by Samantha Bergeson
We all have that piece in our closets, that one accessory that can transform any grouping of clothes into an official outfit. Red carpet favorite handbag brand Kent Stetson specializes in these statement pieces, giving customers an individual one-of-a-kind work of art.
It’s hard to believe Kent Stetson’s eponymous line was built on unwanted scraps. After a 2003 exhibition of computer-generated paintings where none of his pieces sold, then-recent Brown University grad Stetson decided to cut up his canvases and sew them into bags. Stetson sold his handbag creations at a local shoe store where he worked; the bags were popular immediately. “It turned out that a handbag was a great framing device,” Stetson explained. “Since then, bags have become my medium as an artist.”
Stetson incorporated his knowledge of leather and leather-like work into his handbags. Stetson, having grown up on a farm in Rhode Island, often observed his mother repairing horse bridles and saddles. Stetson credits his familiarity with farm leatherwork for inspiring his handbag creations, much like Hermes, Gucci, and Coach– all brands that began as saddlery companies.
Today, Stetson’s handbags are handcrafted in Rhode Island at Stetson’s commercial studio, with each bag signed by Stetson himself. This artisanal U.S.-based production is extremely important to Stetson and his brand. “I am really an artist, my hands are on each piece, and that is in the DNA of our work at the atelier,” Stetson said.
Stetson’s in-house production allows for the brand to pivot when necessary. “I don’t like being dependent on other people to make our designs– if an opportunity with a celebrity or media project comes up in the morning and they need it in L.A. by the following day, we can just drop everything and make it happen,” Stetson stated.
The made-to-order handbags also can accommodate last-minute changes. “I do not need a 3-month lead time. We can work with independent retailers and offer customization at every level of production,” Stetson continued.
However, the atelier model does have its downsides. “We cannot compete with the low prices of large-scale manufacturing,” Stetson explained. “But we have turned that into an advantage by focusing on independent retailers and direct sales models.”
Thankfully, the benefits of artisanal quality and small-scale low waste manufacturing have not been lost on the consumer. The brand’s signature printed crossbody clutches have been seen on the arms of celebrities like Johnny Weir, Taryn Manning, Nene Leakes, Michelle Kwan, Iris Apfel, and Martha Stewart.
The popular clutches are made using vegan leather with a durable coated exterior canvas. Yet Stetson’s array of handbag silhouettes ranging from work totes to laptop carriers use a variety of materials, which in turn determine the shape of the construction.
Due to such small scale production, the company is proudly a low waste operation. In addition, the brand continues to use scrap fabrics to produce smaller accessories like wristlets or for the tabs inside bags. All of the materials used by Kent Stetson are sourced within the U.S. as well.
“I like to think of us as the farm-to-table version of handbags,” Stetson said. “The idea of wanting to know where something comes from, and that there is integrity and accountability stitched into it, is a reflection of the values of the end-user.”
Stetson draws inspiration from various outlets, especially atelier brands that similarly focus on smaller production runs. “In fashion, Van Herpen is brilliant. Jeremy Scott gets the pop-culture-meets-fashion-victim-laugh-at-life and crossing over to the dark side of kitsch that I also enjoy,” Stetson mused. “The Blondes are just super extra and transfixing. I adore Jean-Charles de Castelbajac who must also have inspired Scott, Commes de Garcon.”
Stetson’s bags similarly stand out among the fashion landscape. “We don’t blend into a crowd. We like to make things that breaks the ice and spark fun conversations,” Stetson explained. “My personal fashion is inextricable from the ethos of the collection. I am aware of the trends, but I do not like to dilute the sense of certainty that goes into my work. I dabble in the practical realm, but fun…that is really my arena.”
The Kent Stetson upcoming show at Styleweek Northeast in Rhode Island on September 22 will no doubt embody the eccentric and vibrant brand message of being yourself. Harkening back to their computer-generated canvas origins, Kent Stetson handbags will walk the runway being held by robots and drones– a reminder that Stetson constantly pushes fashion into the future.
As for Stetson’s outlook on what’s in store in the coming years, he only hopes for continued happiness. “My hope is that in five years I am still enjoying the work and that my team continues to feel rewarded in doing a good job. I hope to reserve enough capital to have basic security for the future and continue to help social and charitable causes that I care about.”
The Kent Stetson handbag line rose from the ashes of a gallery showcase, finding a home for scraps and recycled canvases. Stetson hopes for his bags to similarly give their owners a sense of belonging as well.
“I think I do what I do best as a designer when someone looks at something I have made and thinks it was just for them, and they see in one of our creations a way to instantly convey something about who they are without having to say a word.”
For Stetson and his eponymous handbag brand, individuality has never looked so good.
For more information, visit kentstetson.com.