No longer satisfied at being the discrete afterthought to your big day out, handbags now demand attention. Chloe Townsend leads the charge against the dreaded ‘black bag’.
What’s inspiring you at the moment?
I’m currently working on a range called Jungle Fever, inspired by a recent trip to Zambia. The traditional chitenge fabrics the women wear there are fantastic. Even women working in the fields look gorgeous, wearing these fabrics as a sarong or wrapped around their heads. I’ve always been attracted to bold, flamboyant and wild design.
I’m also busy with a new fabric range, which I’m hand painting. Previously my fabric pattern design was done with a graphic designer on a computer, which produced a very rigid result. There is something a little more alive and free in producing designs by hand. Computers might have made things easier in the workplace for many industries, but in the fashion industry a good dose of handcrafting is still very attractive.
After studying fashion design for many years I found clothes too fussy. Every girl loves a handbag and there seems to be an endless market for them. A handbag has universal appeal, regardless of global trends and you can reach almost anyone. Being a smaller canvas, and not covering your entire body like clothing, a handbag has the freedom to take more chances creatively. You can go crazy with colour and surface detail, knowing that it will ultimately be selected as a smaller consideration to someone’s outfit, a creative accent. It’s taken people a while to move away from the staple black bag and to adopt colour as an option. Handbags are also a great way to liven up an average outfit bought from an inexpensive department store. Having a ‘wow’ handbag can pull your whole look together and upgrade your overall impression.
Can handbags exist in isolation to mainstream fashion trends? Do you keep an eye on what’s happening in clothing for instance?
It’s more about people’s individual style than following a trend. Almost everything has been referenced by now from a design perspective and you can research absolutely everything over the internet. The receptive global response to my bags has obviously been based on a look for the season, but I’d like to think this is because my inspiration is coming from somewhere pure and not looking like anything else out there.
The handcrafted nature of my bags definitely have an appeal. Most large mainstream brands have their handbags made in China and I think people just respond really well to things that have been made in a small studio. I have clients who come into my studio and meet everyone who’s been part of making their handbag.
Another hallmark of Missibaba is that we’ll never make more than ten of the same bags, ensuring that you’ll probably never end up at an event with the same handbag as somebody else!
This uniqueness seems to have spread to your work colleagues too?
Yes, there’s a lot of love that goes into our work and a lot of pride too. We have a really happy working environment and clients have said that they can feel this in the pieces.
It’s exciting to fantasize about where these bags will end up in the world. Being a great fan of vintage I’m always wondering about the story they’d tell if they could. I bring these pieces into my wardrobe and then add my story to them. Handbags probably have longer stories to tell because they are more of a long-term accessory than a seasonal garment. Making something that lasts appeals to me.
Do people perceive fun, loud and colourful bags as being less ‘valuable’ than a sleek, more polished looking one?
Our hand cut pieces, which are happen to be our brightest and most colourful are actually our most expensive and we’ve had no problem moving these items. Our black bags don’t sell terribly well at all and this could be based on the fatigue of the ‘little black bag’ syndrome which has been around for years. The way colours vibrate when put together are far more exciting.
A lot of time is spent creating a bag, sometimes days, and I guess they could be considered pieces of art. How cool that you can own a piece of art that you can carry around with you! They really do take on a character of their own, becoming imbued with the character of the owner.
Why are women endlessly fascinated with handbags?
It goes back to our primal roots, from being hunter-gatherers, women being the gatherers of course! Instead of needing to carry food and utensils in our bags we now carry more desirable items, such as make-up and credit cards! The one thing hasn’t changed is the fact that a lot of gathering still carries on.
Do handbags change in size and style for any particular reason?
This really depends the lifestyle of the user. The smaller Cha-ching bag is actually quite popular right now, offering credit card slots and a small zipped area for cash, essentially a large wallet on a strap. This is great for keeping your hands free too. Alternatively, if you have small kids, you’ll need a larger bag, purely for lugging stuff around.
Where is the next big trend coming from?
Definitely Africa. You can almost feel how America and Europe are waning. They seem tired and spent after centuries of producing the same goods. Africa, on the other hand just seems to have this freshness about it, despite the exploitation that’s happened here.
The people are much more open to boldness, colour and innovation in what they create.
The internet too has had a major influence on fashion trend. Whereas before a designer would need to travel around the world for inspiration, this can be done at home, on an increasingly visual media platform. Some designers even put dozens of unrelated ideas in a circle and then spin an arrow to select three of them which they then have to combine. A new fashion trend can be as arbitrary as that. It really is just about drawing inspiration from everywhere.
I’m sure my handbags fit into a trend somewhere in the world right now, but I’m not aware of it. Trends are strange and elusive concepts which designers pick up almost subliminally. I don’t tend to overthink things, I sometimes just step out the way and allow what needs to come through. Over labouring something can kill it.
Every handbag has an owner that only becomes obvious as you make it. There is always going to be a market for small quantities of unique fashion items as long as you have manufacturing giants such as China churning things out. By creating a bulk market you inadvertently create a market for the opposite. This is the space I’m happiest in.
What makes a great handbag?
Mostly practical considerations. It needs a wide opening to allow people to see what’s inside, a light colour lining to avoid the ‘deep black pit’ syndrome and enough pockets inside to separate the different contents properly. The outside is based purely on personal taste. Linings can be a great ‘hidden’ design element of a handbag. Much like the hidden patterns and colours found on the lining of men’s suits, the inside of a handbag can surprise with shocking colour or pattern. This lining is like a little present for the owner, something to delight in every time she opens her bag.
How are you marketing your brand?
We’re actually more excited about interacting directly with our customers at this point. We’re opening a new shop in Cape Town, in conjunction with jewellery designer Kirsten Goss, where we’ll be able to gauge customer response and react instantly to requests.
Do you see Missibaba expanding into anything besides handbags one day?
I’m experimenting with a small clothing range made from suede at the moment in black and navy, all hand cut. These will be one-off pieces and will be, for example, standard-looking jackets with insane detailing. I’m also excited about a range of handprinted silk scarves which we’ll be silkscreening ourselves in the studio. A sense of play is so important and I aim to have the most fun I can possibly have.