Text by Kee | Photos courtesy of Gabo Guzzo
Gabo Guzzo

Gabo Guzzo has the kind of A-list name that you just know is destined for greatness. The Italian-born artist, a graduate of Central Saint Martins, has set loftier goals for himself than just owning a Hollywood-type moniker. What you don’t know, however, is that he has high hopes to better our world one handbag creation at a time.

In any life manual, they don’t tell you that second careers are often the best moves. Harry Styles was a baker, Brad Pitt was a limo driver, and even Pope Francis was a bouncer. In the case of Gabo Guzzo, he hasn’t entirely given up on being a full-time artist, the profession that continues to nourish his soul and define his meaning of existence since graduating with an MA in Fine Art from the prestigious Central Saint Martins. Instead, Guzzo – who has helmed more than his fair share of art exhibitions – discovered his hidden talent in handbag design at just about the right time when the fashion world is craving for fresh perspectives. What is perhaps even more impressive is that he hasn’t allowed his lack of experience in the trade dissuade him from finding the means to create his one-of-a-kind designs. And such is the uniqueness of his handbags that it would only take a special set of skills to imagine it into reality. Guzzo searched high and low for a such a collaborator before earning facetime with an 80-year-old master leather craftsman who has created bags for royalty. Guzzo’s designs piqued the interest of the master, who has perhaps seen just about every other design in existence. The rest as they say is history. There are two main designs in Guzzo’s catalogue: Millefoglie and Spinosa. The former is a multi-layered leather handbag with a gemstone clasp that looks as hardy as the protective armour of an armadillo, while the latter is a metalworking dream of a boxed clutch with an expertly crafted handle reminiscent of a crown of thorns. Guzzo is sensitive about fair tannery practices and the skins he uses  in the process, making sure he only acquires them from sustainable sources. Though many designers would make claims about the complexity of their carriers, Guzzo’s creations do look the definition of complex. For example, over 60 pieces of leather go into creating a Millefoglie handbag and that’s not even including the metal hardware. What is also special is that each piece is honoured just like an art work hanging in a gallery. Guzzo ensures that the respective artisan signs off on each work – their actual signatures are featured inside the bag – so as to also ensure that every creation is traceable. Our prediction is that the art world’s loss might just be fashion’s gain.

Spinosa clutch in gold plated brass with blue sapphire gemstone

MANIFESTO: You studied Fine Art at Central Saint Martins, which led to an art residency before you decided to launch your namesake fashion label. It’s a bold move for any artist. What sparked this curiosity to venture into unfamiliar territory?

GABO GUZZO: Central Saint Martins helped to hone my multi-disciplinary approach. My graduate show was an installation that was created with a sound engineer, a set designer who worked with Alexander McQueen at the time, and there were also actors. I enjoy working in a collaborative aspect as it brings about innovation and new ideas. I had the privilege to work with Paul Crutzen during  my art residency. He is a chemist and Nobel laureate. This was an awakening for me – it was in 2012 – as I got to promote the message of climate change. So, I started thinking along the lines of art that involves less production. It brought me to fashion which I consider as a good vehicle to spread this message. We all love fashion and engage in one way or another. Handbags came to mind as it has this sculptural element that is very inspiring.

M: You eventually met someone in London who was able to make these bags for you. How did that come about?

GG: It was not easy and I had no experience. I had the designs with me and I thought they looked rather straightforward to any handbag maker. But when I showed it to others, they told me these designs are really complex to develop. So I started to do my research and went to Florence to get information on the workshops. It took me a few months before I found someone whom I considered as the right guy. He was then an 80-year-old and has worked on bags since he was young. I wasn’t sure if he would take up my project as he is always busy. I brought the designs to him but his assistant said that he might not be able to meet me. One afternoon, I got a call and that was the moment. She told me that he was going to London the next day and asked if I had time for a meeting. We met in London and I showed him my designs. I thought it was going to be a quick meeting but he cancelled all of his other appointments to discuss how we could work together.

As you know we don’t have many bag designs, only two. It took quite a lot of discussions and trials especially for the Spinosa handles, since we can’t use any standard techniques to develop it. They had to be done by a goldsmith, creating it to look like a jewellery piece. The construction of the Millefoglie also needed the right hands to make it. In 2017, I had the possibility to show my bags to private clients in London.

Millefoglie J bag in black calfskin leather with hawk’s eye gemstone

M: Were you already  selling other bags to private clients before?

GG: The presentation to private clients started in 2017. Working with private clients gave me motivation and drive as they validated what I’m doing. The first meeting with these people allowed me to approach with the idea that these bags are like heirlooms and that you can own it and pass it onto the next generation. It promotes a more responsible and sustainable type of fashion. What I am trying to do also is to help people shape their style, to be different and be more independent.

M: How did you meet fashion clients since you were knee-deep in the art world?

GG: Coming from this art circle, it’s true that I only met fine art collectors. Of course, they are also connected to people who collect fashion and I ended up meeting people who are also connected to royals and intellectuals. From there, it expanded through word of mouth. I didn’t start this project to turn it into a business or a brand. It was really an art project that had people realising that they wanted to carry my bags. From there, the vision and path changed.

We started stocking at Bergdorf Goodman in New York. We showed the bags along with my sculptures. And that was in 2019. Things moved really fast. Lane Crawford came on board after. Then Farfetch and Harrods followed. I’m very selective with the people I work with and the products we launch as I want to be in control every step of the way. At the moment, we are still a small team of hardworking people.

Millefoglie C clutch in silver calfskin leather with amazonite gemstone

M: What were the original inspirations for the bags? They look inspired by Alexander McQueen and are sort of animal-related.

GG: McQueen’s influence is present because I have worked with the set designer and they have such super shows. I like working with words and small text. I don’t use a mood board. I prefer references in the form of poetry or key words. When you work with people from different backgrounds, sometimes words are a better communication tool.

The original brief was to unite the small energy of the world with a larger energy from the universe. This is an invitation to explore life and to be free. This brief lets us explore animals, plants and nature which you can definitely see as parts of the bags. Millefoglie, for example, references layers of leaves.

M: Did the final result of the handbags look different from the original sketches?

GG: I have to say that the bags look almost similar as the original.  We did improve them in a way such as additional pockets. In the case of Millefoglie’s metalwork, it has also been beautified slightly. Usually I don’t like to sway from my original idea as I’m very insistent on them but it is only possible if you work with people who have the same level of stubbornness as you. (Laughs)

The good thing about these bags is that they are not seasonal because if they are, then things have to be created in a very short span of time and at a faster pace. I have the luxury of time to create a better product and in more meaningful shapes.

M: As an artist at heart, how do you acclimatise to the business aspects of fashion?

GG: It is a huge learning curve. I’m trying to respond to the market and to requests. At the same time, I don’t want to compromise too much on my DNA. I do think we need to change as consumers and as businessmen but we do have to start somewhere. I’m resistant on the idea of producing a seasonal collection and mass producing. I prefer producing capsule collections of one-of-a-kind pieces. The challenge is to explain to people that there are other ways of working. The industry is organised by seasons and there is a buying window to adhere to. I’m trying to start a different conversation as clients aren’t organised in that way.

Millefoglie M bag in light blue calfskin leather with turquoise gemstone

M: What did your family initially think about the idea of you turning into a handbag designer?

GG: (Laughs) I think they were confused at the beginning. It was news to them. But sometimes it is better not to explain too much. So, I invited my mom to London and I showed her the handbags. It was love at first sight for her. They are big fans and supporters and they believe that it is part of my personality.

M: It takes courage to put your name on a label. What went into the decision?

GG: It was not an easy decision to use my name. It took a long time to find the courage to do so. My consideration was related to the fact that if I am serious about this project and put enough energy into it, I do not need to hide my commitment.

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