Call in the Reinforcements
One of my greatest challenges in starting this handbag business has been sourcing leather. I have a lot of requirements: I want to use vegetable-tanned leather from reputable tanneries. They have to be set up to work with a small-scale producer who orders very small quantities. They have to have consistent stock and a reasonable turn-around time. They have to have affordable prices and shipping rates. I wrote about some of these challenges in a long instagram post several months back, which also detailed yet another challenge I have faced in working with this material: every leather is different, and each bag design has different requirements in terms of rigidity and flexibility. Often different pieces of a single bag need different qualities: you might need a stiff, non-stretchy leather for the strap and a soft, supple leather for the body. If you care about these two leathers being the same color, and you need a source that meets all the requirements I listed above, well. It’s damn near impossible.
I was very eager to come to Italy to find out how luxury handbag brands solve this problem. The school I am attending in Milan offers training in the construction techniques that make the “Made in Italy” designation so sought after. I knew I would get my answer here. But the answer I got has been...unsatisfying.
It turns out that even the finest luxury bands are filled with hidden, non-leather reinforcements that give different parts of the finished bag the necessary qualities. These materials include synthetic microfiber of various thicknesses, salpa (a composite material made of recycled leather scraps), foam, cardboard, and various plastics. When making a bag, the first thing you do after cutting out the rough shape of the leather pieces is ‘split’ the pieces down to a uniform thickness of less than a single millimeter. Then you glue these thin pieces of leather to a synthetic substrate. This process returns the leather to its original thickness while also reducing the weight and giving the leather the exact quality you require in terms of stiffness and flexibility (because you choose a substrate with the properties you require). So, you can use one type of reinforcement for the straps, one for the front and back face, another for the sides, and another for the bottom. The finished bag is essentially an engineered assemblage of synthetic materials with a leather veneer on top.
Maybe this extensive use of reinforcements shouldn’t have been a surprise to me, but it was. I guess I thought that these kinds of materials were reserved for cheap bags, but that is not the case. This 3100 EUR Celine bag and this $3500 Dior bag are just two examples of luxury bags full of the kinds of reinforcements I’ve described. Reinforcements allow for endless design possibilities, because you are no longer beholden to the unique qualities of a particular piece of leather. All you need to do is become an expert in understanding the roles and qualities of the various reinforcements, then apply them to achieve the effect you want.
And yet, something about this approach irks me. I was sitting on the metro recently, across from a man with a very cool black leather bag on his lap. The bag looked expensive, and well-made. But then I noticed that, at the corners of the bag, the leather (which, according to the rules I’ve been learning at school, was 0.7mm thick or less) had worn away to reveal patches of a white substrate, likely microfiber. Here was a person, living a normal life, riding the metro to work, and this beautiful bag was not able to withstand the wear of his every day.
A few weeks back, Oliver and I wandered into the Céline store in Milan’s fashion district. It was staffed exclusively with waifish male models who wore white gloves when handling the bags. White gloves! These were not bags that you put on the floor under your seat at the coffee shop or stuff your toddler’s half-eaten snack into. These were not bags for normal, messy life. These were precious works of perfect craftsmanship, meant to be stored in a dust bag and never carried in the rain.
I’m a person who can’t even wear light-colored clothing because I’ll spill something on it by day’s end. I always put my bag on the floor. I take my Cashew camping and on hikes. I find a piece of clothing that I like and wear it almost every day. So if I am going to build a brand that feels genuine and aligns with my values, I have to design for folks with sensibilities similar to mine. That means I need to design bags that are not only beautifully made, but also can withstand the abuse of the daily lives of active, ambitious, adventurous people.
So, reinforcements. Where I am now in my thinking is that reinforcements have their uses, and I may use them for certain applications. But I’m not convinced that reducing leather to the thickness of a veneer and gluing it to another material will make the most durable bag. This means that I won’t be able to fully adopt the system of construction that I’m learning in school and that is the hallmark of high-end Italian bags. And that means that I will still have plenty of my own experimenting to do when I return home, so I can find a system of construction that takes full advantage of the natural qualities of leather and also results in durable, beautiful bags.
It’s possible to make refined bags entirely out of leather. Lotuff is an American brand I admire that does just that. But avoiding reinforcements completely does limit the kinds of bags you can make, and I’m not sure that taking such a purist approach would pay off in terms of distinguishing my brand; that is, I don’t think there are enough people dedicated to buying reinforcement-free bags that they could constitute a customer base. But there is a market for well-made bags that will last a very long time, and it is the people in that market I want to serve.
This post was more technical than most of my posts have been, and I’m curious to know what you think. Share your thoughts in the comments! Also, if you’re enjoying what you’ve been reading here and know someone who might as well, please share with them. And finally, there’s more behind-the-scenes info in the newsletter, which you can sign up for below. Thanks for reading!