The Making Of a Luxury Handbag Collection
In less than a year since its inception, leather-free handbag company, Jill Milan has taken strides to becoming an enduring, luxury brand. Recently, the brand has been selected to be featured in the Marin Designers Showcase in Belvedere, California early next year. We talked to Jill Fraser, co-founder and half of the namesake of the brand about its unique manufacturing process, philanthropy efforts and future plans of Jill Milan.
Fashion Salade: How did the idea to create a cruelty-free luxury handbag line come about?
Jill Fraser: I was working in marketing for a venture-funded firm in San Francisco. We worked with some of the world’s leading luxury brands and I kept searching for bags that were luxury products yet did not contain leather. I could find very few options that were suitable for me.
FS: What makes a Jill Milan different from other leather-free bags?
JF: Our bags are made in Florence by the same artisans who make some of Italy’s leading luxury handbags. Maya Stewart, an award-winning designer who has worked for brands such as Judith Leiber, creates each design. We wanted to make sure we combined wonderful design with top notch bag construction. Unlike many luxury brands, too, we source all materials in Italy and use handmade hardware. People often remark they are shocked our bags are not leather. It is because our faux leather is actually more expensive and has a higher quality than most real leather.
FS: Every Jill Milan bag is entirely constructed in Italy. Can you tell a little bit more about this process?
JF: Yes. Maya and I spend about six weeks a year in Florence. We work with an artisan from the jewelry industry as well as the manufacturer’s owners to create handmade hardware that is custom designed for our bags. Maya and I stay in Italy during the first few weeks of sampling to make changes to the styles and to review colors with the atelier.. The bags are all hand stitched and meticulously finished by hand, a truly painstaking process. The last time we bought our sketches to Italy, the owner of the factory said to us: “What are we, Michaelangelo?” It was funny but we do ask them to execute the most difficult designs, from tiny handmade horses’ heads to handcrafted clutches. It takes about two months from the day we get to Italy to the day we have sample bags. The development process is long and complicated and costs run thousands of dollars for each bag style. After they have been developed, we eliminate any styles we feel are inferior in any way.
FS: Can you tell us about the beautiful hardware we are seeing on your bags and why some of your clutches actually look like works of art?
JF: Yes, many of our clutches are entirely handmade by an artisan from the jewelry industry. Typically, we make 20 clutches at a time, which means they are extremely rare. The hardware is custom and hand-made by another Florentine atelier that specializes in creating jewelry. The Art Deco and all metal clutches are made entirely by this man. He also creates most of the hardware for the bags, including the horse’s head on the Thoroughbred bag, the strips of metal on the Pacific Heights clutch and the tiny strips of metal on the Newport tote. He has also, of course, made some of the finest jewelry pieces in the world. When we bring the tech packs to Florence, we sit down with both the jewelry and manufacturing ateliers and discuss what custom-made pieces need to be made for each new line. The production of a single sample style runs thousands of dollars and takes about two months.
FS: Tell me about the typical Jill Milan customer.
JF: ANY woman can be the typical Jill Milan customer because the bags are timeless and transcend through generations. Many celebrities already carry our bags: Fiona Gubelmann, Olivia Munn, Minnie Driver, Beth Behrs, Bo Derek, Teri Polo and Maria Bello just to name a few. Because we create such a limited number of handbags a year, they can be sure they will not be carrying the same bag as the actress sitting next to them.
FS: The current collection includes a variety of day bags and evening clutches but are there any future plans to expand the brand to include mens’ bags and luggage?
JF: Yes, we do. This will probably happen around spring 2013.
FS: How important is a great bag to defining a woman’s personal style?
JF: I think if you have a fairly classic wardrobe, you can add new bags to update a look very easily. Furthermore, handbags are interactive. They’re typically one of the first things you notice about someone’s look. A great bag can make a bold and powerful statement.
FS: Partial sales of the signature “Thoroughbred Bag” goes to benefit horse rescue efforts. Why did you choose to use this bag to support philanthropic efforts?
JF: The handmade horse head and horse shoes on this bag symbolize our commitment to this issue. We donate a portion of the proceeds from this bag to the Southern California Thoroughbred Rescue, a nonprofit organization that works to rescue at-risk thoroughbreds from slaughter.
FS: Tell us about your Spring 2012 collection.
JF: I am so excited about JM Spring collection! We’re introducing some beautiful colors for spring 2012 and some great new styles as well. Also, we are incorporating many new design elements in our handmade clutches.
FS: What can we expect to see from Jill Milan in the future?
JF: We are always looking at new materials. We have already completed the designs for Fall 2012 and the new bags look fabulous. Our range in styles and colors continue to broaden each season.
By: Juliet De Rose & Jen Abrams