Retro schoolbag color scheme

What’s the Bag Idea?

Design, Manufacturing, The Bag Idea

I’ve had this idea for a bag for about five or six years now.

Back in Sydney I started to research an essential element to the design and found I would need to work around an existing patent or wait for it to expire, which it did this past year. So, I’m taking the opportunity here in China to get this thing going.

Here’s what I’ve been up to.

1. Ideas. I’ve carried a notebook with me since undergrad. It used to be word-heavy… full of memories, stories, thoughts, and feelings. About three years ago it moved more toward to-do-lists. In this past month it has shifted firmly toward design in words and sketches. I still use a pen and paper, but I have augmented this with voice memos on my iPhone SE and Adobe Sketch w/ Pen by 53 on my iPad Air 2.

I don’t go anywhere without the notebook (or my iPhone obviously), and usually I have the iPad too.

When I’m in a healthy, active state of mind there are just so many ideas for products, content, events, performances, and such that are freely floating around me that I just catch them and record them for use now, later, or never.

The bag idea fills up about a dozen pages of sketches, lists, and bits of math right now. About twice that number is on the iPad, mostly for the purpose of seeing color combinations.

2. A DIY prototype. The first thing I did beyond sketching was buy a designer bag at Sanyuanli that I thought would be a good foundation to work from.

(On a side note, the Sanyuanli exit on Line 2 accesses one of many market/building areas here to find western and Chinese brand clothing and bags at incredible prices (individual shirts from 6 usd, jackets from 12-20 usd, bags from 16-30 usd). You can buy individually or in bulk, as well as customize products if you are dealing with someone who is connected to a factory producing the items. Prices are all negotiable and drop the more you purchase.)

Here I am with my Albanian friend Drin after purchasing some nice wool hats for between 8-16 usd. A handsome pair. Of hats.

I took the bag I had purchased home, wore it for a day to see how it felt as-is, and then attacked it with scissors, marker, glue, needle, and thread. I butchered other bags hanging about my apartment as well as hacking up accessories that were close to what I wanted and patched the thing together into a basic version of my idea.

In the end, I had a functional though not yet aesthetically-pleasing prototype, which I tested for about a week by gearing it up and trucking back and forth from work and into town. I also would parade it out and leave it around colleagues to gauge any interest in what the Franken-bag was.

3. A sample. Here in Guangzhou, you are always separated by only a few degrees from a manufacturer or a factory owner. If you ask your Chinese friends if they know someone who makes X, you’re bound to get an affirmative response sooner or later.

And so, I followed up on two leads for bag manufacture and found myself with prototype and design plans in tow on my way to a factory one rainy Saturday morning in March. I was with with my friend Gigi who happens to be a bag designer for the Chinese market.

Something was lost in translation with Gigi’s use of the word “factory”. I didn’t know what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t the second floor of a typical shop/tenement building with only one craftsman.

The one young man there, Gigi told me, preferred to work away from the factory. She told me this was actually something more like his own personal workspace and I got the sense he was one of the better leather workers there. Later I found out that the owner of Gigi’s design firm as well as the factory workers I would meetthat day were all old friends or connected in some other way.

The two reviewed a design in process Gigi had given him, and then then looked over my prototype and drawings. The man told us he would be able to get to it in about a month as it was a busy time of the season. Design students from a nearby university were also bringing their bag plans to him to build samples from. He told me that my own sample would cost somewhere between 400-500 yuan, which is the equivalent of 60-70 usd. Once the design is set and put into production, this cost would obviously drop significantly.

This done, Gigi and I hopped a bus to the actual “factory” which wasn’t that much larger of an operation than the one we had just left. Here, in a similar building in another part of town, were two or three other workers on break in a clean and well-lit series of workrooms.


Gigi designs for the Chinese market, and primarily if not solely in leather (selling primarily to wealthy Chinese women). There were a number of her designs in process here, including:

An armadillo-type shell that opens and closes over a bag or case.

A leather egg basket (you wouldn’t see this popular on the US market, I don’t think).

And various cute and classy handbags, purses, and clutches.

Having already conferred with the first craftsman, this stop was more of an educational experience for me. The next thing for my project was to source and purchase all the materials and accessories necessary for my bag and bring them back to the first “factory” be constructed.

5. Materials. After the factory visit, I headed to one of the many materials markets which also happened to be at Sanyuanli (Line 2, Exit A2). Thus began what would be a two-week long affair with the place.

Interior and exterior fabrics, zippers, zipper pulls, straps, buckles. It’s all here. Even on my own with very limited Mandarin, I found the experience great fun. But it’s also useful to bring a cute bilingual Chinese girl along with you (which I did the first two times).

Afternoons when work had ended, I’d train over to the market to hunt for different things on my own. After the first three trips, I started to feel quite familiar with the area. I began to know where things were, and who people were.

Contradictory to any preconceived notions, the shopkeepers were generally friendly and helpful in my purchases, even offering me free samples at times for my project.

The shops themselves seemed to fall into a few categories. There were the more cramped ones with just a little desk in the corner and a single owner at the helm.

Then there were the family businesses– usually a younger or middle aged couple with a kid or two. Sometimes there would be a tea table for customers. Actually, there were always lots of young kids running around the place, or grandparents with little kids. Lots of family life.

Finally, there were the flashier showrooms, usually run by younger guys lounging around on leather couches with their leather loafers up, smoking cigarettes or vaping (e-cigarettes are very popular here in recent years).

After a few hours of hunting, as the sun was fading and shutters were coming down over shops, I would haul my bags full of goodies back home on the metro so I could get to work.

6. A sample design. I rearranged my dining/living room twice to provide a workspace for the bag idea and other projects. My evenings and later nights began to be consumed with the work of putting all the pieces together to see what was going to work, and what needed to be replaced in later visits to the market.

Glass mugs of instant coffee and streaming news from the US.

Carving down accessories to accommodate what I needed but couldn’t immediately find.

Playing with color palettes.

Burning through stylus tips on my 53 Pencil (be aware of this if you buy the product).

Dinners of fish and vodka or takeaway sushi because passion doesn’t take much of a meal break these days.

And assistance (or distraction) by my little boy, Zizou. He’s such a good helper.

So, the end result is we’re ready to go! I’ll deliver the materials and revised design plans to the first factory sometime this next week and wait for my sample to be made in the next month or so.

2 thoughts on “What’s the Bag Idea?

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