Limiting the Scope

A tombstone, if it can be called that, designed by Arnaldo Pomodoro at Il Cimitero Monumentale.

A tombstone, if it can be called that, designed by Arnaldo Pomodoro at Il Cimitero Monumentale.

On the first day of my ten-week patternmaking class, we talked about the key ways that bags can be categorized based on their style, their patternmaking sequence (whether you start developing the pattern from the face, gusset, or bottom), and their method of construction. Ever since that day, I haven’t come across a single bag in a store window or on the arm of a stylish Milanese woman that couldn’t be categorized based on its style, master pattern piece, and construction method. Before I came to handbag school, I perceived there to be an uncountable number of different kinds of bags, each requiring its own unique method of assembly. In fact, once you understand how to identify a few key characteristics of a bag, it’s possible to infer what the pattern pieces look like and how to construct a bag like it. Thanks to one powerpoint presentation, the mess of different bags in the world organized themselves into a simple taxonomy in my mind, each one within my reach. I could make anything, I thought. Wallets! Luggage! Any handbag I desire!

But then came a reality check a few days later. I learned that even huge factories don’t make everything. Luggage requires larger equipment, for example. Different construction techniques require different machines, and people with different skills. If you’re a designer who outsources your production, you should expect to develop relationships with different factories for different pieces in your collection, and make design decisions based on what the factories you are working with are equipped to do. Factories that specialize are renowned for the quality of what they do; if a factory claims they can make anything, proceed with caution, like when the menu at a restaurant is 20 pages long (but hey, maybe it will be great! Looking at you, delicious Gourmet Kingdom).

Factories that specialize are renowned for the quality of what they do.

In my case, especially in the beginning, I will need to commit to a particular construction method and design vocabulary so I can equip my workshop accordingly. I’ll need to work within constraints to streamline production processes and improve the quality of the few things I’ve committed to doing. Even though I’ll return to the US with my head full of hundreds of possibilities, I’ll still have to make some concrete decisions that will immediately take a lot of those possibilities off the table.

And it’s not just production constraints that make limiting my scope a good idea. If I want to build a really strong visual brand, I will want my bags to work together as a coherent collection. Consider the signature trio of rivets on any Jerome Dreyfuss bag, the leather binding around the flap of a vintage Coach bag, or Bottega Veneta’s intrecciato weave design. These all serve as visual markers of their respective brands, while also signifying consistent production techniques that increase the efficiency of the manufacturing process. (This isn’t to say that painstakingly hand-weaving leather into a textile is exactly efficient, but that doing it for the 1,000th time is easier than doing it for the first time, so, if you’re going to do it, you should do a lot of it).

If I want to build a really strong visual brand, I will want my bags to work together as a coherent collection.

I’m viewing this school experience as an opportunity to get a solid understanding of the landscape of design and construction possibilities before narrowing down again. Of course my designs will continue to evolve over time, and I will be able to slowly invest in additional equipment that will expand the possibilities once again. But there’s a real difference between being limited in what I can make because of lack of knowledge (i.e., my situation before school) and making informed decisions to impose limitations based on my knowledge of what’s possible and my priorities as a designer (what I hope to be the case after school).

In other news, Milan continues to amaze. This morning Oliver, my dad (who was visiting), and I walked to the nearby Cimitero Monumentale, a cemetery built in the nineteenth century and filled with graves and mausoleums designed by famous Italian sculptors and architects. We roamed around in wonder at the tombstones. After seeing the pictures, my stepmom commented that it was “like being in the middle of a tragic opera…where no one can sing.” Exactly.