Meet Gayatri Chopra, a designer who left a successful career in India to follow her heart to Philadelphia and restart here.

• P.j. fatigue: “I think this pandemic has made me want to make even crazier designs because I’m so bored of looking at pajamas.”

• On fashion in Philly: “I think that there’s a lot of appreciation for it. Even if you’re wearing a track suit, you appreciate design and art.”

Before she came to Philadelphia five years ago, Gayatri Chopra’s career was taking off in her home city of New Delhi, India.

After sticking a fork in her job in silverware design in 2009, Chopra — a graduate of India’s National Institute of Fashion Technology — followed her dream and began her own handbag business out of her parents' garage.

The purses she designed lined store shelves across New Delhi; models were showing them off on runways during India Fashion Week; and Chopra’s parents beamed with pride whenever they went to a party and saw guests carrying their daughter’s designs.

“I felt like we were getting there,” she said.

But life had other designs for Chopra. And — just like her handbags — nothing about those designs was simple.

Some of the hand-embroidered purses and headbands created by Gayatri Chopra of Simitri handbags and accessories.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Some of the hand-embroidered purses and headbands created by Gayatri Chopra of Simitri handbags and accessories.

A chance meeting at a friend’s wedding led her to fall in love with a man whose career as a financial consultant required him to be in Philadelphia. After a year of dating long distance, the couple was married in 2015 and Chopra moved to Philly.

It was then that the career she’d dedicated her life to came to an abrupt halt. Without a work permit, Chopra couldn’t continue running her business in the United States.

“It was very hard. I’ve always given my career a lot of importance, that’s my life. Other things may come and go but this won’t leave me,” Chopra said. “But I didn’t think too much about it because I just knew this was the person I wanted to be with.”

When she received her work permit a year later, Chopra created a new handbag and accessories company, Simitri, with her sister-in-law. They started by putting up a stockpile of bags Chopra had leftover from India on Etsy.

They sold out immediately.

So Chopra, 34, began creating Indian-inspired designs in her home office in South Philly, which she sent off to be handmade by artisans in New Delhi.

“Everything I design today is all inspired from my time in India‚” she said. “Culturally, I’m very westernized now, but in my mind, I’m still an Indian. I will always be an Indian.”

Gayatri Chopra in her South Philly home studio.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Gayatri Chopra in her South Philly home studio.

While Chopra initially converted the prices for her bags from rupees to dollars, she quickly learned such handmade pieces were worth far more in the U.S.

“People appreciate Indian fabrics and weaves here more than people in India do,” Chopra said. “Handmade has a lot more value here, perhaps because in India everything is handmade so they don’t value it as much.”

Today, Chopra’s bags are in stores in the U.S., New Delhi, and London, and they retail for between $125 and $425. Her purses can be seen everywhere from the July issue of Oprah Magazine to the red carpet at the ESPY Awards, where they were carried last year by five members of the U.S. women’s soccer team, including Carli Lloyd.

But Simitri bags aren’t for the faint of heart, or those who shy away from sartorial splendor. Chopra designs her purses with purpose and with unusual textures and colors, like metallic fringe, iridescent beetles, and bursts of sequin explosions.

“I call it structured chaos,” Chopra said of her style. “It’s structured because it’s a box but then there’s a lot of madness going on in that box.”

Gayatri Chopra has been fascinated with the iridescence of beetles since she was a child. Today, she includes them in some of her designs, like the handbags pictured above.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Gayatri Chopra has been fascinated with the iridescence of beetles since she was a child. Today, she includes them in some of her designs, like the handbags pictured above.

She takes inspiration from the world around her, especially the marketplaces in India, which she typically visits three times a year.

“I’d see a beautifully carved wooden stool or a beautiful shelf or chandelier and I’d be like ‘I need to make a bag out of this!’” she said.

Chopra was a month away from giving birth to her first child this year when COVID-19 and quarantine hit in March, forcing everyone indoors.

“My business is targeted at going out,” Chopra said. “We were really badly-impacted. Nobody wanted evening bags.”

But Chopra still had artisans in India on her payroll, and she refused to let them down. So she went from designing $400 purses to designing $29 fancy face masks (including one featuring a version of the Eagles logo, made entirely of sequins). She began making headbands too, as an easy way for people to dress up their Zoom calls.

This Simitri face mask, designed by Gayatri Chopra, features the Eagles logo created entirely out of sequins.
Courtesy of Simitri
This Simitri face mask, designed by Gayatri Chopra, features the Eagles logo created entirely out of sequins.

“I wasn’t hoping for a miracle to happen. We all knew nobody was going out,” she said. “So headbands and masks really saved us.”

While Simitiri masks and headbands are still selling quicker than the company’s purses right now, Chopra said her handbags will always be her primary design. But as a new mom who isn’t using purses much either right now, she’s grateful for the flair her face masks bring to the everyday.

Gayatri Chopra pulls down a Simitri purse from a shelf in her South Philly home studio, where she's surrounded by some of her designs.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Gayatri Chopra pulls down a Simitri purse from a shelf in her South Philly home studio, where she's surrounded by some of her designs.

“I’m now carrying a diaper bag instead of a handbag so my one blinged-out part is my face mask,” she said.

Know someone in the Philadelphia area whose story deserves to be told — or someone whose story you'd like to know? Send suggestions for We the People profiles to Stephanie Farr at sfarr@inquirer.com or call her at 215-854-4225. Send tips via Twitter to @FarFarrAway.

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