Since the world is exceedingly well supplied with handbags, with department stores, online retailers and magazines dangling endless dazzling examples before our eyes, you may wonder why anybody would feel the need to have one made specially to their own specifications. Talking to designer-makers who create bespoke handbags, it seems that very often it’s because the customer has a bag she loves that’s looking a little shabby and she wants something similar but perhaps personalised. Others take the personalisation route because they have a wedding coming up and want something to complement their outfit; yet others because somehow they have never found the bag that answers all their needs, or because they want something unique that will outfox even the cognoscenti.
Take the Cordwainers College-trained designer (and winner of its Gold Medal) Denise Pearson, who founded her bespoke leather goods brand Deni-Deni in 2005. She has sewing in her blood (her grandmother was a tailor and she was taught fine needlework from an early age) and makes all her bags by hand in her workshops outside Manchester – not just for luxury brands such as Lulu Guinness and Markus Lupfer, but also for private clients. She finds they come to her for many reasons. Sometimes one of her bespoke handbags is ordered as a present through the website Trulyexperiences.com, which offers the treat for £5,000. A well-known public figure, for instance, gave it as a gift to his mother, who then sent Pearson a bag she wanted copied (“Not something I do,” Pearson says, “because it would infringe the designer’s copyright”), and together they came up with a similar design in a soft grey nappa leather with fewer pockets (she hadn’t used all the ones in the original bag) and the addition of a shoulder strap and zip for security. Pearson has a vast range of leathers, as well as exotic skins, silks and felts (such as the kid suede used in the Luna clutch, £800), and at the time of writing was about to embark on turning a vast python skin that a customer had inherited into something beautiful. Clients are welcome to visit her workshop by appointment or she will travel to visit them at home, but she often finds that talking through a commission on the phone and by email suits many people just as well. Prices start from £800.
Caroline Groves started off making extraordinary bespoke shoes – and has a pair included in the V&A’s current Shoes: Pleasure and Pain show, alongside Jimmy Choo, Manolo Blahnik and Christian Louboutin – and only quite recently added handbags to her armoury. Mostly people turn to her for rather elaborate designs featuring intricate embroidery (black silk velvet with handsewn roses and a silver, diamond and ruby clasp by Greenwich jeweller Johnny Rocket, £8,500) or fine decorative leatherwork (embossed Smerrel bag with silver and brass clasps, £8,060).
Groves also has a particular interest in history and often turns to archives for inspiration. The Dovers (£12,000), for instance, was made for a client who had bought a lot of her bespoke shoes over the years, then came to her wanting a handbag inspired by an early English reticule drawstring bag but adapted to fit an iPad. “I had it made in red goatskin,” says Groves, “and collaborated with a book binder, who did the gold tooling, and a jeweller, who made the silver fittings and clasp, all of which were hand-sewn. In all, it took about three months to make.” For another commission, a leather case-style bag called the Cleeve (£19,300), Groves took her inspiration from a Georgian portable writing desk. It is tooled with 22ct gold and embellished with sapphires. But Groves also does much simpler designs from about £4,500. Clients can come to see her by appointment at her workshop in Worcestershire or at bespoke shoemaker Foster & Son on Jermyn Street.
Ella Rabener is an even more recent arrival on the luxury handbag scene. In January she launched her first collection of seven designs – totes, shoulder bags (Ava bag, £549) and clutches in a rainbow of colours with rose-gold-plated hardware – each in a numbered limited edition of 100. She’s based in Finsbury Park’s The Arts Building (though the bags are made at an atelier in Florence), where clients can visit her to discuss private commissions. For an art curator, Rabener created a tote in a pop-art print inspired by her favourite painting; for an interior designer, a statement-making tangerine-hued bag big enough to house her designs, fabric swatches and everyday essentials. Bespoke prices start from £1,200, and the service takes three to four months.
Equally kaleidoscopic is the beautifully crafted collection from Latvian designer Anya Sushko, who did a foundation year at Central Saint Martins and then went on to study at the London College of Fashion. She launched her eponymous brand in 2008 and today offers a host of leather goods – make-up bags, pencil cases, purses and iPad covers – and, of course, handbags, from the classic trapezoid Karolina totes in fabulous colours like orange and sky blue (from £350) to her Luxury Grande Sunburst handbag, a plump and curvaceous design in permutations such as lizard-printed calf and python (£2,955), all stitched by hand at her north Greenwich atelier. She now spends most of her time making bespoke bags, such as a soft, luxurious long clutch in python for Karren Brady of BBC1’s The Apprentice. For a great friend who loved her Karolina design, but found it wasn’t capacious enough to carry everything she needed, Sushko created a bespoke version that was larger, with a shoulder strap and lots of specific compartments. The bag, which cost £1,500, was such a hit that she has incorporated it into her standard range. Potential customers are welcome to visit the atelier by appointment, but she is also happy to travel to a client’s home. Bespoke prices range from £500 to £5,000, depending upon the design and skins.
These then are just some of the craftspeople who will make bags to almost any shape and in any skin or fabric – but it is worth remembering that some grand purveyors of handbags offer this service too. Admittedly, they may make very few a year (at Louis Vuitton’s London HQ, they tell me it runs to about five) and take up to a year to complete. Interestingly, some of Louis Vuitton’s most popular bags are the result of a “special order”. Noé (from £675) was created for the owner of a vineyard who wanted to carry five bottles of champagne (four round the sides, one in the middle), while Nicolas Ghesquière’s Triangle bag (£2,660) was originally designed to hold a client’s knitting needles. All bespoke orders are made at Asnières outside Paris, after conversations with an expert at the Bond Street maison. Bespoke prices start at £3,500.
Hermès too is very used to creating special designs – most idiosyncratically, perhaps, an apple-shaped bag (price on request) for a client who regularly carried around a single apple. Bespoke bag customers can discuss their needs at the its major stores, which will co-ordinate with the Paris-based Horizons team that oversees the design and production of bespoke items (prices on request).
Of course, for a bespoke bag from a global luxury brand you will need to be prepared to pay a hefty sum. But it is good to know that if there is a design you have long been hankering after that nobody has yet made, there are people who are ready and willing to make it for you.