Image provided by Gunas

Gunas: Meet The Lady Boss Dominating The Vegan Handbag Market

by | March 13, 2019

I recently had the pleasure to speak with Sugandh G. Agrawal, an animal lover, vegan lady boss, and the designer and founder of Gunas, a New York City-based independent high fashion vegan handbag brand.

Many of the design houses are making the move towards cruelty-free fashion; Stella McCartney is known for her animal-friendly designs, Michael Kors recently announced that the company was going fur-free back in 2017, so what sets Gunas apart from the other haute couture lines out there?

Not only does Gunas boast beautiful, classic designs with sleek lines and a wide variety of colors that will carry you through from one season to the next, but it is a brand with a cause. The Gunas brand is cruelty-free, vegan, and sustainably and ethically produced; from the sourcing of materials through to the manufacturing, all Gunas pieces are made with the earth and animals in mind.

As a trained industrial designer, Sugandh had been designing appliances for KitchenAid and Whirlpool when she decided to quit her job and move to New York City. She then studied design management at the Pratt Institute with a focus on sustainability, design, and entrepreneurship. One fateful day, she met a handbag designer and, after talking, decided that her next career move was into the fashion industry, and a vegan handbag idea was born.

She began an internship with an independent label that specialized in exotic skins; her first task was to rearrange the animal hides. “[It] was a real eye-opening moment where I made that connection, that ‘oh my gosh, I’m not eating meat, why am I wearing leather’ [moment],” said Sugandh.

Sugandh grew up in India where the Jain religion has a massive following; the Jains don’t wear or consume animal products or byproducts but she had never made the connection. “Growing up I just thought it was cultural, but that day was a real ‘wake-up’ moment for me.” It was then that she began to reconsider starting her own label where she could connect her passion for design and her undeniable ethics.

When Sugandh began her vegan handbag line ten years ago, most brands didn’t see vegan fashion as sellable, but in recent years it has become the trendy thing to do.

By moving away from animal skins and furs, Sugandh has been able to source new materials that are eco-friendly and cruelty free. Gunas’ newest capsule collection is made from Mulblex, a material created from the leaves of a mulberry tree. The pulp from the leaves is coated onto cotton; it’s extremely lightweight and it functions exactly like leather.

vegan handbag
Image provided by Gunas Sugandh- the vegan girl boss ready to dominate the vegan handbag market

“Mulberry tree leaves are a staple for the silkworm, once they eat the mulberry leaves, they are killed to extract the fiber from their bodies to be used for silk,” said Agrawal. “I have a supplier in Korea who is trying to get this material out there [instead], because it’s cruelty-free and instead of killing the silkworms, you’re extracting soaked protein directly from the mulberry leaf. It’s plant based and eliminates the use of plastics [that are commonly used in other leather alternatives] such as pinatex, apple leather or grape leather.”

When Sugandh first started Gunas a decade ago, she was vegetarian, but after visiting a few animal sanctuaries, and learning more about the farm industry, she quickly made the transition to veganism. “Gunas has really been [a reflection of] my own personal journey,” said Sugandh.

“Being vegan, for me personally, means doing as little harm as possible. We live in a world where there’s some form of animal or [environmental] cruelty happening at some level, so how can we minimize that? How can we reduce our impact on the torture or the abuse of other living beings and our planet in general? For me, that’s what [being vegan] means, to be compassionate, non-judgmental and sharing my values with others. It’s a process of self-discovery.”

vegan handbag
Image provided by Gunas

Sugandh draws her inspiration for her handbags from real-life vegans, she focuses on the ‘Gunas girl’ a personal muse based on people in the community. If you take a look at their Instagram page, all of the girls in the photos are vegan and not necessarily models. “I’m learning from them, I’m just one person and there are so many other perspectives within the vegan world,” said Sugandh. “I really try to understand who I’m talking to and what their values are. I invite those into [my designs] and give back to the animal world.”

The brand prides itself on coming full-circle with their products, from where the fabrics are sourced, to who manufactures them, to how they are marketed and how it will impact the animals and the environment. The personal ethics and dedication to the environment are what really sets Gunas apart from other vegan brands on the market.

Image provided by Gunas

When Sugandh first began production, she was manufacturing in New York City in the very expensive fashion district. Labor costs were so high that she was unable to make the bags affordable and accessible to her target market. From there, she went to China to explore cheaper production options and was taken aback by the work conditions and the disregard for human life. She then went to India, where she is originally from, and converted her parents’ garage into a studio and started making her line over there. “I quickly realized that I could not get the quality [materials] that I really needed to give vegan fashion a good name, so I travelled to Korea, it’s a fashion hub that has the quality I desired and it wasn’t a compromise between ethics and good materials.”

She found small artisan studios in Korea that specialized in the production of handbags and they are now able to source fabrics from Korea, Germany and Japan. Each bag is handmade in these artisan studios owned by a group of families. “One family is cutting, one is sewing, and the other family is finishing the product, they all feed off each other and rely on each other,” said Sugandh “It’s very ethical in that sense and I visit the factories once or twice every year so I have a personal connection with everyone that’s making my products.”

vegan handbag
Image provided by Gunas

Personal connections run deep in the Gunas brand. Sugandh shared that Gunas led her onto this path, “I didn’t create Gunas, Gunas found me.” The name itself has an incredible story and a special meaning to her. She wanted her brand to be connected to her name, which is Hindi and can be hard for some to pronounce and understand, so she rearranged the letters in her first name – Sugandh – until she came up with ‘Gunas.’ She had no idea what it meant, so she Googled it and was shocked to discover that it is a Sanskrit word with a deep spiritual meaning in Hinduism. “It means ‘qualities of nature’ and if you’re into yoga or meditation, you’ve definitely heard it before,” said Sugandh. “This brand found me, it’s been guiding me and pushing me in the direction of being compassionate and cruelty-free, it shows the world that it can be done in the most positive way. I don’t think it could get any more personal than that.”

Growing her brand into the company it is today has been a labor of love with many challenges along the way. The first fives years were filled with trying to make people understand veganism and why it is so important for fashion to be cruelty free. It was a process of educating people and getting herself, and her brand, out there. “There were so many disappointments,” said Sugandh , “going to trade shows, putting in all the money and not getting orders. There was no other brand doing what I was doing, so I really had to carve out my own way.”

In an effort to retain the essence of the brand, Sugandh chose to stay small and independently owned. “Being self-funded, it was really hard to even afford PR companies and trying to get the brand in front of celebrities,” said Agrawal. “I learned that if you really focus on creating a brand that speaks to your audience, a product that actually delivers on the promise, people will come seek you out.”

This year, Sugandh is focusing on creating smaller products, like wallets and coin purses, that will make her brand more accessible and people won’t necessarily have to spend a couple hundred dollars to enjoy the Gunas brand. “We’re also looking at the beauty industry; I recently found out that the soaps I had been using had tons of animal fat in them, it completely shocked me,” said Sugandh It was just one more area [to improve upon], you don’t even think about it while using the soap, it’s such a small product but it has a huge market. I’m looking [to design] something that helps my Gunas girls not only feel beautiful inside but also outside.”

Vegan Handbag of The Future

You can find Gunas’ full line of products online and the bags have even made some appearances at fashion week. While they don’t do a full-fledged fashion show themselves, some designers have reached out and asked to use a few pieces in their shows. Doing their own show isn’t practical since the handbags they create are meant to be used year-round. “I don’t believe in doing seasons, we’re becoming a world where everything is just so seasonal, especially with climate change, people just don’t invest in season-specific products anymore,” said Sugandh. “I’ve never been into the whole season styling, I just do pieces that can transition from one season into another.”

vegan handbag
Image provided by Gunas

The Gunas brand is about spreading compassion and helping others come to a personal understanding of animal rights and activism. Sugandh focuses on helping to spread the message without being pushy. It has taken a long time for the vegan movement to gain a substantial following and the last thing she wants to do is to scare people off.

“We should focus on being compassionate, that is the message of the whole movement. Be inclusive and non-judgmental. Ultimately, everyone is trying to do their best and if we just keep giving each other a hard time, then we’re turning each other against one another instead of uniting and solving a problem that affects humanity on a larger level.”Check out the Gunas website here to see the entire collection and to read about the Gunas Girl!

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