Handbag making in Milan: following a dream.
Each year I love to learn a new skill, brush up on a new language or try to take a passion further. Last year it was all about feeding my handbag obsession by going to the handbag motherland and learning the ins and outs of the trade from artisans who have worked with some of my personal favourites: Hermes, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Stefano Ricci and Prada to name a few.
One of the perks of my last job was an annual allowance for personal development. It was a brilliant initiative that helped people keep a healthy mind and body, nurture their talents, challenge their fears and enabled the team to grow beyond their everyday working environment. Some used it for gym membership, pilates classes, piano lessons, creative writing and even volunteer work in developing countries. My efforts were far more directed at clearing the mind and stimulating my creative aspirations, including learning to meditate, taking French lessons and doing plies and flexing in Barre Xtend classes.
Last year, while on my annual trip to the London office, I thought it was time to learn a skill I had always dreamed of making part of my repertoire. Little did I know this would be a turning point and bring me to where I am today.
Ars Sutoria School in Milan
As I researched for courses, Ars Sutoria kept popping up as a renowned handbag design course in Europe. Established in 1947, the course was set up to train leather footwear pattern makers in Milan, and then expanded into bags in 1965. Also in New York, it now produces the longstanding industry bible, the Ars Sutoria magazine, that delivers the latest information on shoes, bags, materials, trends and collections from trade fairs and catwalks. This course was the one.
I only had one week I could commit to so I asked to join the first week of the 9-week program, which included pattern making, prototyping, and design collection development. The timings worked perfectly and after gushing over my passion for bags, I was in.
What we covered in week one
- The glossary: industry terms and names of the different parts of a bag such as front face, bottom, gusset, flap etc.
- Characteristics and features: including briefcase gussets, frame clutches, bags with darts and pleats, etc.
- Classification and body types: e.g. rigid bags, soft bags, mixed bodies
- Categories according to style and use/function: e.g. shopping, truncks, business, totes, hobos, etc.
- Materials, accessories and components used in the manufacturing of bags; different kinds of pockets, shoulder straps, handles, zippers, fastening systems, metal hardware
- Materials for exterior, leathers and finishings, synthetics and fabrics
- Reinforcements, adhesives and linings
- Bag manufacturing process and operations
- Finishing products
- Pattern making techniques
- Prototype making
- Introduction to collection building.
I will never look at a bag the same way again. All of a sudden three quarters of my bags were substandard and my bag snobbery had jumped up a notch.
The 5 key things I learnt
1. Leather and handbag craftsmanship is a dying art.
There is so much more to bag making than I could have ever expected. I knew it was a skill that needed to be learned over years using time-honoured techniques, however I didn’t realise how much ancillary knowledge you needed regarding leather preparation, pattern making, materials, stitches, glue, equipment and how it is all crafted together. I have a whole new appreciation of every piece I own and the care that has gone into making them.
Hermès artisans are an example of the extraordinary skills it requires to make the perfect bag. Their artisans go through 16 months of training to work on smaller pieces, but only when they have solid experience (which in Hermès world is up to five years) can they start to work with crocodile skin. It takes an artisan up to 48 hours to hand make one bag and all substandard items are destroyed. With the time and meticulous detail that goes into making each unique piece it makes it easier to understand why they cost so much and why people are willing to wait for the next Birkin.
This has really made me want to preserve these techniques, invest in preserving the authenticity and history of the Italian leather craft and create timeless, classic bags for an appreciative customer.
2. Importance of investment: you get what you pay for.
My teacher, who had worked with the likes of Hermes and Louis Vuitton, said there is one thing you have to remember when starting to build your first collection and it is very simple.
Fast and perfect = expensive
Fast and low cost = low quality
Perfect and low cost = very slow
Fast, low cost + perfect = does not exist
Never compromise on quality and aim to make a handbag that will stand the test of time. Ultimately it is all about cost per wear and what the buyer is looking for: either an investment, luxury piece or a mass market, fashion piece.
3. Materials are not all created equal.
The materials you choose can make or break a bag. For instance, leather is alive so it can last forever. Durable high quality leather develops character with each wear and, like a good wine, it only gets better with age.
You need to study the stitching, how it is sewn into place and finished. Are the handles reinforced? Is the zipper strong and is the lining durable and easy to clean? You also need to look at the accessories such as rings, spring hooks etc. as these are also fundamental to the functioning of the bag.
This really highlights the importance of quality hardware, durable, high-end leather and craftsmanship and is a real point of differentiation of any bag.
4. Understand what drives your purchasing decision?
Everyone has a different approach to purchasing a bag and it is important to really understand the emotive purchasing behaviour behind your target customer. Is it style, size, signature, quality or cost? Are they looking for a practical, functional, timeless or masculine piece? These all contribute to selecting the perfect bag. When you buy your next bag think about what is driving you to make the purchase. When you know what these driving forces are and you cater to them perfectly, you have found yourself a niche.
5. Design for your lifestyle and load.
Design for the lifestyle need first and aesthetics second. You should design a bag and create a piece that adds to someone’s everyday life, both from a practical and an aesthetic point of view. A bag that is central to the everyday wardrobe is the workhorse that holds the accessories we need for productivity and to feel and look good, on top of adding to our outfit’s aesthetics.
The Kelly started as an equestrian traveller bag and was turned into a fashion piece when Grace Kelly used it to cover her baby bump. The Birkin was born from the actress Jane Birkin's request to have a larger weekend bag. I can’t help but want to cater to the woman who runs from the office to the airport, who just wants a durable bag she can grab after breakfast, take to work, run from work to the gym, or even from the gym to the airport. My perfect bag is not too big, versatile with outfits, not too heavy when full, and durable, made of the best materials so that it lasts through this chaotic and hectic schedule. Does this scenario sound familiar?
After a fabulous week of creative inspiration in Milan, I returned to Sydney and knew it was time for a change.
Always on the go and travelling the world from meeting to meeting, I needed a bag that was durable enough to cope with my clumsy rushing around, that had stylish versatility to go with all the outfits squashed into my small suitcase and adaptable to wear from the boardroom to the bar.
I had designed the ideal bag a million times over in my head, getting ideas as I entered airport security queues, stored my bag under my seat on the plane, travelled from meeting to meeting in sweaty Singapore and spent a day on the road in Tokyo, starting with a 7am morning meeting and finishing with a client sushi degustation in the evening.
I’m very happy to say that the idea of designing a bag that is just the way I want it is no longer a dream. Six months down the track ‘The Morgan’ is now in production.
Never a backpack wearer, but totally loving the idea of having my hands free, I went ahead and designed a backpack. Always needing a clutch, I designed a multi-purpose Mini Morgan. And not to leave out the dapper gentlemen in my life, I created the Morgan Business Clutch. Dolce & Gabbana, Bottega Veneta, Karl Lagerfeld - all have taken on the man bag (not that I am likening myself to these talented designers, but we have to have ambitions.) so I thought why not give it a try!
Following the above 5 principles, and injecting a lot of love, I created the ‘The Morgan’ range with 3 pieces essential to any busy working or traveller’s wardrobe.
I am super thrilled to be launching ‘The Morgan’ very soon. With beautiful luxe leather and hardware from Italy, my wonderful Sydney-based artisans are telling me that the range will be lovingly sewn together by October. Keep an eye out. I hope you will fall in love.