Ever since humans have needed to cart around their belongings – particularly tools – they’ve carried bags. Prehistoric rock art in northern Australia, for example, shows a warrior-like figure with a satchel over his arm. The 5,300-year-old mummy of Otzi the Ice Man, carried a backpack – and wore a pouch attached to a leather belt – on his journey through what are now called the Tyrolean Alps. Ancient Roman soldiers carried satchels made from leather or goat’s hide that look almost exactly like the kind of messenger bag you might see in a shop today.
In some ways, these bags are a far cry from the expensive “it” bags you see being carried today. In other ways, they’re not so different at all – each of those early bags will have been skilfully crafted by hand, an approach that still underpins many modern luxury handbags.
One of the main threads that runs through the history of handbags – and persists even in today’s industrialised economy – is the power of craftsmanship. This belief in the value of a bag made by experts steeped in experience has held sway ever since handbags became more than a practical necessity. Today, the heart of this artisanal trade in handbags, as it has been for decades, is Italy.
Looking over the colourful harbour of Palermo, Sicily, Studio Sarta is one of some 4,500 leather businesses in the country. Established in 2017 by siblings Giorgia and Fabio Gaeta, it is also one of the country’s newer handbag companies. Much of the studio’s approach is modern, too. Studio Sarta’s handbags are chic and elegant, featuring clean lines and a contemporary aesthetic. Their business sense is equally up-to-date. Their Instagram account, which features striking shots of their products modelled against moody landscapes and industrial-chic interiors, is one main aspect of their marketing strategy.
But the foundation of that Sarta style is traditional Italian craftsmanship. Their creations use Vienna straw, a traditional material used in Sicilian bag-making, handwoven by local artisans in Palermo, as well as leather sourced from Tuscan tanneries.
“Studio Sarta was born from the idea of developing contemporary design objects both for the person and the house – not just bags – that use the know-how of our local artisans,” says Giorgia. “The Italian tradition of tailoring and craftsmanship is one of the fundamental elements.”
In fact, every step of the process – from design to prototype to production – is done by hand. At the Tuscan tannery, workers clean the raw hides, then tumble them in a giant tanning barrel with vegetable-based dyes – a process that can be as much as five times more time-consuming than industrial tanning, but which cuts out many chemicals and toxins.
“It is hand-dried and buffed entirely by hand to obtain the characteristic aged effect,” Giorgia says. “The ‘vegetable tanning’, which has origins in prehistory and in Tuscany is at its maximum splendour, is a traditional and widely recognised technique.”
When the leather arrives at Studio Sarta, it is cut and sewn together with Vienna straw, according to Giorgia’s designs.
This blend of craftsmanship and contemporary style has resonated with buyers. In the company’s first year, Studio Sarta sold 200 bags. Now, they sell 1,000 a year. Most of their clients are in Italy, France and the UK. In the next few years, they hope to expand to China.