She wept helplessly after flunking the textile designing examination which was to lay her career’s foundation. But Nina Lekhi was undeterred. In 1985, she launched Baggit - a tribute to Michael Jackson’s Beat It - which, today, is one of the leading accessory brands in the country. The entrepreneur speaks to Deepali Dhingra about her growing up years, dividing time between the mountains and the city, and her love for anything adventurous
Nina Lekhi, founder and owner, Baggit
She guffaws frequently, flips her hair back occasionally and, at one point, loudly imitates her schoolteacher reprimanding her. Nina Lekhi is far from what we’d imagined her to be. The founder and owner of Baggit, one of the leading bag brands in India, is clearly unaffected by her success. Wearing a pair of distressed jeans and a blue shirt, Lekhi is a picture of casual cool on the day we meet her at her store at Phoenix Marketcity, Kurla - one of the 28 stores she owns across the country.
Nina Lekhi at her store in Phoenix Marketcity, Kurla. Pic/Sayyed Sameer Abedi
Fall and rise
Speaking to Lekhi, we’re reminded of an anonymous quote we read a couple of days ago: Failing is not always failure. By her own admission, Lekhi had “the smoothest childhood possible.” “I was very good at studies, at least till Class 6. My teachers loved me. I came from a small family comprising my parents and an elder brother. In fact, I used to pray to God to give me some problem,” she laughs. But when things did go awry, they turned her world topsy turvy. “I flunked my first year exams in the art course at Sophia Polytechnic. I couldn’t believe it! I asked for trouble and God said, here take it all! I remember walking and crying all the way from my college to my home at Worli Seaface,” she recalls.
Lekhi was 17 then. “Thankfully, my parents were very supportive and didn’t reprimand me even once,” she says. The college’s policy prevented her from attending classes for a year, and appear for the exams the following year. “I started attending part time classes for screen printing and interior decoration at the college itself. That left me with a lot of time in between classes and I started working as a salesgirl, first at Shyam Ahuja, selling carpets, and later, at Mike Kriplani, selling salwar kameezes. I was working more than any girl at that age,” she says.
Lekhi feels she really matured over that one year. “I was working and studying. There was no technology, like phones or the Internet to distract me. In our screen printing classes, we would often get T-shirts with graphics, and I thought to myself, why don’t we get bags with graphics? So I would sit around and design bags. I think subconsciously, I wanted to prove that just because I had failed my exams, I wasn’t stupid,” she adds. One thing led to another, and she found herself working from home, seeking the help of her mother, building’s security man and the liftman in making the bags, who would cut the material and help her stick the buttons and other embellishments on the bags.
“It was like a mini-factory at my house. No woman in our family had ever worked, but my mother was extremely encouraging. I would go to the markets with her and buy all the material for the bags. I was inspired by crazy stuff - so I would put military badges on denim bags, shred aluminium foil, colour them and stick them on bags and other similar things,” she recalls. There were times she would end up sleeping at 2 am, but Lekhi was motivated and she slogged to make things work in her favour. Yet, even then, it was just something to do while she studied. The entrepreneur never dreamt that one day, she would find every second woman in the city flaunting her bags.
The journey ahead
Lekhi’s would-be husband, Manoj (introduced to her by her best friend and Manoj’s sister), had an apparel brand, which held exhibitions at Cymroza Art Gallery, and she started exhibiting her bags along with their apparel. “But I got no discount; he took his 30 per cent commission,” she laughs. Later, Amarsons approached her, and her bags found themselves jostling for space inside the multi-brand store. “The bags were priced between R75 to R110. And even today, our mentality is to give the best price to the customer,” she says. In 1986, she received an offer from the old Oberoi Hotel, where she started retailing. “I hired my first salesgirl. She still remains a good friend,” smiles the 48-year-old.
After retailing from Oberoi Hotel for three years, Lekhi and her brother rented a shop in Kemp’s Corner, which they bought over after five years. “I painted the shop on my own. I remember, I had to get my dress fittings done for my wedding and I went with paint smeared all over me,” she smiles at the memory. And while we’re at this, we ask her where did the brand get its name from. “Oh, the name came right at the beginning. My friend and I were in the swimming pool, discussing what we should name the brand, while singing Michael Jackson’s Beat It. And there it was - Baggit.” she laughs. Even she couldn’t have predicted how far her casually-named brand would go. Today, Lekhi has spread Baggit’s presence in 61 cities across India, with 28 exclusive outlets and 300 multi-brand stores.
At a time when most women own a bag for every social occasion, Lekhi says they need to keep an eye on the pulse of the consumer. “As a brand, we are very strong on functionality and durability. We don’t use leather as we believe in Fashion without cruelty. We use faux leather and ensure that at least 85 per cent of our materials are recyclable,” says Lekhi. The businesswoman now hopes to take her brand beyondIndian borders. “I want to open retail stores abroad, and be acknowledged across the world. But before we do that, we have to learn how to market ourselves better,” she adds.
Finding inner peace
A few months after her wedding, Lekhi’s mother advised the couple to join the Siddha Samadhi Yoga (SSY). “Those days, Manoj and I would return from pubs at 3 or 4 am, after partying all night. So, my mother forced us to attend the SSY - a meditation course, which would begin at 6 am. There were instances when I fell asleep doing the meditation,” she grins. But slowly, the teachings and learnings of the yoga - that strives for inner peace and tranquility- found its way to her heart. So much so that she has instilled these practices in her organisation as well. “Every three months, all of us attend silence camps. It’s an exercise which strengthens interpersonal bonds,” she elaborates.
Attending the SSY also opened up Lekhi’s mind and rid her of irrational fears and phobias. “I have a terrace flat and if I forget the keys, I can even jump into it. My mother fears for my safety, but I’ve grown out of trivial anxieties,” she says simply. Lekhi believes she is more mindful and connects more deeply with people now. Even the overnight trips she takes with her colleagues, she says, helps her bond with them. “I trust them, and that’s the reason they have the freedom to take decisions when I’m away somewhere,” she says. Lekhi also chants the four mantras of the ancient Hawaiin practice of Ho’oponopono - ‘thank you’, ‘sorry’, ‘I love you’ and ‘please forgive me’. “It cleanses you from inside and when you’re cleansed, you get a clear picture of the outside world. Then, you don’t have to sit like a watchdog in your factory to run it. Here, at Baggit, we don’t know the meaning of attrition. Whenever employees leave us, they have left with a lot of love. We follow a different work culture here,” she says.
The crazy side
Mother to a 14-year-old daughter, Lekhi also runs a school along with her husband, known as Rishi Gurukulam at Katarkhdak Hills, on the outskirts of Pune. “My daughter also lives and studies there. Every week, I head to the mountains and divide my days equally between Mumbai and the school at Katarkhdak. I take the company reports there and go through them in peace. We go cycling in the mountains and at the end of every school session, I take the kids on trekking trips. This year, I plan to take them trekking from Gangotri to Gaumukh,” she adds.
It’s easy to see how Lekhi unwinds - by submitting herself to the mountains every week. Cycling in the mountains and going for crazy adventure trips is part of her life now. “I love surfing. Last year, I went to Orissa and learnt how to surf. I love meeting new people and travelling to off beat places. Often, I cycle all the way to Katarkhdak. I’m predictably unpredictable - ask my colleagues,” smiles Lekhi, flipping her hair to the other side.
Book: Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach
Film: 3 Idiots
Sport: Swimming, cycling
Born: April 25, 1966
Education: Diploma in Textile Designing from Sophia Polytechnic
First job: Selling carpets as a salesgirl
Mantra in life: Enjoy every moment
Best advice i ever got: Stay calm and focussed