfort zone. A decent number of men come in knowing exactly what we are in terms of each product and want to buy a specific thing that they’ve been using for the last 10 years. They then come back to buy the same thing again. 


How’s your menswear line shaping up?  

GS: We’ve done our first collection. We’ve been stealthy in this aspect. It’s something that I’m a bit nervous about because clothing is a whole different ball game. We’re mainly selling it in London—catering more to that audience because they’re more receptive to the price points and the silhouettes we’re trying to do. We don’t want to be everything to everyone when it comes to clothing and we’re trying to find our sweet spot. At this point in time, we’re experimenting with workwear that borrows from nostalgic and emotionally connected elements from the 1920s-1930s and trying to put our own style narrative to it for the modern-day man. I don’t understand what men wear now. I don’t understand how Balenciaga does what they do. I call them an amazing social experiment, not a brand. For me, I like to wear things where I feel more like a man—if I can say that in this woke world—and create a line around that. 


Corduroy and other heavy fabrics make a big part of Nappa Dori's latest menswear collection


You’re not really out and about. Isn’t that counterintuitive for a designer?  

GS: I’m socially awkward. I don’t talk much. I don’t go out and don’t remember people and faces and get into trouble a lot of times for it. I’ve become a recluse in that sense, and rather than having an awkward moment, I’d sit at home and watch Netflix. Friends of mine call me a loner but I kind of enjoy my own space. I observe better and it helps me in how I do my work. I’m massively dyslexic so I can’t talk, nor can I read or write properly. Schooling days left a massive trauma where I don’t like to be in big gatherings. 


What’s next? 

GS: If we’re not destroying the world and getting into a massive conflict, 2024 looks nice and exciting in the creative space. I’m enjoying the evolution of Nappa Dori. We’re getting deeper into the luxury travel retail segment. I personally travel a lot, so I have a lot of feedback for my team on what is needed or not when one travels. And I like the fact that we’re getting into travel equipment. Along with it, the brand is expanding. We’re opening more stores across India. We opened our London store five years ago in a stealth way. We didn’t go out publicising it. It was a massive punt because you’re going from a pond to an ocean full of brands in London. At home, you can beat your chest and say, ‘Oh I’m the best’. There you’re suddenly in the middle of 1400 equally good brands in a small city competing against each other. We stood our ground and I’m very proud of it. We’re still there, survived Covid, so it gives me a lot of confidence to expand across Europe. Our design language is globally palatable, so it’s not concentrated on being an Indian brand. That translates to the fact that every city we go into, we fit in like a second skin. Hopefully in Scandinavia as well because that’s where I started. Café Dori is doing its thing. I’m still making a lot of coffee and eggs. 



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