Pia Dargani's Clutches of Karma pairs beauty and benevolence

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      Pia Dargani didn’t set out to become a handbag designer. She was just a girl on a mission to locate the perfect black clutch, but she couldn’t find it anywhere. After several months of fruitless searching, she enlisted the help of her mom.

      “I decided to just draw her a picture of what I had in mind, so that if she ever saw it, she could pick it up for me,” says Dargani, who recently sat down with the Straight at a Kits pizzeria. “But instead of doing that, she just went out and got it made for me. And so a lot of people saw that bag and really liked it and started asking me if I could make them bags.”

      That was only last summer, but by November 2011, she was ready to launch her first Clutches of Karma collection. These stunning, handcrafted bags—which are sold at Forever Young Jewelry (3071 West Broadway) and Rebecca Bree Boutique (3680 West 4th Avenue), as well as through Dargani’s website (www.clutchesofkarma.com/)—are like pieces of functional art.

      The labour-intensive Geometrics ($300 to $400), for example, features panels of multicoloured seashells that have been cracked, put back together in an abstract pattern, and then coated with a protective layer. The process can take up to 45 days, but the result is well worth it.

      Another conversation starter from Dargani’s latest collection is the Au Naturel ($150), a box-shaped clutch with a layer of dried rice husks that are held in place with a resin coating. It’s finished off with snakeskin piping and handcrafted wooden clasps—gorgeous!

      One of her (seemingly) most basic designs is the Checked Out series ($225). These timeless chain-optional clutches are covered in a woven snakeskin-check pattern and come in a variety of colours, including orange, turquoise, and green—truly classic.

      Dargani has definitely come a long way from her trial-and-error beginnings, but designing the perfect bag was only one part of her goal. Ever since university, she knew that whatever line of business she ended up in, she was going to integrate a socially conscious component into her work. So when it came time to do the manufacturing, she turned to her place of birth: the Philippines. That’s where her Sindhi Hindu family landed after leaving what is now Pakistan during the partition of India. As middle-class business owners, her family lived an almost aristocratic lifestyle compared to many around them.

      “It was very difficult for me—being in that country, living the life that I did while watching others live in poverty,” says Dargani, who moved to Vancouver in 2008 to do a degree in Asian Area Studies at UBC. “It was just a really tough thing, so I wanted to incorporate that element into my company.”

      That’s why she only commissions small-to-medium-sized co-ops of artisans living in the Philippines to handcraft her bags.

      “You see a lot of Thai handmade crafts and things made in China,” she continues. “But you never really see things made in the Philippines over here. And I really think their workmanship is really good. There’s a lot of craftsmanship and intricacy that goes into their art. So I just thought that would be a really great way to showcase my talents as well as theirs.”

      In addition to helping facilitate economic growth where Dargani grew up, Clutches of Karma sends partial proceeds to educational initiatives in the Philippines.

      “I really do value education,” Dargani says. “A lot of the time in the Philippines, you have to have a university degree just to work in McDonald’s,” she says. “So it’s really, really important there.”