We celebrate many things here at Heddels (history, heritage, quality…), and on a broader, scale it’s undeniable that we also celebrate stuff. Not just any stuff mind you, but stuff that, “you want to own forever.”
After all, we are a culture of stuff lovers, and if you’d like to see that case made irrefutably (and hysterically), you should check out George Carlin’s classic riff on the topic. And as George explains, it’s not always easy traveling with your stuff–that’s why the right bag is so important, and why that bag should also be “own forever-worthy” stuff in and of itself. I’ve had the pleasure to own some true heirloom bags (like this Filson briefcase I reviewed here and a Horween beauty here), and was just recently introduced to a relatively new company that makes bags in a good old fashioned way–Fleabags.
Per their web site:
Fleabags was founded in New York in 2009, when Shira Entis and Alexandra Bell wanted an American-made, sturdy canvas bag to use during their frequent trips to the flea market. They envisioned a bag similar to a vintage toolbag, but elevated by Italian and vegetable-tanned leather details and in colors that popped — the Original Flea. The line has expanded to include a full assortment of canvas and leather bags and accessories, all of which incorporate this same combination of a timeless, tomboy aesthetic, purposeful construction and refined details.
Necessity being the mother of invention…classics with elevated components…luxe details? Sounds right up our alley, so I reached out to Shira (Alexandra was busy on the brink of childbirth, and is now the proud mom to twins!) who gave me the lowdown on starting Fleabags, and sent along a few items that I’ve happily put through their paces for the last six weeks.
Heddels (John Bobey): How did you and Alexandra meet, and what did each of you do before starting Fleabags?
Shira Entis: We met on the dance floor the first week of freshman year of college. Alex went to law school at NYU and I went to the Savannah College of Art & Design and got a Master’s Degree in Fashion Design. We were both working full-time jobs…she was a corporate lawyer and I was a designer with a womenswear brand…when we started working on Fleabags during weekends and evenings.
H: The world of “fashion” is a big place…why choose bags to launch your brand?
SE: We were flea market junkies and wanted a great bag that was made in the U.S. that we could use to carry our wares. The idea really just came from something we wanted and couldn’t find in the marketplace. And we knew we wouldn’t have to deal with the stresses of sizing and fit!
H: What makes a good bag…how do you strike a balance between form and function?
SE: Designing is problem-solving; bags should solve the problem of how to easily and joyfully carry something, the bag itself shouldn’t create a new problem. However, we’ve definitely made mistakes because of an attachment to a particular detail. We once made a bag with straps that adjusted their length by the use of collar buttons. However, we quickly realized that the holes in the strap stretched over time and would slip off the buttons. We got so many customer returns, it was horrible. It was a real lesson in the value of buckles.
H: Can you tell me more about your self-described, “timeless, tomboy aesthetic?”
SE: I think our greatest goal is to see one of our original bags on eBay in 25 years and still have it resonate aesthetically. We aim to create products that are made for women without being too feminine or of-the-moment. We dislike that so many products marketed to women assume that female consumers are trendy and fickle. We assume that our customers are looking for well-made products that fit their needs and make them feel good about themselves- there is nothing gendered about that.
H: You have a group of bags you call your Immodest Collection – what’s the inspiration for the line, and why the name?
SE: Alex and I went to India in 2015 for a vacation, and ended up meeting a family who owned a handbag factory, and another that made block-printed textiles. Immodest Cotton came from our desire to work with those families on a new collection of bags and accessories. Fleabags is so rooted in the U.S.-Made ethos, we didn’t feel like we could add products that were made elsewhere in the world. Immodest Cotton is the product of our wanting to work with global artisans, combined with our desire to offer goods at a wider range of prices. As for the name, the first items we launched were made from cotton canvas, and the word “immodest” was a synonym for Tomboy in the 1500s.
H: Your Immodest Cotton pieces are made in India, and your site states that they maintain the, “same design and ethical standards” as your Brooklyn-made bags. We’re incredibly concerned with the conditions under which the things we feature are made…how does an emerging brand like Fleabags establish and oversee a conscientious overseas operation?
SE: It’s important to personally meet the people you work with and see their operation, no matter where in the world they are. We know this can be expensive and difficult, but it’s a necessary part of running a sustainable and ethical business.
H: You’re Brooklyn-based…how does being in a fashion center like New York influence your approach to Fleabags?
SE: We get some of the country’s best visual inspiration- through people-watching, museum exhibits, etc. And there are so many other designers and makers in New York, we’re constantly meeting new people who we can collaborate with. But we also try to be a little immune to the Fashion Industry so that we aren’t hemmed in by what is “cool” at the moment.
H: Not only are some of your pieces hand-dyed with real indigo, but Shira, you’ve begun teaching the indigo dyeing process. What draws you to natural indigo, and what about working with it seems to excite your students?
SE: Like most people on earth, blue is my favorite color, but I also love the human history of indigo. There is evidence of its use as a dye dating back to the 3300 BCE, and it was discovered and used on every continent independently of one another. I also love that articles dyed with indigo change over time, giving them each a unique look and history. Since indigo fades with exposure to the sun, the grain of the dyed fabric is slowly revealed. But you can also over-dye them and re-start the garment’s lifespan. I think my students–class info is available on our site–love taking a break from sitting in front of a computer and making something with their hands. Physical production no longer plays a role in most people’s lives, but there is nothing as satisfying as using something that you have made yourself.
H: Right now, you’re a bags-only business – do you have plans to evolve the brand into other areas?
SE: I am working on another project that we’re going to launch through our site, but it’s a few months from debut. But here’s a clue- you wear it on your feet!
H: Given the huge selection of bags out there…why choose a Fleabag?
SE: I judge products by two qualities- how they look and how they’re made. Looks are subjective, but as for how they’re made, we take pride in the fact that we design, make patterns and sew mock-ups of every single product in our studio. We are dedicated to using high quality materials, and to knowing who we are working with to maintain ethical standards. We’re pretty obsessed with getting the details right, and we always have the end user in mind.Our products are not meant to be precious- they should be used as often as possible, and will age beautifully whether they are made from canvas or leather. Our two most commonly used materials- indigo dyed canvas and vegetable tanned leather- both have lifespans in which they change over time. We think these changes are for the best, resulting in one-of-a-kind items!
Shira and Alex obviously “get it,” and that’s exactly why I was so excited to try out some bags for myself, and see if there was indeed proof in their pudding. Their Original Flea ($380) is the bag that launched their company, and it combines the design aesthetic of a classic, framed-opening plumbers bag with the volume and shoulder straps of a market tote.
- Natural Cotton Canvas
- Pecan Brushed Leather
- Midnight Silkscreen
- Navy Striped Organic Cotton Lining
- Hand Written Edition Number on Each Bag
Maybe it’s my inherently gentle nature, but I’ve had no problem carrying this as my daily bag…I do believe it checks the, “I’d Rather Not Say” box when it comes to gender. However, my wife straight-up stole this bag from me the day after it arrived, and has guarded it like a dog with a bone.
I have managed to snag it back for farmers market runs on the weekend, but the lion’s share of its use has been by her, and if it can withstand her daily (ab)use (fully-loaded, it must weight 25 pounds…I’d look at what’s in there, but I believe that in married life some things are best left unknown), it can take whatever you can dish out. (No, really–she stole it and pretended like she had no idea what I was talking about when I inquired as to its whereabouts. I guess all’s fair in love and cool bags.) It’s worth saying that this bag is on the heavy-side when it’s empty, but considering the substantial quality of its components, that’s not surprising. If Shira sees one on eBay in 25 years, it sure won’t be mine (OK fine, my wife’s.)
Once the Original Flea went missing, I switched over to the Large East-West Tote ($78) made from 18oz. indigo cotton canvas, a bag big enough for a weekend away, and perfect for trips to the grocery store (paper or plastic…what do you think I am, a monster?)
- Sturdy 100% Indigo-Dyed Cotton Canvas
- Blush Leather Handles (Detachable)
- Indigo-Dyed Cotton Webbing Handles
- Copper Collar Buttons and Rivets
This is part of Fleabag’s Immodest Cotton collection, and I find it to be made as well as the Original Flea, albeit with less leather and no framed opening (though the way I’ve been using it, the greater washability is a huge plus–squished Roma tomatoes, I’m looking at you). Also, there is a hand-dyed denim version of this bag as well that’s perhaps even sweeter. I stuffed this bag to the gills on a recent trek to Joshua Tree, and it swallowed up whatever I tossed in there. I mean, why bother deciding which jeans to bring for a three day trip when you have room for three pairs!
The last piece is my clear favorite, as it unexpectedly filled a need and is visually striking while filling it…the Saffron Cross Portfolio Pouch ($36), also from the Immodest Cotton collection. For over 20 years, rather than keep magazines intact, I’ve ripped out all the articles that I’m interested in and paper-clipped them together. (Nuts? Try it and you’ll never go back to schlepping around unwanted pages and pages of ads and cologne samples.) Trouble is, I read a lot of magazines, and the stacks of clipped pages were messy and hard to carry around…that is, until now. This portfolio was the perfect size to carry a dozen mags worth of pages with room to spare for my Kindle, reading specs and even a charging cable or two. And the saffron color has always been a favorite and looks great in its new home on my nightstand (that is, when not in the Original Tote…that is, when my wife hasn’t stolen it).
Brands come and go, and when they “go” it’s usually because the brand was more about the branding than the products. That’s clearly not the case here, and I’m excited for Shira and Alex’s future. I will be more than happy to own my Fleabags forever, and look forward to seeing each, as Shira put it, develop its own, “unique look and history.” OK now go watch that Carlin clip because it’s super funny.