There’s an art form to a good handbag, from the shape to the colour, to the fabric, and even the way it ages, and I’ve found in recent years that there are number of emerging British labels that are doing amazing things, such as Harriet Sanders, a graduate from the London College of Fashion who makes all her bags by hand from her Cheltenham studio. So, I’ve decided to start a new series, Bag Stories, where I showcase these amazing handbag labels, give you a taste of what inspires the designer, how and why they got into fashion, and why their bags are so special. There’s something about hearing a designers story that gives me a connection with the brand, and I’m so pleased that Harriet Sanders agree to be my first interviewee, especially as I adore her classic bags that have a modern, fun feel. I love that you can personalise the bags by choosing your own colour scheme, don’t get me wrong, I love monogramming my initials, but choosing the colours down to the lining, just makes the whole experience much more personal.
Here’s how Harriet Sanders got into fashion and made her successful handbag line happen…
How did you get into fashion?
Harriet Sanders: When I was 14 years old my parents took me to a Gianni Versace exhibition at the V&A Museum. I had always been into making things and had been sewing from the age of 4. I was mesmerised by the exhibition and it made me realise that I could make a career out of making things. After that, me and my Mum researched into different avenues and my academic career was then focused on getting me to London College of Fashion. I went to Central Saint Martins Summer School when I was 16/17 and this helped me focus on what type of fashion I wanted to go into. I attended an Art Foundation course at University of Gloucestershire, which was one of the best experiences of my life.
My first application for LCF was denied but my art Foundation tutor wouldn’t accept it, so called up and demanded to know why – turns out they had run of places by the time I had been interviewed – but they asked me to reapply to the same course but under a different name and structured differently. I was accepted straight away. I am forever grateful to my tutor for having so much faith in me!
My course was 2 years with an optional third. I chose not to do the third year as felt I had learnt everything I needed to know. I graduated at the start of the recession and couldn’t get a job anywhere. So I started making bags in my garden shed and sold them at Old Spitalfields Market. It escalated from there.
Why handbag design?
From a young age, I was always interested in embroidery. I loved embroidering pictures onto square bits of felt or fabric. As I got older, I wanted to show the pieces off so began making bags that featured embroidery. I was really into Pop Art, so would embroider pop art onto tote bags and use them as my school bag. I had tried making clothes and they always went wrong! But the bags always seemed to turn out OK.
Then when I attended summer school at Saint Martins, the tutor said that accessories were a more successful avenue in fashion than clothing. You only have to look at the first 10 or so pages of Vogue and every advert is for a bag or accessory. Many large brands’ clothing ranges are subsidised by the sales of their accessories, so it made sense to me, not that I am in it for the money but it helps! And it was what I enjoyed making. My Degree is in Fashion Design Technology: Fashion Accessories, and I was specifically trained to make leather handbags.
Your bags have a classic feel to them but with a modern edge – how do you come up with new designs?
I don’t work in the traditional sense that I was trained to work in at Uni. It has just never really fit with me and often causes more blocks than benefits. I can’t research and draw and develop designs on paper. My designs usually come from customer suggestions – they may ask for a tote bag or a small bag for dog walking. Whatever they suggest is missing from the collection, I then think about how I can fill that gap. I quite often look at other people’s handbags and see what everyone is carrying. I’ll take the bag apart in my head and rebuild it but better!
As I make the bags myself, it is also very easy for me to respond to any trend that may suddenly appear. Although I try not to follow trends too closely as I want my bags to be investment pieces, that don’t break the bank, that the customer can use for years. With all my designs, simplicity is key. The design has to be aesthetically pleasing, practical, but easy to make. I am the only person making the bags and if they require long labour times then they won¹t be cost effective and that means the price increases for the customer. All the bags are stitched together with white stitching not just for detail but for ease and speed during manufacture.
All your leather is ethically sourced – why is that important to you?
There is no denying that leather is one of the best materials available to us. It can be manipulated into some incredible products and it ages beautifully. But you cannot get away from the fact an animal has had to die. However, the world is never going to give up eating meat, so using leather as a by-product of meat is a way of ensuring the animal is never wasted.
I love that your bags are all made in the UK and your use of recycled material – do you find that consumers are asking more about where their products are from?
I think when I first started the ethical/upcycled/recycled theme was really strong with consumers. I don’t find it is as prominent now but the Made in UK tag is definitely of significance to consumers. Too many products are imported from overseas, China mostly, and I think everyone has got fed up of looking the same. With my products, the bag is made specifically for you and the likelihood of you coming across someone with the exact same style, leather colour, and lining colour is quite small.
I love the ‘Design Your Own’ feature on your e-commerce – what made you give so many choices?
As a consumer, myself, I often find I love a style but the colour isn’t right or vice versa. I decided early on that my company would only offer a made-to-order service, as carrying large quantities of stock is financially challenging as well as difficult to store. Therefore, it became obvious that offering the customer more choice was not only appealing to them but also filled a gap in the market. We offer standard colourways on the website that I have put together and the customer can still choose the lining colour but I have now added a complete ‘design your own’ feature where the customer can choose the style of bag, the leather colour (body/straps/flap), and the lining colour (6 to choose from). It has proved really popular although some prefer the decision to already be made for them, so it’s really important I still get the standard colourways accurate. I can also offer a totally bespoke service where I can design a bag based on the customer¹s specifications but this is quoted individually and mostly done through email.
The bucket bag is one of my favourite pieces from the collection – what inspired the design?
The Duffel Bag was designed as a result of a meeting with Anthropologie. They had stocked a few exclusive styles of our bags in different colours and done really well with them. They called me in for a design meeting and said they really wanted a bucket bag. So, I went away and designed and made our Duffel Bag. Unfortunately, the bag cost too much for them, so they didn’t stock it but I added it to my collection and everyone loves it. It’s such an easy bag to use and wear. It can fit a lot inside but the external pocket means you can easily organise the bag to suit your lifestyle.
Do you have plans to expand the line to include other accessories or even apparel?
It has crossed my mind a few times but nothing has ever really taken my fancy. I am happy making bags and purses. I have recently made some canvas tote bags, so now looking into perhaps making some of my designs in canvas too – almost like a diffusion range.
What bag are you currently carrying? Also, what 5 things do you always carry with you?
I am currently using the Tassel Tote in Buttercup Snake Suede with purple lining. I absolutely love Yellow as a colour clash and purple is my favourite colour, so the bag always makes me smile. Inside I always carry my Alphabet Clutch with my initials on which contains makeup, tablets, etc.
The five things I always carry are my Coin Purse, keys with tassel keyring so I can find them easily, phone, with it’s cracked screen – I’m a member of that club, poo bags and doggy treats, I have a dog, the poo bags aren’t for me!
If you had to name just one Harriet Sanders bag that you would recommend – what would it be and why?
That’s a really difficult question to answer, as it really does depend on the person. I recently introduced the Maisie Cross Body Bag, named after my Nan, which is the perfect everyday bag. It has an adjustable cross body strap, so can suit all heights. Inside there are two large compartments and one central zipped pocket, so great for organising your bag. It’s a developed design from our ever popular Classic and Minnie Classic.
What sets your Harriet Sanders brand apart from other handbag labels?
When you shop with me you get a totally personal service. The customer speaks to the designer and the maker, so I know what I am talking about. All of the products are made by myself, sometimes my Mum comes in and helps me during really busy periods, and they are made specifically for the customer.
My bags are individual, classic, luxurious, and bespoke. They are an affordable luxury with most of the styles priced below £100. I appreciate each and every customer, as they are ultimately helping me live my dream. Everything is made in the UK, Cheltenham to be exact, and made-to-order. There is no ‘off-the-shelf’ with us!
Do you have any advice for fashion graduates looking to get into handbag design?
Only do it if you are 100% committed. It’s a tough industry. Don’t take your tutor’s word as gospel. It’s only one opinion.
Instagram is such a fun platform – which profiles should we check out?
My Instagram is mostly focused on embroidery, dogs, and cake. I would definitely suggest following:
@georgie.woolridge.artist who I went to University of Gloucestershire with, she creates incredible drawings of animals and fills them with patterns. She has also released 3 colouring books, so you can colour her drawings in yourself. I have her Birds Colouring book and it’s my go to destresser!
@elodie.freeman is an embroiderer who uses a whole mix of techniques. I love her work because it’s so intricate and colourful. She inspires me so much with her work, I only wish my embroidery skills were as good as hers!
@stitch_kitsch or @makikoart do pet portraits in embroidery, which are so much fun! I’m trying to improve my skills so I can do one of my dog!
Keep an eye out next week for the full style post featuring my customised Harriet Sanders Duffel Bag, I’ll go through why I chose this style and the colours.