Back on campus to participate in the Women in Design panel discussion on Monday, April 24, 2017, Sugandh Agrawal (Industrial Design, 2005) took stock of how far she’s come since she first arrived in 2001, a nervous teenager far from home in India. Her time at Columbus College of Art & Design — during which she was a student employee in the president’s office, a full-time residence advisor, and something of a glutton for punishment, taking 20 credit hours and two studio classes her senior year — influences her life and work to this day.
“When I came to CCAD, I really got the bug for working hard. It hasn’t left me yet,” Agrawal said. “Time management, commitment, hard work. That’s what CCAD really taught me. These qualities pushed me forward, through grad school, in business, and even as a mom.”
Today, Agrawal lives in New York with her husband and young daughter and runs Gunas, the vegan luxury handbag label she founded in 2009. She arrived at CCAD intending to study Fine Arts, but when she heard other students say Industrial Design was the toughest major on campus, she signed up.
“Industrial Design is such a versatile program. You can find your place in any industry,” she said. “Career-wise, I don’t think I could have done anything better for myself than to listen to my inner voice that said, ‘I’m going to challenge myself.’”
Agrawal was hired by Bosch even before she graduated and went on to work at Whirlpool Corp. At Bosch, she saw the manufacturing process up close (she even learned to drive a forklift) and at Whirlpool, she was immersed in a sophisticated branding operation. She took those skills with her to Pratt Institute’s Design Management master’s degree program.
She took something else, too: her commitment to vegetarianism, which she began as a child. She became vegan three years ago.
It was in this crucible — with industrial design experience, a passion for accessories, and the beginnings of sustainability and ethics movements in fashion — that the idea for Gunas was born. Still craving a good challenge, Agrawal envisioned a handbag that was ethically sourced and produced and that would thrill handbag connoisseurs who love the look and feel of luxury. Gunas bags have been produced in New York (too expensive), China (where Agrawal could not endorse work conditions), India (she converted her parents’ garage to a studio for several months), and now South Korea. She started with wild designs but dialed back to silhouettes that take cues from classic handbags. She’s learned a ton in the last eight years about how to start a brand and nurture it. How does she measure success? Emails and calls from designers around the world who want to know how to start their own vegan, ethical lines.
“I really want designers to think in that direction,” she said. “I cannot do this on my own.”
Advice from Sugandh Agrawal
Sugandh Agrawal has won praise from magazines, celebrities, and organizations like the Ethical Fashion Forum for Gunas. She’s learned a lot since she founded her handbag line in 2009. She shared some advice and words of wisdom for CCAD students:
“If you have an entrepreneurial voice, totally listen to it. But don’t wait until you feel you’re ready to do something. You’re never going to be ready.”
“I don’t get too swayed or shaken up by anything I win or achieve — even when I won a student design award. I needed that acknowledgment. I was getting some appreciation when maybe I was being too hard on myself. Once you get that little title, it helps you get on to the next.”
“I don’t feel satisfied. It’s not that I want more and more and more. I just feel that I haven’t made my point yet, and I’m not going to rest until I make my point.”
Who is the Gunas girl?
How can you tell Sugandh Agrawal has spent a lot of time thinking about branding and the audience for her Gunas luxury vegan handbags? Because she describes the “Gunas girl” in thoughtful, measured detail:
“She is not necessarily vegan or vegetarian but she’s very aware of her surroundings. She’s very grounded. She is not frivolous, so she likes to find meaning in things. But she also likes to enjoy life. She has fun with her wardrobe. She is very picky with everything, whether it’s her food or friends or what she devotes her time to. She’s not someone who does things thoughtlessly.”