Interview : The Cut, New York
Excerpts from the interview with Hattie Crisell for The Cut, New York Magazine.
Hattie: HOW DID THE LABEL COME ABOUT? I UNDERSTAND YOU'RE LARGELY SELF TAUGHT?
Mark: I spent the first couple of years intently studying the craft alone, then I approached the most highly skilled craftspeople for some guidance and expertise. They really can be called Master-Craftsmen. The type of work I specialise in is only really practiced by a very small number of people as it is so specific and so labour intensive. It’s an exciting time to be doing a high level of craftsmanship, because there’s a growing excitement in an artisanal approach, and also an interest in ‘Made in Britain’ . For me, the important thing is not so much that it’s made in the UK , but that it is made by one person from start to finish, from selecting the hides all the way through to boxing up. There’s a total responsibility; It is entirely down to one person to make it as close to perfect as possible.
H: TELL ME ABOUT THE ‘4.4.8 EXPERIMENT’.
M: People have been as excited about the ‘4.4.8’ as they are about the bags themselves. The standard way of getting the word out about a product is by producing samples and sending them out widely to members of the press. Ninety percent of these are going to be ignored, and only a few percent will be eventually written about. Because my bags each take many days to make, I couldn’t afford that initial outlay, so I took a completely different approach — I made one of each of my four designs and I handed them over to four women. I asked each to use their bag for a week, to give me feedback that I would put up, unedited, on the 4.4.8 blog, and at the end of the week, to pass it on to the person they though would be the best fit. As it became a self-selecting group of people, It was important to let the project develop naturally, to let the bags find their own way in the world unguided. The bags found themselves travelling everywhere from Latin America to the Scottish Highlands. They travelled to New York on photo-shoots and even to Switzerland for an Armani launch; all in all it’s been fantastic.
H: IT’S A VERY SIMPLE IDEA, BUT INGENIOUS.
M: I’m surprised at how much it’s been talked about. One of the participants, Zoe Lazarus wrote an article for the Lowe Counsel discussing it as a new, radical, refreshing way of working. Market research and marketing are, in a way, one and the same. You’ve got to create something that a certain group of people are interested in, and you’ve got to let those same people to know about it. If I ask somebody to use a bag for a week, they’re going to have a good feel for it, and they’re going to be able to give it to the one person who they think it fits best. That’s brilliant, because it means it’s gone to someone who is likely to love it, so in a way the participants are doing the hard work for me. That’s why it’s been such a success.
H: HAS IT PRODUCED USEFUL FEEDBACK?
M: I was doing it to find out if there was room for improvement. Each bag has had three or four major improvements and loads of little twists — moving things up or down by a quarter of an inch. Everything’s been honed and refined. These bags will last decades. As well as my main business, I also do repairs of other bags, as a way of keeping track of what other designers are doing. There are so many iconic bags that have inherent structural faults, and they can never remove those faults because that would mean changing the design. What good is a bag if it’s broken, or if you can’t use it because you’re worried about it tearing? All my stuff is really considered aesthetically, but also resilient. Should they ever need repairing, I make sure it can be done, as you can with a fine pair of handmade shoes. I try to be transparent about what I’m doing, where the stitching is and what the construction methods are, so you can clearly see how it all works. Other brands tend to line their bags, which can hide off-key workmanship.
H: HAVE YOU THOUGHT ABOUT HOW YOU CAN KEEP THAT PERSONAL INVOLVEMENT BUT STILL GROW THE BUSINESS?
It is quite unusual in the fashion world, but I believe the link between myself and the customer is really important. I invest so much time and energy into each bag, and from a customer’s point of view a bag is such a personal, emotionally charged item. I think it’s important to maintain that connection. I may train up an apprentice at some point, but I’m quite happy staying niche. Some designers are so keen to say, "I’m turning over ‘X’ million and I’m stocked in hundreds of stores worldwide" — and then they become a manager in their own company. If I wanted to be a manager, I would have done something else. I love making handbags and I get a huge rush when a customer contacts me to say, "I’ve just received it — I love it." It’s the biggest buzz.