Mark, 30, bag maker, TALLOWIN
I met Mark through Jo, who said I should absolutely meet his bag designer friend. A bit reluctant at first, it became clear after a bit of research that he wasn’t just any designer (I’ll let you be the judge of that, though). His trademark light blue suitcase made him easy to spot, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what makes him unique.
What is your job, exactly? I run my own handbag company, just a one-man operation. I do everything myself: conception, design, development, through to the making of every single item. I focus on handcrafted, hand stitched luxury handbags. Everything is made to order.
What did you do before? I used to work as a tree surgeon. During that time I became more and more interested in knives and knife making. When you have razor sharp tools, you need somewhere to store them, so I started making leather sheaths for the knives, and from there I slowly moved on to handbags. There was a period of my life where I buried myself deep in studying these skills, worked hard for a year straight before finally released the first four models. I’m totally self-trained: I took a decision to study by myself and make all the mistakes I could early on, away from the world. Only then did I write to a few of the very best leather workers around. I specialise in hand stitched handbags and there’s very few people who do this work, it’s so labour intensive. Anyone who has these hand stitching skills normally make fine shoes and saddles because they’re always under huge pressures and so need to be completely resilient. Other designers handbags aren’t expected to last as long as they could because they’re seen more as a fashion accessory, I want to challenge that.
I would think if I bought an expensive bag I would want it to last quite some time, like Hermès bags do. That would be what I would expect. Hermès are very good, their craftsmanship is sublime. I had an opportunity to repair a Birkin (Ed. note: an iconic Hermès bag) some time ago and I was really impressed by the work into it. Absolutely impeccable. But I’ve also realised that because the Kelly and the Birkin are such iconic designs, they can’t ever alter them, even in small ways.
So you started making bags as a solution to store your tools but how did you go from there to creating a fashion brand? Do you think there was a lack in the market? I was looking at all the options, in the lower echelons there’s a huge amount of competition. Up top there’s really not too many labels, and what there is is already well known. I thought it was better to be ambitious.
I saw on your website that your aim was to be the best handbag designer in London. Not designer, maker. One thing I’m really focusing on is keeping the design and the production really close together. This is an ambitious challenge to myself, but you have to think big sometimes.
In that kind of industry it’s all very objective to determine who the best is. For example someone really horrible like Christian Audigier can say ‘I’m the best t-shirt maker in the world because I sell so many of them’ and then people who read Vogue are going to reply ‘Yes but they look really bad.’ So what’s the criteria to make you the best?
It’s more about making bags that other bag designers are going to look at with admiration. In a way completely oblivious to fashion: I don’t work seasonally, I’ve got certain designs that I always work with. The fifth model which I’ve just released took a full year of design and development.
Doesn’t it make it harder to approach stockists if you don’t adhere to the seasons system? It definitely does. In the early days this felt like a hurdle I had to jump, until I realised that that track is not the only route to market. I feel that too many designers are focused on gaining stockists and manage to forget the actual customers. Only sell directly for now, which means that I get to grow things slowly and steadily.
What did you want to be when you were a kid? There’s a picture of myself, my brother and my sister when we were 5, 6 and 8. On it I’m dangling from a tree and I later spent some years working a tree surgeon, my brother is in army gear and he’s now a military doctor and my sister was showing off a dress that she’d just made… she’s been working in fashion. I once did an aptitude test at school and I was told I should be one of three things: product designer, landscape gardener or architect.
A lot of people who work in fashion at one point wanted to be architects somehow. There’s a creative impulse there but it’s also about seeing your work in the world. The bags I make are physical things that you hand over to someone, they have a life of their own. The way they’re made, they’re going to last decades and decades, they’re going to be handed down. What I would actually prefer is if people put into their will that they want to take them to the grave, to save the squabbling between relatives. It’s pretty ambitious but something that’s almost unattainable drives you to work toward obtaining it. I don’t want to be the biggest but I do want to be the best. I want to keep my focus on making stuff.
Isn’t it a bit limiting yourself to be a one-man operation? All the time that you have to spend doing other stuff than your craft is time away from getting better. Absolutely, I also want to be able to step away from it sometimes; to refresh and rejuvenate. There is going to be a point where I can’t deal with demand, but that’s a good problem to have, if you can deal with it confidently.
What did you study? Did you do internships? I was in art school and I’ve made art for some time but I’m trying to keep things very distinct. I interned in an art gallery in Marfa, Texas. I’ve never done any fashion internships, I quite like that separation between myself and that whole world.
If you make everything to order, how long does it take for someone to get their order? For the wallets, it’s a month from placing an order to receiving it. For the bags, it’s currently two to three months.
Wow! That’s a really long time to wait for something. It is. I’ve got a waiting list but people don’t seem to be that put off by it.
I guess if people are buying from you they have at least some of the same values as you. They also know that it’s going to last them an age. They know it comes from a single person and it needs to physically be made from scratch. I source the leather, I make blades…
I think it’s something that people are more conscious of nowadays. Since the last recession, sales have been driven more by things that you could keep, like big, investment pieces. The last recession kicked in and a lot of the very established, craft-based houses actually did very well. It’s the more throwaway stuff that didn’t do so well. I’ve also got some rules I stick to: I don’t make anything for something that’s younger than I am: iPhones, iPads, laptops. The techniques I’m using means an item should last for decades. Why would I make something for an object that’s going to be obsolete in a year and a half? If a bag can’t be sent to the people I admire most it can’t be sent to anyone. My reference is Catherine Coppens, the master saddler at the Royal Mews.
What is your work schedule? Do you stay late/work weekends a lot? I’m the most haphazard of workers: last night I worked until 2.30am. For me a Saturday morning is no different from a Tuesday afternoon, it’s all part of life: relaxing, working hard, dreaming.
Do you drink coffee? Do you have a secret pick-me-up thing that you do? Cocaine! Just kidding. I used to drink more coffee than medically advisable, something like 12 a day. Now I drink one coffee and it helps me structure my time. Certain tasks require certain states of mind. Stitching is at its best after two or three glasses of red wine.
Do you have any side projects? You said you were an artist. It’s not a side project, more like another part of my brain. I still make knives most Saturdays, I even ended up going to Helsinki to judge the Scandinavian Knife Makers Guild’s annual prize. And I’m actually working on a perfume project with Jo who you spoke with the other day.
Who should I talk to next? Maisie, half typist, half cook (Ed. note: interview coming soon!).
Visit Mark’s website here.
Read more about Mark’s ideas on The Cut.