INTERVIEW: JEN STILWELL OF ALL HANDS
JEN STILWELL IS THE DESIGNER OF SOME OF OUR FAVORITE NEW ITEMS – THE ALL HANDS LEATHER BAGS. SHE TELLS HER VERY INTERESTING STORY TO OAK’S ALICIA HOGAN IN THE FOLLOWING INTERVIEW. CHECK IT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE DESIGNER, AND FIND YOUR OWN INSPIRATION WITHIN HERS. THE HANDMADE ALL HANDS LEATHER BAGS ARE NOW AVAILABLE ONLINE AND IN STORE.
NAME?: Jen Stilwell
LOCATION (NOW)?: Long Island City, but I’m a nomad so this could change.
WHERE DID YOU GROW UP?: On ships, in the Andes mountains, and Houston, Texas.
BIRTHDATE?: I am a Sagittarius with a virgo moon and virgo rising.
HOW DID YOU BECOME INTERESTED IN CREATING LEATHER GOODS?: I’m half Argentine, so I think like most argentines, I was probably born with the leather and red meat gene. I always knew one of my strengths was “making” things, but I never knew what. I was horrible at college, couldn’t focus and felt like all I was doing was wasting my fathers hard earned money. I dropped out of school and got a sweet job in the music industry. After that ended, I knew I needed to explore making things again. I wanted something tangible- I was into handbags for whatever reason, and then it all clicked; I didn’t give a shit about conceptually designing things, it was the construction I actually cared about…. So I started apprenticing with leather artisans.
TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOUR LEATHER ARTISAN TRAINING. WHO DID YOU TRAIN WITH? HOW LONG?: I did my first apprenticeship (or what I lovingly call “arts ‘n crafts hour”) in Argentina. I basically stalked the guy until he agreed to teach me stuff. There was no plan. We bickered at each other for like the first month. I guess I thought I was going to walk in there and immediately start making Birkin’s or something. He basically was like: “Listen, you don’t know what you are doing and you’re being aggressive because you want to learn so much with zero foundation and you’re freaking me out”. He was right. So I went and took a patternmaking class at the local fashion school, and then went back to him. We then spent the next 10 months playing with leather, drinking mate, smoking cigarettes, and making weird tooled mate holders. Nothing I was really interested in, but I was learning and I was happy. The first thing I made was a belt for my friend who’s last name is “Otto”- I tooled: “it’s otto-matic” in cursive across the back of the belt. Second apprenticeship was in London with a sample maker for Mulberry. That was grueling and exhilarating. We both cried on my last day. I learned so much about the craft and most important, I learned that I was a leather artisan. The last thing he told me in my last 30 minutes there was: “Jen, you’re good. You care about the craft and you are a GOOD leather artisan. Don’t give it up”, from that day on, there was no turning back. I still take jobs with other leather crafters, furniture designers, etc who have been making leather goods for decades- just so I can continue learning different techniques. My goal is to be able to work on leather full time, whether through my bags or through working with other people. I also want to train women how to do leather crafting. I want to one day work with a women’s collective and teach everything I’ve learned.
COULD YOU EXPAND ON THE EXPERIENCE OF WORKING AND LIVING ON A SHIP FOR US?: When I got back from Argentina, I found out that the love of my life had cheated on me. I went into a tailspin of sorts and did what any rational human being would do- I took a job on a ship in Alaska as a deckhand! All jokes aside, I was terrified that the pain I was feeling was going to lead me to make some horrible life decisions and I knew that in order to destroy myself in a positive way, and thus re-build myself, I needed to do something drastic. I needed nature. I didn’t think the national park system would have any interest in hiring someone who used to do A&R at a record label and played with some leather, so I got creative. Next thing I knew that dumb little job scrubbing anchor chains in Alaska led me to a wonderful position as part of an artisan development fund which worked to promote craft sustainability. All told, I was on the ships for about 3 years on and off, doing a combination of fund raising, sourcing, merchandising, and hanging out with some of the most fascinating scientists, historians, and biologists who all lived and worked on this ship. I travelled with this motley crue of people from the Arctic to Antarctica and everywhere in between. I had a portable leather studio in my cabin, and when I wasn’t out in the extreme temperatures checking out penguins or hanging with polar bears or jumping into the ocean from a top deck of a ship right at the equator, I was in my cabin making leather bags. In that cabin was where I made my first samples. Back in NYC, people thought I had lost my mind and taken a way-left turn in life by leaving everything behind and going on the ships. That feeling made me extremely self-conscious at the time because it brought up memories of my childhood, and being embarrassed that all the kids lived in houses and I lived on sailboats and ships with my father who was a ship captain. It seemed history was repeating itself and I was embarrassed. Now, when I look back at how I was raised, and the decision I made later in life to live aboard ships, I wouldn’t change the experience for the world.
WHY IS HANDMADE SO IMPORTANT TO YOU?: It’s important because I think we’ve moved so far away from it. It’s important in the same way that it’s important to have a concept of where your food comes from, or to know where other things you care about come from. Think about the most exquisite things you own or things you’ve consumed for a minute: they’re all hand made, or made with time, energy and care. The common thread is the amount of respect given to the process of how something is made. The craft. Hand made shouldn’t necessarily be something that only the wealthy or middle class have access to- it should be more of the norm and it saddens me that with globalization and mechanization, we’ve moved so far away from the idea of “hand made”. For me personally, I get really excited when I can tell that a stitch was done by hand, or when I find a tomato at a farmers market and it still has some dirt on it. I can form a connection to it- I can wrap my head around the place the tomato grew or the hands that stitched that stitch. That to me is ultimate luxury. In regards to handmade in the handbag world: well, most bags look like plastic these days- the leather looks like plastic, the edges look like plastic. Personally, other then the logo which shows that you are able to afford a certain label, all you’re really showing is that you like plastic-looking bags.
INSPIRATION?: SO MUCH! All the usual suspects; art, architecture, nature, design, but really its so many little things, and it changes everyday. Right now, TODAY, it’s this: bioluminescent phytoplankton, hot springs, bismuth crystals, the Atacama desert, my little brother, the migration of butterflies, the smell of a conifer forest, and operating out of a place of love, not fear. I’ve seen things in nature that have brought me to my knees with tears in my eyes. Just conjuring those images alone is enough inspiration for a lifetime.
IF YOU COULD BE ANYWHERE RIGHT NOW WHERE WOULD YOU BE?: I feel like I should say, “Right here”, but I would be lying…I’d much rather be on a sailboat in Corsica.