Check out our interview with Chicago leather bag designer, Ben Trissel.
Did you know Chicago has numerous talented designers? Chicago’s latest “it” designer right now; Ben Trissel . We chatted with Ben Trissel, the man behind the brand Sidgl about his inspirations behind the business, being bespoke, the customer service he provides, and of course the style of the product!
How did you get started in the industry? Did making bags run in your family?
I was apprenticed as a book designer. I worked in a small letterpress shop in Colorado, learning how to make books – and that experience strongly informs all my other professional experiences.
It was my father’s shop, and he was an incredible designer as well as a teacher. From an early age, I was immersed in not only the language of design, but I was learning how to use machines to make beautiful things.
I learned what it took to make really beautiful things. The word I use to describe that process is ‘unreasonable’. You can use 20 percent of your energy to make something that’s good. To get to great you have to use 80 percent of your energy – you fight not only your own uncertainty, but you fight the limits of the technology.
Whether it’s a printing press or a sewing machine, a machine has limits. Great design happens at those limits. That’s what I learned from my father. As far as style goes – I grew up in a small town in Colorado. We didn’t have fashion. My older sister used to send me vintage clothing from San Francisco – back when you could still get really great pieces for cheap. I used to play in punk bands, and I’d show up on stage in these Harris tweed suits from the 50’s. It was hard to like fashion – there was a really social penalty for that as a man. The only thing that kept me safe was that I was tall and scary.
I would say what really informs my aesthetic are those experiences -working hard to make something and working against the prevailing attitudes to not only find expression but to make something beautiful.
When you invent something – when you create something new – it’s like breaking trail. You fight the prevailing wisdom to create a new language. You get told ‘no’ a lot.I think having faced outright aggression early on makes facing any kind of ignorance easier. I believe design can change the world. I believe in a small-batch revolution.
What made you decide to make a very versatile piece rather than a bunch of pieces for different occasions?
If you look at a Venn Diagram of three circles – one representing Function, one representing Style and one representing Durability, I like to think that Sidgl sits right in the center of those three interactions. One of my chief inspirations for the company was seeing that, while everyone carried a bag, there was no bag that “context switched” – ie was good for multiple situations. If a bag was pretty, it wasn’t good in the rain. If a bag was water-resistant, it wasn’t
stylish. The design problem was making a bag that you could use on a bike ride to work, then go into a morning meeting and not look like a bike messenger. It was a bag that was good for the office, but also for the gym. When I laid out my design constraints, my aim was to make something that had classic lines, was durable enough for all-weather,
and functioned in a modern setting. My further constraints, which a user doesn’t see is the sustainability aspect – how I source materials and manage material waste. I am a strong advocate of the “Slow Fashion” movement, and use that philosophy to drive my manufacturing process.
What are some inspirations you use when designing a bag?
Charles Eames is a great inspiration just in terms of describing an elegant design process. He spoke very eloquently about what constraints mean in the design process – as well as how design serves the form and function
of something. Bonnie Cashin was an inspiration early on, for how she got into designing bags for Coach, and for the versatility of her work. The Birkin Bag was also an inspiration in terms of the story of its creation – I think it has become too brittle in its modern incarnation – but Jane Birkin’s desire to have a stylish bag she could just throw all her stuff in resonates.
As for technical inspiration, I geek hard. I am a book designer by training, and I use a lot of math when I start a new bag. I think about proportional systems and material color. Jay Hembidge wrote a book called Dynamic Symmetry – it’s basically just mathematical formulas that describe classic designs. He spent several years measuring classic art
and architecture to find the systems used to build Greek columns, cathedrals, etc. Very cool stuff. I recommend that book to every designer I talk to. When you are starting with a blank page, the hardest part is deciding where that first line goes.
Patagonia is also a huge inspiration to me in terms of how a company should be run. When I first started Sidgl, I read Yvon Chouinard’s book, Let My People Go Surfing – which is the Patagonia new hires handbook – it
describes the company history and its evolving mission. Here is a specific piece of inspiration I used for designing a tote: Patagonia’s Standup Short. They don’t do it now, but back in the day, a pair of these shorts were made from canvas so heavy, the shorts would literally stand up on their own. They were hardcore. For the totes, I wanted that same sense of durability and ruggedness, along with a refined sensibility. I wanted the tote to “Stand Up”.
Are your pieces available for men and women and how do they vary by gender?
My designs are more male-centric because I am male – I design for myself in a sense – to my needs and tastes. But I would say half of my customers are women. In our culture women are just more attuned to style
and what style means. Personally, I think that’s too bad. The design is everything. Because everything I do is bespoke, people can choose color, and trim details, so I have a lot of conversations about what would look good in combination. I don’t see a lot of difference between how men and women decide on colors, other than men like darker and more monochromatic. A little bit more dramatic. The 0001 backpack design was originally done for a woman – and her requirements really pushed the design process. In the end, the main leather trim for the bag is dark –a Havana Brown leather from Horween in Chicago–but I have gotten requests for a lighter leather, so I have done a couple one-offs in a lighter tone, One woman from New York just wanted black leather – as she said, “New Yorkers don’t do brown.”
I don’t make purses because mostly – I don’t understand purses. I can certainly appreciate a purse as a designed object, but on the functional and durability end of things, I just don’t understand them, if that makes sense.
Totes are a new thing for me. I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about totes. I don’t think I’ve designed the right tote yet – It’s a question of simplicity in its design, while making it a catch-all. I think, to design a tote well, I have to imagine myself a lot smaller than I am. I’m 6’5” – so my sense of carrying something is kind of based around
that framework. My first totes were HUGE. Now I think I’ve over correct, and I’m making totes that are too small. The math on totes remains elusive at the moment I try to honor people’s wants and needs as much as possible, because that’s kind of the core of the company.
What sets your business apart from the many other bag businesses in the Chicago area?
What I love about Chicago is that there are a lot of good designers here, and a lot of small companies doing cool stuff. And it’s all over the map too in terms of accessibility. From inexpensive to luxe product. It’s a lot like the food scene here in that sense, where you can get the best hot dog you’ve ever had, at the same time, there are 3-star Michelin restaurants that are the best in the country here. There’s something about the unfettered desire to make, here in Chicago that I find really inspiring.
I think my designs are unburdened by the expectations of what a bag is supposed to be. Coming at the problem as a book designer first has made my designs different from others. I think also my obsession with how a bag fits is different from others. I think about straps a lot. A LOT! I would describe my product as High-End Dirt Bag in the sense I want people to be able to play rugby with one of my bags – but look really good while doing it. I had this dream a while ago. In the dream, I was talking to Jeff Veen, one of the founders of Typekit, about my company and he said “What makes your company different from any other company is you. Focus on that.” So I’ve been focusing on what dream Jeff told me to focus on.
What’s next for your brand?
Growth. In terms of sales and branding. I’m still a little tiny company, struggling through its first year. I have big dreams. I’d like to hire someone, eventually, so I need to scale for that. I’m looking into a GoFundMe or IndieGoGo campaign to raise the funds to do that. Bigger picture, I want to continue to focus on our sustainability story, and really work on refining that.
I’d also like to continue to identify problems with manufacturing in the US and scale the company to address those issues over time. I think the most ambitious aspects of the company is addressing that. As a country, we’ve outsourced so much that manufacturing in this country – the making of textiles, the supply chain for raw materials, is pretty broken. It doesn’t scale well for small start-ups. I think, not just me, but a lot of small batch manufacturers who feel that pain is starting to address that. I think that’s both the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity. It’s exciting.
Where Can we purchase your bag?
From my website: www.Sidgl.com
Thanks Ben for your time! We enjoyed learning more about your brand Sidgl!
As you can tell from our interview with Ben, he is a man who exudes passion behind his brand. We love all the details and learn what inspires him to make his bags. I think we all know what to get our man for a special gift that will last forever!
Fashionista Chicago Contributor