For an entire year, Jessica Hadden head of brand development at Alfie Douglas has been sampling literally hundreds of different materials the hope of creating the ultimate everyday bag. She's been going through all kinds of leathers, threads and components, designing prototypes which she is continually testing on willing subjects.
"This was a challenge that sounded simple at the beginning, but it quickly grew into an obsession" says Jessica, one of the company's founders.
Since launching the concept in 2012 Alfie Douglas have pushed boundaries, striving to simplify design whilst maximising function and durability to create the best bags in the world. This kind of devotion might seem a little unusual, but it's not out of the ordinary for this team of creatives. Going back to basics they created a revolutionary way of making bags from a ‘building-block system’ of components. Every single element of a bag was scrutinised, the materials, the design, the hardware, the sewing. Constantly experimenting with different materials and techniques testing how they interacted with each other striving to create their own version of the everyday bag that would excel in every way.
To much critical acclaim, Alfie Douglas launched their first range in 2014 with press media posing the question ‘is Alfie Douglas the next great British bag brand?’ “We had set the bar pretty high for any other products that followed,” Jessica says, "but we realised that we had not pushed the boundaries as far as we could”. The concept for the Zero bag was born - to create the ultimate everyday bag that would be timeless in design, functional, durable and made from beautiful materials that would age as gracefully as their owners.
Alfie Douglas has been making leather bags for several years, and a year ago, embarked on a project to create the ultimate minimal everyday bag. Making an ultra-simple bag might seem like a fairly basic challenge at first, but Jessica says that when you start looking at the details and subtlety, things quickly get complicated. "At first glance, there's not a whole lot going on or a lot of hardware to think about," she says. "But doing something that is genuinely unique and special is both a design and manufacturing challenge."
“We had a fairly clear brief” explains Jessica, “we wanted to right back to basics, draw a line and start again” and that’s where the name ‘Zero’ came from “we wanted to go back to where we started, the zero point, and embody all of our values and beliefs in a single product”. Values of minimal, timeless design, function and durability lie at the core of Alfie Douglas’ activities.
Finding the right leather was the first big challenge. Jessica and her designers hunted all over Britain and Europe visiting tanneries to find leathers that felt substantial and were still light and durable. They settled on a premium vegetable-tanned leather made in a small tannery in Northern Italy. A total of two years have been spent testing and refining to obtain the ultimate thickness resulting in a beautiful rich, distinctive finish.
The team developed a rapid closure system that relied on sourcing precisely the right type of strap leather. “This was a far greater challenge that we expected “ explains Jessica, “we abandoned the usual way of making straps of two pieces of leather sewn together and adopted a solid bridle leather, the results were amazing”.
“We wanted a bag that would suit both men and women and look good on different body types” Jessica explains, “we also wanted the bag to convert from a shoulder bag to backpack, easy to talk about almost impossible to do in practice!”. But team AD were up to the challenge. ”The process involved creating many different prototypes that were tested on dozens of people. “We have created a revolutionary ‘motion’ tab which enables the bag to quickly convert from a shoulder bag to backpack”, explains co-designer Davida “this was one of those ‘light-bulb’ moments that doesn’t come round that often!”
Jessica goes on to make clear that the result was not necessarily supposed to be fashionable; it's supposed to be classic and last forever. “Too many items today are fussy and frivolous, we are turning into a throw-away society far removed from the source of the materials and the people making them”. Alfie Douglas is minimal at its core, shunning the ‘here-today-gone-tomorrow’ attitude, “we make items to last a lifetime, and share the journey”.
Alfie Douglas pride themselves on the small scale production in their London Studios, every bag gets a dedicated maker and why no two items are ever exactly the same, “there is an indefinable spirit in every piece that we make” says Jessica “people are starting to recognise our products by their distinctive look and not being defined by a prominent logo”.
"We are not a repetitive factory-based business” says Jessica, “people think that sewing is a thoughtless process, but every maker actually has their own unique qualities," Jessica says. “Our makers are a dedicated group of individuals who take great pride in everything that they make”. Every piece is assembled and finished by hand, even the rivets which are specially made are hand-hammered each maker has their own distinctive style and personality which they impart to every item.
The end result is a beautifully simple bag manages to feel light, but substantial. The leather is rich and comfortable and the functional features outstanding. Alfie Douglas have created a truly unique product in a huge congested market place.
“We just want to create products that become second nature to their owners and that show we care in a world that is increasingly uncaring” says Jessica.
1. Our products are led by the simple desire to create products that you only have to buy once in your lifetime...