JESS GOEHNER, HANDBAG DESIGNER
I had seen Jess' work and admired the sculptural lines and craftsmanship of her handbags at a couple of art shows, before I approached her. She looked like a tough woman with little time for small talk, and I must admit I was a bit intimidated. But as I got to know her better, I quickly discovered that just like her bags, those tough edges soften over time ;-) revealing a strong and solid personality, a warm and grounding presence, and a quirky sense of humor.
Here is to Jess and her handbags, the perfect physical representation of her history with art, her dedication to her craft, and her love of everlasting pieces that tell the story of those who wear them.
Have you always been crafty?
I’ve been doing crafty stuff my whole life. When I was a kid I wanted to be a fashion designer, so I made dresses for my American Girl dolls and all my teddy bears. Now these were not just any dresses, I was like “She is dressed Cleopatra style, but she's wearing this slinky, low low-cut dress to work.” I know, fancy! I also made everything in the doll house, including the massive amounts of food for my dolls to eat, all made out of oven baked clay.
My dad taught me how to use the sewing machine, how to build a table, and all kinds of woodworking projects. He had a workshop in the basement and I was always downstairs eager to work with him on any project. He used to give me a wood block, a box of nails and a hammer, and let me hammer nails into the end of the wood. I thought it was the best project ever! He’d just hear me go “ding, ding, ding,” over and over and over again. And every once in a while I would miss and hit my hand, and there would be a moment of silence and then back at it “ding, ding, ding.” I never complained and never cried. I just kept hammering. I wanted to do a good job, but I also truly enjoyed the process.
High school and college were a continuation of my dad’s workshop. My high school had a really good art program and I remember spending most of my time on the sixth floor, where I had access to a wall and unlimited art materials. During that time I made all these big paintings of myself, which now looking back it feels kind of weird. But when you are a teenager you are figuring things out about who you are and art was my way to make sense of the world around me and create my identity. I spent a lot of my time painting and not participating in normal high school study halls. It was great! Then I went to a college where I didn't have to choose a major, so I just took all the art classes I could possibly take: photography, painting, sculpture, drawing, etc. It was wonderful to be able to explore so many creative paths. I think out of all the classes I took, painting and sculpture really stayed with me and have informed Directive’s design the most.
When was Directive born?
I used to ride my bike every day to work. One day my bag broke and I just decided to make a new one. I've been sewing since I was a kid, so it was not a big deal. That’s how it all began.
Directive was officially born when I decided to apply to a local craft fair in Milwaukee. It was a small fair and they took anyone even if they didn't have any experience. I sent a photo of a canvas bike bag and another of a small duffel bag that didn't quite function, but they looked really good in the photos. I took those great photos with my phone (laughs) and they accepted me! I did my first show as Directive in December 2012 and it was a great show. In preparation for the show I made canvas wallets, hand-painted canvas tote bags with faux leather straps, and canvas messenger bags with hand-painted details inside the bag. I did a lot of hand painting when I first started and it was all canvas, no leather. After that show, I applied for an outdoor Summer show and I started doing more shows and making more bags.
Today you work exclusively with leather. When was leather introduced?
I started working with leather quite serendipitously. I was using faux leather for the straps of my canvas bags, and I started noticing that faux leather — basically polyurethane plastic — doesn't stand up to time. It was around that time that I met a man who worked at a local tannery. He saw my hand-painted pouches (half painted canvas and half leather on the bottom) and liked them a lot. He gave me eight-and-a-half by eleven sample sheets of leather in all different colors and placed an order for twenty bags for him to give as Christmas gifts. It was late 2014 when I started making bags for him to ship to golf tournaments in Europe and other clients of his. He just gave me free leather, I would make these bags, and we would ship them all over. I basically contracted with him and he helped me get into that tannery, which is how I first started buying my own hides.
During that time, Directive was not my full time job. At some point I think I had four other jobs. Moving to the new studio in June 2016 made it easier to focus exclusively on Directive, and I’ve been doing it full time for about a year and a half now.
Your leather is a little bit different than the leather you see in most handbags. Why is that?
When I started making handbags I was using thicker leather because that was just what they offered at the local tannery I was working with. It was not the typical leather used for handbags but I really liked it. Since then, I have worked with different kinds of leather, but I prefer thicker leather because although it’s harder to work with, it's better for structure. When I make a bag, it’s not going to slouch, it will retain its shape. I think my obsession with structure comes from my background in sculpture. I tend to go with the heavier weights because of the structure and durability. With thicker leather, I can make better shaped bags that will last longer. For my black and honey colored bags I use the same leathers used for chaps for cowboys. So they are really durable bags, that wear well, and look better with age.
Can you tell me about your design process?
I design everything myself. I figure everything out in my notebook with measurements, then I put it on thick paper, and that becomes a sample. I make my own patterns, cut and sew everything, for better or for worse ;-) I am self-taught and I learned the hard way how to make each and every one of the products I offer. When I started I didn’t have all the tools needed, so I did a lot of the work by hand. For example, when you sew the seams of a bag, you first need to thin out leather. It’s called skiving. There's a machine that I now have in my studio that does that, but when I first started working with leather I did all the skiving by hand, which basically means you're playing with fire every time you touch the leather with this very sharp blade because you could rip it all apart if you are not very careful. The process was risky and extremely slow, and now that I have a machine to do that I can’t believe I ever did that by hand.
I have come a long way, and I’ve learned so much about working with leather. I love working with leather, but it’s a very delicate material. If you put a mark on it, you can never remove it, if you put a hole in it, it’s going to be there forever. So you learn you can’t make mistakes. I just dove in and learned how to work with this new material.
How are your pieces made?
I do all the production myself and I have a hard time letting go of the idea of not doing that. I am in every single bag. From start to finish, I do everything. I do all the patterns and the designs and I cut, glue and sew everything. I select and add all the hardware and I do the hammering and I hand paint all the edges. Every once in a while I’ll get help with things like cutting the linings. Helpers are pretty much anyone I can convince to help me, with the promise they will not be invading my space and doing the work for me ;-)
It’s important for me to be personally involved in every single one of my bags. People tell me, “You could work with a manufacturer and get all your bags produced in a factory. They will all come out perfectly done, all looking exactly the same, and you’ll be able to sell them and make a ton of money.” But the thing is, what I like is making these bags! I enjoy the act of doing, the sewing, the hammering. I don't want to sit at a computer and just ship stuff. I want to be the person who makes your items. To me the act of doing is the act of putting a little bit of yourself in the object you are making. In the process of making a handbag, it becomes not only a part of me but also a piece of art.That’s what makes my business unique and different from what other people do.
How does your art background inform how you see your business?
My art background informs how I design, the products I make, and the way I view my business. I was a painter for a long time, and I think that’s how I view Directive. I see my business very much like an artist sees her creations. When I talk about being in production mode, what it means is me making a big mess, being dirty, drinking too much coffee and wanting to work 16 hour days. I don’t mean screen printing 40 t-shirts that look exactly the same and quickly selling them all to start all over again.
For me, making is an immersive experience. I put my headphones on and I make one piece at a time. I am focused, and the whole process is meditative, not mechanical. It takes you out of yourself and it helps you process things. I'm not really thinking about what I'm doing, I am in my zone. It's also more expressive than reproducing a bunch of the same thing. I want to make more, not reproduce more. I want to experiment. I want to try new shapes and new colors. I want to push myself and my designs. I don't want to keep doing the same thing year after year. I want to create.
I was told you have collectors. Is that true? What’s that like?
Yes, it’s true, I have people that collect Directive bags. I don't know how many collectors I have. All I know is that these are people that have stuck with me over time. Some people have some of my canvas bags from 2012. It's always surprising to me that they love Directive so much and that the bags are still holding up! I am always like,”You still have this? This bag is old!" But that means it’s still working and that’s my goal. As somebody who makes things for a living, I want to make things that last and have good wearability. When people show me the pieces they’ve had for a long time, you can tell they have become their unique item, and that’s always great to see, especially at a time when a lot of pieces look the same and are not created to last.
The interactions I have with collectors are great. They’ll come see me at a show, bringing a bag they’ve had for years to show me how it has worn in, or how a small pouch has expanded to fit exactly what they put there. I also feel a little bit of relief that like, OK, it holds up, I did a good job. I am self-taught, so I'm always afraid I'm going to make mistakes. I learned the process by talking with my customers. I learned how to be better by working with them and I am grateful that they are still supporting Directive.
Photography by Niko Sulek at Motorkast
P.S.: Stay tuned for an upcoming collaboration ;-)