There are many designers who claim to blend the lines between fashion and art. But Kent Stetson, the handbag designer known for prints and color, is a true testament to the mending fashion and art.
When we took a minute to look over his extensive collection of handbags, we found exotic leathers, fun print clutches and so much more. Having graduated from Brown University after studying Science, Stetson become interested in new media and hybrid digital/traditional fine art. So in 2003 he presented one of his digital paintings of a handbag and the rest is history.
I hope that by blurring the line between art and fashion I can in some small way inspire people to live beautifully. – Kent Stetson
Intrigued by his fun and covetable designs, we sat down with the designer to discuss leather working, his connection to the 303 and his unique approach to design.
All Images Courtesy of Kent Stetson
303 Magazine: Tell us a bit more about your brand, philosophy and aesthetic.
Stetson: I started making handbags in 2003 after my first professional art show failed to produce sales. At the time I worked in a women’s shoe store, and I sewed the unsold wall pieces into handbags. They sold immediately. Bags started as a framing device for my art, they since have become my medium. Since the early days of shaping my vibrantly-colored abstract art into handbags, I now focus in two categories of handbag design: prints and leatherwork.
Thematically my designs cover a spectrum from traditionally artistic to kitsch. I am very committed to being not only a designer, but a maker – as a result we are not trend driven. We are making bags that are continuation of a story, not a way to keep a manufacturer busy while we guess what trends will be covered by fashion magazines six months from now. For me that formula for mass production is uninspiring and a waste of my energy.
303: Can you speak to us a bit more about your background in art and fashion design?
Stetson: I grew up on a horse farm. My dad is a blacksmith, with a pedigree of artists and makers going back as many generations as is known about my family. My mother did her own leatherwork, maintaining tack and saddlery, and I learned some of the craft from her. I took over a dozen lab science classes at Brown, where I graduated with concentrations in philosophy and visual art. I worked at a shoe store through college, and have always admired outrageous fashions – the kinds of things that artists on the fringes of society might wear. I often take an experimental approach to handbag design. The scientific method is useful. We refer to the studio as our design lab.
Technically, our bags may fall under classification as “craft”, but the functionality of our creations does not eclipse the artistry. Our creations possess both painterly and sculptural attributes. – Kent Stetson
303: Tell us a bit more about your design process. Where do you look for inspiration?
Stetson: There’s a thread that we follow: One thing leads to another, one creation informs the next. In terms of inspiration, nothing is off limits. Designs come as responses and interactions with my own personal back story and the world around me.
303: What is your connection to the 303 region?
Stetson: I have very close relatives in Colorado. They would come out to New Hampshire to visit every summer, and they brought with them a culture that was so different from my rural New England surroundings. To this day my Denver-based cousin Caisey is one of my style inspirations, and her mother (my aunt) would make amazing costumes for Caisey to wear at underground raves, including a repurposed vintage McDonald’s uniform that, 20 years later, showed up in Jeremy Scott’s first collection for Moschino. The idea I discovered, [is] that fashion isn’t only something that you see, but something you inhabit and perhaps even make…there’s some Colorado in that definitely.
Aside from a glimpse to my cousin’s impressive collection of my designs, my artistic print bags can be seen and purchased at the Denver Art Museum
‘s gift shop and the surprisingly fresh BMH-BJ
temple gift shop on Monaco Avenue. They both declined to stock my herb bag (pictured below), but said that it would be available for special order.
Kent Stetson “Herb” Clutch
303: Your bags are known for their great leather. Tell us a bit more about your sourcing process and leather design process.
Stetson: My leather bags are mostly one-of-a-kind. We don’t make multiples. Hides are all individually sourced for quality and uniqueness. We have countless suppliers that we work with for hides. I typically lay out a hide and let the design unfold organically, improvised in an informed, curious, and dancerly manner.
303: Your handbags make great statement pieces. Have you ever been interested in expanding to footwear or ready to wear?
Stetson: At this time, I’m not really interested in approaching a manufacturer to make goods with my name on them. I think that we don’t make consumer products, so much as tell a story. I do think that my prints could translate in other forms, and we are investigating new terrain. In terms of shoes and apparel, I don’t like to think that I am excluding people based on their size or physical proportions. I would love to make a shower curtain, placemat, or press-on nails.
Kent Stetson “Take Me to Oz” Clutch
303: What’s one piece from your recent or past collections that you’re most excited about?
Stetson: I recently made a bag with a print of high heels set on a rainbow background. The soles of the shoes are covered with hundreds of ruby crystals. “The Wizard of Oz” is a kind of religion in my family. I’ve also got this voice and presence that just says, “nice to meet you, I’M GAY!” Although technically, this bag is only one kind of thing that we do; it pretty much has my spirit in it more than anything I have made in while.
303: Where do you see your brand in 10 years?
Stetson: Still in business. I can think of so many brands that were hot for a while and then just disappeared – Lambertson Truex, Moo Roo, Heatherette and Imitation of Christ come to mind immediately. I think that, for me, success is about cultivating sustainability, and having a stake in ownership of my key production and distribution platforms.