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The Problem With Today’s Luxury Brands

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In a time where large logos, flashy materials and showy patterns may capture the attention of consumers, Parisian-born designer Phnam Bagley wants to return to the basics — the basics of high-quality craftsmanship and timeless beauty. That’s why she launched her own luxury goods business Eternal Luxe in 2012.

Based in San Francisco, Eternal Luxe produces leather goods handcrafted by local artisans using select materials and paying attention to the finest of details — details many of today’s luxury brands have forgotten, according to Bagley. The designs are inspired by architecture and also blend Parisian chic with American fearlessness. The result is an intricate balance of effortless beauty and meticulous precision.

But all of this requires a lot of hours and human skill. Bagley says one wallet may take 15 to 20 hours just to execute, but quality is not something she’s willing to sacrifice for the sake of time and money. To find out why she dedicates her time and efforts into this labor of love, we sat down with Bagley at her design studio in the Portrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco to talk inspiration, creative process, brands as status symbols, and more.

Airgora: How did you start crafting leather goods?

Phnam Bagley: About 13 years ago, I started designing handbags in Paris for a brand that’s famous there and in Europe, but never made it to the U.S. I learned how to design, how to make bags, how to construct them, how to do patent drawings. I started working with a team of designers and right next door were a couple of prototypists who were actually making the bags that we were designing. I remember it was very meticulous work.

And so I put that to sleep for about 12 years and after having a career in different fields like industrial design and architecture, I decided to come back to it. It also came about because I wanted to expand my career into business, and starting a brand from scratch is something I thought I could do with the experience and skillset I had.

 

Photo credit: Benjamin Kumata

 

So I decided to get into it. I was asking around about getting some training, and then I met this lady [Beatrice Amblard] who was making handbags in the Richmond [a neighborhood in the northwest corner of San Francisco]. The same year I met her she was starting a leather-crafting school, and turns out the woman was the U.S. ambassador to Hermès. She worked there for 10+ years, so she had all the skills and she started her own business.

We have very different styles, which is probably a good thing, but she taught me the basics. I went through her whole program, and I began to make a lot of connections. Honestly I didn’t go to that school in order to be very good at it [leather crafting] because I don’t have time for that, doing other things. I went to that school to get first pick of the best talent there is locally because I wanted a business that was local, not only in terms of design and materials but also in terms of the workers, and so I hired four people so far from that school to craft and prototype our products.

You mentioned your training in architecture and industrial design, how does that influence your design?

I think one thing about architecture design is that you’re trying to do a lot with as little as possible, and that’s kind of what’s driving the aesthetic of what we’re doing at Eternal Luxe.

Aesthetically, I think it has a lot to do with my cultural background. I was born and raised in Paris and then I moved to the U.S. To me, Parisian style is do as little as possible and have maximum impact with it. What I like about things going on in the U.S. is that it’s a little more fearless. People try a little bit more, not necessarily in a good way, but at least they do. Really, it’s quiet but fearless style mixed together, and that’s where the style of Eternal Luxe was born.

 

Photo credit: Benjamin Kumata

 

What made you decide to open Eternal Luxe? What makes it different than any other leather goods out there?

I think like a lot of other interesting ideas out there, it was born out of frustration. I see a lot of brands out there who are not legitimately luxurious in the way I define it.

It’s really become out of control. People really buy the brand now, and luxury, to me, is not about the brand. I mean, it can be. It’s always a plus, of course. But it’s more about the craft. It’s more about the quality of material. It’s more about the marriage of a certain style or culture or technique or personality, working together in order to make the products unique that the consumer desires. The reason why the products tend to be more expensive is because of all of those things.

Now, we live in a world where the products are expensive still or more expensive than they used to be but the quality went down. Products that used to be handcrafted in some village by some amazing person who was third generation doing something — it’s not like that anymore. There’s no respect for the person making the product.


There are exceptions, of course, but I wanted to part of a resurgence of true respect for the craft. So that’s how it started. I gave myself a lot of guidelines that are basically working against me in terms of business. If you’re someone who’s going into business to make money, that’s not what you do. I went into this business to make something that I found was very needed and valuable in the landscape of products and brands offering right now. I think the consumer is smart enough to understand that there’s a reason why certain things don’t exist anymore and it’s a valuable thing to bring it back.

 

Photo credit: Benjamin Kumata

 

I noticed on the keychain you gave to me — even though it’s a small piece, it’s so precisely crafted, so meticulous. Can you talk more about how long and how much effort goes into creating each piece?

The keychain is probably a bad example because it was very simple but let’s say it was a wallet. We probably have an average of between three and four prototypes, and every time, we refine the pattern because a millimeter is the difference between a good product and a bad product for us. We want every single end panel to meet together and not stick out. We want every single edge to be perfectly finished. Finished means even, waterproof and won’t peel all the time. And that’s the main difference with what you find in stores right now.

Also, we play around with materials, and the most difficult part is playing around with materials that are hidden. In the Midnight Collection, the rib that you see on the wallets, we tried many, many ways of doing it. I don’t know how many prototypes of that part we had — maybe 20.


What was difficult about that is because it wraps around, we wanted it to have a structure unto itself. It could not be something that just opened the wallet. It needed to be formed, and we ended up with a thick leather rope that was formed with water and then constrained with a certain shape, dried, and then wrapped in leather and the leather was wrapped in another piece of leather and it’s smoothed together.

So it’s using very basic techniques but then pushing them to the extreme and in the end, you have a design that’s so pure it looks like much hasn’t been done to it.

For me, true luxury is something that you live with, that you love, that you repair, that you give to your children, your children give it to their children and there’s a history attached to it. And that’s why I learned to make hand-stitched leather goods.

 

 

The square wallet from the Midnight collection — how many hours does it take to make just one?

So it’s very difficult to tell you because making one will take a lot more time than making five at a time. Just to make one — the very first one — without counting prototypes that come before that, I would say between 15 and 20 hours. That doesn’t include the designing or the prototyping; it’s just the execution. It takes a very, very long time.

That’s one of the reasons my pieces are not cheap to buy. It’s because all my workers are Bay Area-based. I pay them very fairly — very far away from minimum wage. It’s just something I believe in. I’d rather treat my workers well and have products that are a little bit out of most people’s range but are of quality than offer products that you see out there. I’m not really interested in that. If I were interested in that, I would do it the other way.

 

 

It’s interesting you bring up the genders. I always buy men’s wallets, because I think women’s wallets are too much.

They’re overdesigned — way overdesigned! Why does it need to have so much contrast between materials? Why does it have to have this giant brand or logo somewhere? Come on, it’s not a circus; it’s just a wallet. We’re putting a bunch of credit cards and cash in there.

I think there’s the same problem with consumer products. That’s one thing I design a lot. I’ve been approached by a few women entrepreneurs lately saying it’s very hard for us to find a designer who would design a product for women in consumer electronics because there’s this belief that a woman’s consumer electronic should just be the female version of a male consumer electronic.

So we brought back the methodology of designing something for women to the source and creating the products this way. And I think there needs to be the same thing done with wallets for women. There’s this preconception that women like colors, something bubbly and patterns, which is probably not untrue, but there’s also a percentage of women who like very well-made, very quiet, very sophisticated, very well-designed products and that’s what we’re trying to offer.

One last question I had is just about you: Where do you get inspiration? What inspires you most in general?

I love to travel. I love to be in situations that I’ve never been in before. I love to be exposed to things that make me uncomfortable, so it’s all those things. It’s the fact that I don’t know what’s coming up, and I don’t have any preconceptions of what’s right or what’s wrong.

 

 

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