Sugandh G. Agrawal didn't always plan on making sophisticated, cruelty-free handbags with a whimsical touch -- she entered grad school at Pratt Institute with the intention of earning her master's in design management to further her career in industrial design -- but, like so many New York transplants before her, she was lured into a world of dreamy fashion.
"In the midst of all the beautiful labels, I couldn't help but fall in love," said Sugandh, who originally hails from India and now lives in Long Island City, Queens, with her husband and 1-year-old daughter. "Bags and shoes are my weakness."
Just as her interest in the New York fashion scene was ramping up, Sugandh befriended a handbag designer who gave her an insider's perspective on the industry. "I got excited about creating my own line, [so] I started interning at a local boutique brand that was making bags purely out of exotic skins," recalled Sugandh, a vegetarian since age 12. "When I saw their stock room of leathers, I had my real “aha!” moment. I literally wanted to throw up. The people who work with [animal skins] are so ignorant about where it comes from, how it impacts the people and our environment, and just simply how cruel it is. My internship with that company lasted 10 days."
But instead of turning away from the the handbag business altogether, Sugandh decided to change it. "I knew that there had to be more people out there who wanted a bag that was stylish and cruelty-free," she said.
Her hunch was right. She founded GUNAS in 2008, and the label -- dedicated to making bags that respect animals, people, and the environment -- has garnered a celebrity following as well industry praise. The brand's latest accolade is Sugandh's nomination for InStyle's 2015 Independent Handbag Designer Awards (vote for her here through June 16 and watch the video below for more).
We recently chatted with Sugandh about her biggest challenges, what's next for GUNAS, and, of course, what she wears. Read on for all this, plus her current favorite song and dream shopping trip.
The big picture:
When I started GUNAS, my main aim was to make a beautiful bag that was cruelty-free and locally made. I achieved that with my first collection by making it in New York. However the prices were too high for this niche market. So I shifted production to China. I visited the factories I worked with, and the labor conditions were horrific. That’s when I started questioning the ethical part of manufacturing. If I wanted to make a bag that was kind to the animals, shouldn’t it also be kind to the people that were making it? With that thought. I got working to gathering up my savings and connecting with family in India to help start an ethical studio space for artisans whom I would train and use to produce my bags in-house.
The big challenge:
My biggest challenge has been not being able to do it all! There are just so many things I want to create and design, [and] there just isn’t enough room in my head and hours in a day. Life is all about balance. Being a new mom, I love this phase in my life and am trying to enjoy it to the fullest while continuing my work with GUNAS.
I love classic apparel pieces with an added hint of excitement through my accessories. I also love the very bohemian free spirit style of dressing up. It really just depends on my mood and the occasion.
I adore Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. The simple cuts and gorgeous colors and prints are timeless.
Essential beauty products:
Nothing makes me feel prettier than being in a beautiful and glowing skin, so I’d have to go with a great moisturizer as my favorite product. I also love defining my eyes and my Tarte kohl pencil does the job just right.
Dream shopping destination:
That’s such a tough one to choose from! I’m not a shopaholic and only do very need-based purchases, but I’ve always wanted to venture off to Turkey and Japan. The two are very opposite in aesthetics. That’s sort of what my own style is too. My industrial designer’s eye makes me adore geometry and symmetry with a bit of a fun element. My Asian roots make me want to seek out the beauty in organic and handmade products.
Summer fashion wish-list:
A great sun hat and a super comfortable pair of slippers. I’d love to find cat-eye sunglasses with a wooden frame.
Oh gosh! "Wheels On The Bus" is rocking my world right now trying to keep my active 1-year-old entertained. Besides that, I’m obsessed with "Style" by Taylor Swift. I also enjoy a lot of world music, especially songs from Bollywood.
Spending time with family. In the evenings I love sipping on a glass of wine with my husband and watching the Manhattan skyline from our apartment. Long Island City has the best views. When we have time off, we love to go on short getaways with our daughter.
The near future:
I always want GUNAS to be the go-to label for people when they are in need of a cruelty-free bag… I've done several utilitarian styles including work bags, shoulder bags, cross bodies and backpacks. Now it’s time to get fancy! I’m working on a crystal clutch collection inspired by the Native American animal totems. I [have also] always dreamed of having my own store! That’s my goal in the next two years.