“I am an animal lover.” Devika Srimal Bapna begins talking with the simplest statement of purpose behind her brand Kanabis. Her enduring affection for all things four-legged and her tryst as a PETA volunteer led this Delhi resident towards a more conscious lifestyle. She mostly succeeded, except when it came to her footwear.
“I couldn’t find an alternative to leather,” says Devika. “I lived in London, and leather was often the only option in the cold. When I came back to India, I noticed a serious gap in the market. There were big brands that manufactured only leather and the alternatives rarely scored on quality.” Not one to let her feet suffer either leather or inferior shoes, she decided to take matters in her own hands.
In 2015, Devika launched Kanabis, a vegan footwear label made in India and approved by PETA.
It wasn’t an easy transition for Devika who has no background in design. Having trained as a CA, she worked at corporate houses like Ernst & Young and Deloitte before doing a 180 degree professional turn. “It was quite a leap for me. But Kanabis will be two years old soon and the response to the brand has been phenomenal.
Kanabis specialises in women’s footwear crafted from leather substitutes like canvas and jute. What truly sets the brand apart is its unwavering emphasis on design and quality, two aspects often overlooked by mass manufacturers that rely on these materials.
As Devika puts it: “Our shoes are fashionable, durable, and cruelty free. Every part of the shoes is tested, right down to the soles. I even wear all the designs myself to check their durability and take personal note of any issues we receive from our customers.”
“We also keep track of trends too and try to come up with new designs every two months,” she adds. While canvas shoes may conjure images of your tennis sneakers (and the label sure does boast a sold-out pair of white sneakers), Kanabis also offers variations in heels, flats and even cruelty-free boots, which are remarkably difficult to find otherwise.
Devika started with 22 designs. Today, Kanabis has over 60 styles in its catalogue, boasting beautiful colours, prints and embroidery.
“We are a small team and have a very hands-on approach,” Devika says. Case in point: if you call up the brand’s customer care number, chances are that the founder will take the call herself.
Needless to say, one of Devika’s biggest challenges have been logistical, starting from sourcing materials from vendors in and around Delhi NCR, assembling the designs, packaging, quality control, sales and marketing.
The Indian fashion industry reports an ever-increasing demand for cruelty-free products from customers. Yet there are few alternatives, especially in case of segments like footwear. Even when alternatives do exist, they are limited to high-end fashion goods that aren’t always affordable.
Devika shuns any kind of leather, suede or fur in her designs, and is a fervent animal activist. “It was my childhood dream to have a pet, but my folks weren’t keen on having one,” she says. “I make up for it by playing with stray dogs and cats — they have names and even recognise me from my car.”
Any time she spots an injured animal, Devika takes it to the NGO Friendicoes. “During a crowdfunding campaign for our brand, we donated part of the money raised to a cow shelter in East Kailash, Delhi,” she adds.
Marrying great design with a cruelty-free approach has helped Devika reach out to customers who seek products that don’t blatantly disregard the environment.
Greater sustainability is always on the entrepreneur’s mind. “We still have to use a little plastic in manufacturing our shoes. I’d love to look for an alternative and make my shoes eco-friendly,” she says, in the midst of conceptualising a recycling initiative. “We want to start a way to recycle old shoes into new designs. We are in conversation with factories to supply discarded pairs, and would also like to encourage customers to bring their old shoes.”
In less than two years, Kanabis has expanded to eight multi-brand stores, and is also available online. Gearing up to expand all over the country via social media, exhibitions and more retail presence, Devika in on a mission to prove that it doesn’t take leather to put your best foot forward.