At best, the average male views a woman’s handbag as a mysterious vessel out of which springs cosmetics, car keys, and occasionally useful items like breath mints. For women, of course, handbags mean so much more – fashion accessory, personal statement and an oft-described place where one’s “whole life” is stored.
For Rhode Island designer Kent Stetson, however, making a handbag is not just a work of art, but a labor of love. Some of his unique leather and canvas bags feature his original abstract artwork, including patterns drawn from photos of french fries, bacon, Matchbox cars and even the Johnston landfill. Others contrast affectionate treatment of materials like lizard and snake skin with bright materials that highlight the natural textures in the leather.
For example, one of his latest creations is a python bag that uses strips of neon coral lambskin to show off the cut of the hide. “The holes and scales look like lace in some places,” Steton says, adding: “The form emerges from the raw materials; no two bags are exactly alike. I don’t see them as merchandise as much as a way to tell a story.”
Stetson’s own tale began in rural New Hampshire, where he grew up on a horse farm. His mother repaired horse tack and his dad was a blacksmith, so Stetson was exposed to leather and metal work at a young age. Equally important, however, was his sister’s subscription to Vogue, especially the much-lauded September issue. “I was born with a shaker of glitter and a tube of glue in my hand,” he laughs.
Stetson studied as an “artist in denial” for two years at Brown before changing his focus from pre-med and philosophy to fine arts. After graduating, he tried his hand as a visual artist as well as paying the bills with jobs in real estate and retail.
About 10 years ago, he decided to print one of his abstract works on canvas and sew it up as a handbag rather than hanging it on a wall. “I sold it to the first person I showed it to,” he recalls. “At the time, my artwork wasn’t selling, so that was a lightbulb moment.”
Designing handbags allows for greater creativity than making clothing or shoes, Stetson contends. “A handbag is a good place to go out on a limb, because you can always set it down,” he says. “With clothing, it’s very loaded because you’re dealing with the body. I really feel like there are no rules with the design of a handbag. It just has to have an inside and an outside.”
Stetson has dabbled in selling his bags through big retail stores, but while the potential is there (and online, too) for bigger profits, he sees such transactions as too impersonal. “Each of these bags are like friends of mine,” he explains. “I have complex relationships with them, and I want to see them go to good homes. One of my biggest fears is that someone will purchase one of my bags and never use it, or want to return it.”
Instead, Stetson sells upwards of 1,000 bags each year at fashion shows and art exhibits such as the upcoming Artcraft show at the Courthouse Center Stage (formerly the Courthouse Center for the Arts), held December 1-2 in West Kingston.
Among the works of 30-odd artists in fiber, wood, leather, fine art, and gold and silver jewelry, you’ll find Stetson’s bags priced from about $45 to $400. More creative new designs will undoubtedly pop into Stetson’s head between now and then. “I dream of handbags,” he says. “I wake up every day and am genuinely excited to do this for a living.”