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Handbag designer clutches to India

By Cherise Fong
CNN
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HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Sonia J designs the kind of handbags that are clutched by the rich and fashionable, the sort one imagines as bejeweled props in a Bollywood spectacle.

She has even designed custom-made bags for Malaysia's Datin, the local ladies of particularly high political and social status.

Sparkling with precious stones and selling for up to HK$3,000 (US$385), her clutch bags are regularly seen at high-profile weddings among affluent Indian parties in Phuket, Bali, Manila, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Sonia J, alias Sonia Gidwani, is one of some 35,000 Indians living in Hong Kong. More specifically, she belongs to the Sindhi community; her parents were born in the early 1940s in a former part of India which is now Pakistan.

"After the 1947 partition, people fled overnight to many different places," she says, "but we still are our own type of Indian. My dad also lived in Africa and all over the world, but finally everyone ended up in the land of opportunity of Hong Kong. So many of the Sindhi we know, we've known since we were kids."

Like many Indian families established in Hong Kong, hers started up an import-export business. They have since extended their trade to real estate, both in Hong Kong and overseas, and most recently opened two hotels in South America.

The 26-year-old designer is well aware that where she comes from has got her to where she is.

"Being from a privileged background, I was exposed to a lot of beautiful things -- clothes, shoes, jewelry, not to mention bags -- and I've always had a passion for beautiful things," she says.

"Besides, Indians are very family oriented. We try to be good people, take care of our parents, get married, and have kids. Nobody forces anybody, we're not focused on careers, we have conservative priorities."

Sonia J tries to imprint her idea of lavish Indian aesthetics in her own handbag designs, as most of her commissions are for celebratory family affairs.

"In our culture the wedding is all about the outfit of the bride -- the stones, the sequins, the crystals, the diamonds. I have the opportunity to travel all over the world, so I see the best of everything from everywhere. Before it was fringe and fabric, now the styles are embellished into a richer, more glamorous 'ethnic' look."

Made in India

Sonia is proud of the craftsmanship of her handbags.

"You cannot get that type of quality work in China," she says. "The Indian workers were born into the trade, their fine embroidery and tailoring skills have been handed down through generations. All the artwork is done by people who know what they're doing, Indian style. Most of them are Muslim men with very specialized skills, such as thread embroidery or stone embroidery -- just like shoemakers, or artists."

Sonia travels to New Delhi and Mumbai a few times a year, while she is in direct contact with a local Indian middle manager -- "also a young hip girl trying to break through," as she puts it.

"A lot is done through trial and error, sending samples, then discussing on the phone, and her emailing me back sketches and photos of the work in progress. We're already on the same page and I don't draw, so it's easier to communicate this way."

Despite her loyalty to the Sindhi community, Sonia continues to have mixed feelings about her native land.

"I hated India growing up," she confesses. "I don't like the food, I don't speak any Indian languages. But ever since I started this line of work I've gone there lots and appreciated the culture and the workmanship. But I don't want to live there."

She also appreciates the fact that it's become more westernized. "Not so backward," she explains. "For fashion, you can go to the club, and the Indian locals are carrying the latest bags, nice shoes, very up-to-date designer stuff. My new friends in India know a lot of celebrities, as India is very Bollywood-driven. Everybody who has money knows everybody."

Sonia maintains a low-key tone when detailing her ambitions.

"If it works out, great, but if not I'm quite happy with people buying my bags whenever they want, just having the shows that I do. It keeps me occupied, I can have my own life, I don't have 9-to-5 working hours, I travel at my own leisure. I'm happy."

However excited Sonia may get about developing her own handbag line further, she remains realistic about her personal future.

"We're three generations of housewives," she says. "My priorities will swing that way too when I get married. They'll shift to my husband, my family, my in-laws. I think for every Indian girl, or any girl, there comes a time in your life when you know you're ready to settle down, to commit yourself to someone else in marriage -- arranged or not.

"It's just the way evolution is. And I think at this age, I've seen a lot of the world, I've met different people, and I'm ready to compromise."


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Sonia J, alias Sonia Gidwani

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