Making bold impressions in graphic style is artist and handbag designer Kent Stetson. The print bags in Stetson’s collection sport playful and refined images. These bags are great for a pop piece to add a playful nuance to a sleek monochrome outfit (see Sushi), or to add finesse to a theme (see Colored Pencil, and think Jessica Day), bring some power (see Snake) or a splash of color (Take me to Oz, Red Yellow Blue, Dripping in Gold). For a refined, higher end look, the leather bags provide the same charm as the print bags, with an emphasis on structure and texture. Pair the Fringe Multi Colored Calf Hair Tote with a lacy boho look.
Behind the bags is designer Kent Stetson. Stetson designs and creates his bags in-house in his studio in Rhode Island. The succinct definition for these creations is detailed in the Kent Stetson Facebook page, “Art masquerading as a handbag.”
We spoke with Kent about the practical side of fashion, the underestimated industry builder or breaker, the art of being business savvy. Also, Stetson reveals the bag that he feels is the epic culmination of his career, and the bag he was “put on this Earth to make.”
See Stetson’s graphic handbags and leather composites here, keep up with the designer on Facebook and see the bags in action here.
How did you get started as a designer?
I started making my own clothes when I was growing up. I guess I’ve always been a designer. I went to Brown University and was science-tracked expecting that I was going to be a doctor. I was also creative so I was taking fine art courses throughout. I ultimately realized that I was an artist and I had had to come to terms with that, and what that might mean for my future. After graduating I had my first solo art show, (which featured) large format digital prints. I didn’t sell any of the work from that show, but I was working at a women’s shoe store selling shoes and handbags. I decided to take the pieces from that show and sew them up into handbags, I sold them immediately.
Do you remember that moment in college when you accepted that you were a designer?
In college I had a reverence for fine art, work on the wall. If someone had said to me, in college when I was thinking as painter and a conceptual artist that I would be making handbags I probably would have been really upset. There was somehow something sacred about the stuff that I was making, that it should be on a wall or it should be itself a wall. Although I liked fashion, I didn’t see it as being as important or spiritually captivating as traditional fine art. So I didn’t really identify as a designer in college, at some point I did identify as an artist though.
Why did you decide to focus on handbags then rather than art on the wall?
Working in a women’s shoe store, I very much understood the model of commerce at which these certain products are distributed to their end users. It came down to sales, I don’t know how to sell a piece on the wall, but I do know how to, and enjoy, the model of distribution for handbags.
Who do you design for?
My customer is not afraid to draw a little attention to herself, aside from that, it’s the entire spectrum. It’s a vast audience, I don’t have one demographic.
What was the big moment in your career where you felt like your career was really taking off?
Just now. We’ve had a lot of support and a lot of momentum. Up through second quarter I was wondering what I was doing wrong, and it turned out that I had to just push through a really difficult growth phase.
What is the process behind each bag?
There are two categories to my work, prints and leatherwork. With the printed bags I create artwork in much that same way I would create artwork for a wall. The image is then printed generally onto canvas, and then we laminate, assemble and sew each bag. That’s all done in the studio.
Then the other category, the leather bags, are really more sculptural. I don’t use patterns, each is one of a kind. We start with hide and I look at the hides and the construction of the bag emerges from what I think it tells me it wants to be made into. It’s those two categories, the printed bags that I make I see as being mass market, and our leatherwork is more luxury. It’s sort of like stratifying two brands within the heading of my company.
What three words would you use to describe your designs?
Unique, fun and intelligent.
So why intelligent?
There’s a lot of thought that goes into each piece. It almost has a brain. I guess you’re actually asking me about the qualities of the bag, I’m actually thinking of the qualities of the person who is using it. Someone who is not necessarily looking to own what someone else has told them to own. Who looks and something and thinks, “it speaks to me. I like this because I like this, not because someone has told me to like this.” I don’t see the bags without the person. It comes to life as soon as it’s in someone’s use.
How has your style evolved since you first started?
Pretty much everything I used to make was channeling the ’80s. My designs I think were very much influenced by my concept of ’80s fashion, a lot of neon and sharp lines. I have started channeling more of the ’70s and the ’30s and looking even more towards the future.
I guess I don’t like the idea of being reduced to a novelty, so I’d like for someone to be able to look at what I make and think “that is a Kent bag.” Not for anything other than just knowing it’s distinct and just looks like something that Kent Stetson would make.
What would you say is your most iconic bag?
I do a spectrum from more traditionally artistic to more on the kitsch end. At the opposite ends of the spectrum, there are the most important or iconic pieces at the kitsch end it’s definitely the donut bag and on the more traditionally artistic end is the print called splash.
Fashion and Business
Do you think that commercial success is crucial for the artistic process?
No, I don’t, but it’s less tragic and less painful to go through it when commercial success is part of the artistic process. My goal right now is sustainability where the numbers in both directions are in balance the way they need to be. I can’t sustain pay roll and benefits and taxes and my overhead without it.
We’ll define commercial success as making more money than you’re spending. Which I think is actually a huge accomplishment in fashion. I was just writing a list the other day of all of the brands that I used to hear all the time, labels that were the biggest thing, even 10 years ago that are no longer in existence. And these are labels that an onlooker would have thought, “these brands are having huge commercial success.” It turns out that they had never reached a point of sustainability.
If we define commercial success as making more money than you’re spending, over every celebrity is wearing something and you see the name everywhere, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a profitable or sustainable company. It’s not essential to the creative process, but if you want to continue making things under that same label, it’s kind of necessary.
Do you see fashion as a volatile market?
Yes, but fashion itself is not volatile, each individual brand within the field of fashion is volatile. I cannot imagine a time where people are not spending extremely large sums of money on things within the realm of fashion, but it may not be people are spending money on Michael Kors or on Louis Vuitton. That is volatile, the individual brand identity.
What is your favorite bag on your shop online right now?
I just made the bag that I was put on this earth to make. It’s the rainbow with the crystal soled Louboutin stilettos. That’s my favorite bag ever.
How do you strike a balance between art and business?
I love to sell, and I have no shame about it. Maybe that makes me really lucky. There’s no part of my brain that’s not activated and engaged in this process, and I enjoy all of it.
I had a triple major at Brown, maybe that’s a reflection, I was pre-med, philosophy and visual arts. I liked the idea of being a Renaissance man, whatever that meant. So there’s no aspect of this that I don’t want to want to be actively involved and that I don’t find interesting. If there’s something that I could royally screw up, I need to be very interested in that part of the business. I’m like a type A+ personality, with lots of glitter thrown in.
What are your goals as a designer?
My goal is to make things I haven’t seen before, that people self-identify with. My goal as a business is sustainability.
What advice would you give to a new designer, someone who is starting their own business?
There’s the designer and there’s the designer maker. Someone who’s just a designer and doesn’t actually have the skill set themselves to make their product, is essentially an investor. My advice for them is to invest in a more stable market. Find someone to manage the money and invest it in a portfolio that will produce profit.
For a designer maker, my suggestion would be to figure out how to make your products on your own or with as few people as possible. Figure out the quickest route to end-user sales, before growth. That way if at some point you have to peel it back, you can always go back to being in your basement making your thing and selling it on your website. Build your own safety net.