July 8, 2015

Jill Akus Leather

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The Hudson Bag

Jill Akus Leather Goods started as an idea on the west coast and came to life on the east.  Based out of Brooklyn, Jill Akus is designing hand made leather goods that are consciously designed with the customer in mind. She describes her pieces as intelligent and timeless and they are conceptualized and produced at her studio in New York City. She shares why New York enables young designers when it comes to sourcing, education, trade shows and more; yet also what she thinks can be done to make the fashion industry more accessible.

What is the hardest part about being an emerging designer?  What aspect of the industry do you wish was more accessible?
Maintaining focus on the creative process and designing beautiful products while balancing all the responsibilities of owning a business means I have to wear a lot of different hats.  I design and produce all my pieces, which takes a lot of time and effort from concept to prototype to finished product.  On top of that, there’s bookkeeping, website development, social media, marketing and everything it takes to get your name out there.  As an emerging designer, you have to do all those things and you’re just one person.  At least that’s been true for me.
As for accessibility, there are very few educational programs specializing in accessories design here in the U.S., so there are only so many resources available to makers and designers who want to gain that set of skills and knowledge.
What are some struggles you’ve encountered while developing your brand, Jill Akus?
I started my business with essentially no startup capital or outside funding. My goal was to be creating my own pieces, but I needed to stay open to lots of different opportunities to keep my business afloat and make ends meet.  I was working crazy hours seven days a week – until I couldn’t stand up some nights. I worked as a contractor on a wide variety of leather craft jobs; everything from hand stitching leather for furniture makers, to working with artists, to pattern making and sample making for other emerging designers.  I learned a lot from those experiences – as much about solving design problems in different contexts as about personal determination and independence, which are just as important.
If you could give one piece of unconventional advice to newcomers, what would it be and why?
Design is not just about drawing and conceptualizing.  Design is every bit as much about understanding how something is made and how it functions for its intended user.  There are a lot of people who can come up with beautiful ideas, but I think the more important challenge for aspiring designers is to understand the practical aspects of how an object will be used and technical considerations of how it’s made.
There’s a gap between concept and object.  Good design means not only having good ideas, but also understanding how to bring those ideas to life, which means visualizing what’s inside and what’s hidden in the end product.  It requires both creativity and technical problem solving.  You have to be as much an artist as an engineer.

The Little West 12th

Who inspires you and how do you stay inspired?

I’m lucky to have known and worked with some very talented individuals in different creative disciplines.  These are the people I’ve related to through my work, and as a result they’ve become good friends and sources of inspiration.  Whatever I’m working on, I try to stay close to other makers and creators who have ideas I admire and who know how to make their ideas tangible to the rest of the world.  That kind of energy is contagious.
What are some advantages of having and building a brand in NYC? 
There are many brilliant and inspiring people in the city, and that’s a very motivating influence.  By living and working here, I get to be part of that energy, and I think that’s the biggest advantage.  Another big practical advantage is accessibility, which you mentioned before – accessibility to materials, to educational programs and industry trade shows, to equipment suppliers.  It’s all right here.

What are some of the manufacturer’s you work with?
I’m my own manufacturer.  For every piece I produce, I want to be as deeply involved in the production process as I am in the design process.  I produce everything that I sell in my studio.  I have full control over the production process and the quality of my products, and I know exactly what my customers are getting.
How do you measure success, and what has been your highest success so far?
I gauge success on how happy each customer is with something I’ve made.  I get the most satisfaction when someone writes to tell me how well their bag is wearing and how much use they’re getting out of it.  That gives me real insight into the life of my work after I send it out into the world.  It tells me that my work fits seamlessly into someone’s life, and that’s part of how I define success. As for my greatest success, it’s that I’m in New York in my third year of business living my dream.
What do you think could help enable more talented designers to start their own brand?
I think of something an entrepreneur friend of mine from San Francisco told me before I decided to move back east to study design.  At the time, I was selling products for Henri Beguelin, which had a big influence on my desire to design my own products, but the reality still seemed a long way off.  I was telling him about my dream to start a business designing and hand making leather goods, which inevitably led me to digress on what I viewed as all the constraints holding me back.  My friend’s response was, “Stop talking about what’s holding you back and what you don’t know.  The only way to figure that out is to do it.”  It’s simple advice, but it brought about a big change in my thinking.  It may have been the realization that it was just that simple.  Successful people have to enable themselves.
How have you seen the brand evolve from its start? 
I used to do a lot more hand stitching and one-of-a-kind pieces.  Now I’ve put a lot of time and focus into developing a cohesive line of products, which is a big shift from the way I was working a few years ago.  I think my style is more east coast than west coast since I moved from San Francisco to New York.

The Magnolia Bag

What is your favorite piece from your current collection and why?

I love the Hudson (seen at top of post) because it’s a large bag that I can use day-to-day, but it’s also big enough to use as a weekender.  Even though it’s big, it’s lightweight, so I can throw everything in it and it’s still easy to carry.  I use it to carry my dog.  I use it as a carry-on when I travel.  I use it to carry my computer and work stuff.  It’s just such a versatile design.  It’s my favorite because it’s the one I use the most.
The Magnolia is a close second.  It’s great because it’s hand-free.  I clip it to my jeans and put my cell phone, wallet and keys in it.  It transitions into a little wristlet for going out to dinner, so it’s a great travel piece too.
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