anyway, when i first spotted ashley's designs, i fell in love with them for their unique shapes, gorgeous vivid colors, and incredibly reasonable price point (most are under $300). i couldn't figure out how she was making bags with such thick, amazing leather for that price point. turns out, ashley's one smart cookie: she makes her bags from vintage leather jackets culled from thrift store dives. so that gorgeous bag you're sporting has already gone through that painful break-in process that ultimately makes leather so silky soft that you just can't stop touching it. read on to learn all about how she got started, and how she comes up with these gorgeous designs from her small workshop in vancouver.
shoppingsmycardio: Can you start by giving us a little bit of your background? How did you get started designing bags, and how did you come up with the concept of using recycled leather?
Ashley Watson: I have a interdisciplinary degree from the Nova Scotia College of Fine Arts. Interdisciplinary basically just means that I didn’t have to choose anything specifically, so throughout my degree I did pretty much everything—painting, drawing, sculpture, printmaking, ceramics, textiles, and then in my last year, I took a couple of sewing and fashion design courses. I then came back to Vancouver and did a fashion design program. After that, I started making the bags by fluke. I was living at my parents at the time on an island, and I wanted a new bag for something I was going to the next day. I am a pretty impatient person, and when I have an idea, I can’t wait very long to try it! So I cut up one of my dad’s old jackets and made a bag, and I ended up really liking how it turned out: the worn quality of the leather and the already existing pockets. I started to get orders and it went from there. I tried using new leather, but it didn’t have the same interest for me. I then went to New York and did an internship with Libertine – they use old clothes, sew them and screen print on them – so, although totally different, it was in the same vein as what I was doing. I did a lot of shopping for them, so ended up knowing where a lot of the Salvation Army locations were in Manhattan. Right before I left New York, I sold my bags at the Young Designers Market in Soho. When I came home I just kept going with it.
SMC: I have to be honest – I’m not the most “green” girl out there. So I love that I can wear one of your bags and feel like I’m doing a good thing for the planet, without sacrificing fashion or quality (hey, anything to justify a new bag purchase!). Would you say that being environmentally conscious was the driving force behind designing your line, or did you come up with the idea to use recycled leather pieces after you started designing?
AW: I wouldn’t claim to be a raging environmentalist, but the fact that I use recycled materials has become very important to me. I definitely would say that it started as an aesthetic choice but then grew into something more. Throughout art school there seemed to be a lot of waste just from creative experiments: ceramics that didn’t fire properly would just be thrown out, horrible drawings on tons and tons of paper wasted. So I always did feel some guilt, since that was purely for my own artistic exploration. I really grew to love that my bags are starting from an existing material. The jacket definitely did fuel the handbag though – it wasn’t like I looked at a plain piece of leather and wanted to make a handbag. The environmental aspect has definitely fueled my business as well, which has been huge. I started doing it at the right time. Everybody wants to make sustainable choices these days.
SMC: Since you use such unique materials, I’m really interested to hear about your design process. I have visions of you combing through bins at Goodwill, looking for great leather jackets! How do you come up with a bag style, and how do you go about finding the leather to use for each piece? Do you use one jacket for each bag, or do you mix and match pieces?
AW: I come up with a bag style just from random things that have accumulated in my head, and then start to make a pattern…and then, usually that pattern totally doesn’t work, but something really interesting comes out of that. In terms of picking the jackets, we pick based on a lot of different things: the details (pockets, seams, vents, gathers, pleats, etc.), color, and quality. We do rummage through thrift stores which has become really important to me. Since most thrift stores are charity-based, I love that I am contributing to something by buying my materials. It is becoming more difficult though, as I need more and more leather. I am soon going to have to have buyers in others cities in Canada because we seem to be cleaning out a lot of Vancouver these days. We do use one jacket for each piece and then sometimes there are leftovers that we use for wallets, etc. I haven’t yet done any mix and matching, but for my new spring stuff, I will be using some old remnants for zippers tabs and other things. It’s hard to explain, but you will see when it is done!
SMC: Since you’re making each bag by hand, from a unique jacket, I’m guessing there is an incredible amount of work involved. Can you tell us a little about your production methods?
AW: I was doing everything myself (except I had one person working once a week) until August and then I hired 3 people because it was so insane. So now I have a cutter and a sewer which has been amazing for me. I am slowly able to start concentrating more on design which has been great. I still do a lot of the production but it is fantastic to not be doing it alone. I was really worried to have other people make my stuff, but the girls are amazing. They do such a good job and they often bring a really different perspective to the work which has been great! In terms of production methods, we have patterns for each style, then we look at the jackets and decide which style they are best suited for. We then take the jacket apart to make it as flat as possible and cut out the pattern. As we cut out the pattern we have to decide which way we want the details of the jacket to be – for example, what angle the pockets are at, all while making sure we don’t run out of leather. We then sew it. Each bag has quite an extensive consideration process, since they are all one-of-a-kind.
SMC: I can tell you’re factoring practicality into your bag designs – that’s something I love about your work. I notice in particular that many of your bags are available in different sizes, which I think is fabulous! Tell me a little bit about who you’re designing for: who is your ideal customer?
AW: I like to think that my bags are for an intelligent person that likes that things have attention to detail, and cares about what they are buying. The practicality factor is actually something that I would say that I struggle with, since I often just want to make something that is pretty! But I do try really hard to make something that I myself would like to carry, that is definitely not impractical, and fits everything you need it to fit.
SMC: There are so many bags from your collection that I just love – which is your favorite, and what do you love about it?
AW: Hmmm…my favorites, I would say are the Warbler and the Junco. They are the newest, so that is probably why! I really like the gathers and the knots on those styles. I find that, as I go, my bags keep getting more and more interesting to me – the first bags I did were pretty basic, so now I think as I evolve, the styles are getting a lot more interesting. I am also very excited about my new stuff that is coming up for spring.
SMC: What other designers do you really admire, and why?
AW: Hmm there are tons, but one that I know personally and really admire is Hajnalka Mandula. She is also based in Vancouver, and right after I finished my fashion design course, I did a short practicum with her. Her clothes are very organic and have amazing attention to detail. She often uses recycled components, like buttons, and she’s really into using organic materials as well. She was using organic materials before anybody else was. I really love her designs and her style, but she also taught me a ton in the short time I worked with her. She taught me that attention to detail is so important and that shortcuts can never be taken. She definitely taught me to have as much integrity with my own stuff as I can and she was what started my interest in using materials that have a history, which makes the design process incredibly interesting.
SMC: Do you see yourself branching out into other areas of design in the future, or are you interested in sticking to bags and accessories? Your website says that you used to design jewelry – do you still do that, or do you see yourself getting back to it at some point?
AW: Knowing that I often get bored quite easily, I probably will branch out at some point. I can see myself someday going into clothing. I would also love to design jewelry again – the only thing is that it would be really important for me to keep it sustainable and I don’t know how I would incorporate that. There are so many great designers doing sustainable jewelry these days that I do sort of feel like it’s already been done. I am always hoping that some amazing new sustainable material will come into my life some day, and then I’ll see what I can do with it. Currently I’m just trying to get a handle on what is going on right now- which is totally crazy.
SMC: What handbag are you carrying today?
AW: I am carrying one of my new ones for spring. I like to carry them around to work out any kinks about the design or practicality that might come up before I sell a style.
SMC: How would you describe your personal style?
AW: I would say that my personal style is pretty classic with the odd eclectic piece. I love clothes with details that are a bit quirky, but still really classic. To be perfectly honest though, these days my life is so busy and I spend so much time in the studio that most of the time I’m wearing work clothes! As much as I love clothes, there just really isn’t a lot of time for them these days.
i love so many of ashley's designs, and you can check out all of the styles on her website. to buy, the best selection i've found online is at fatal (plus, get 10% off your first order with code fatal10). my faves are this gorgeous navy warbler (you can also snag a gorgeous version in grape here), and this chevron stripe black thrush bag. but remember, each bag is one-of-a-kind, so you definitely want to look at each bag before you buy - placement of pockets, buttons, even the shade of leather will vary by bag. so if you're picky like me, spend time making your choice. but hands off that navy warbler...it's mine!