Kadri Kruus: Fascinated by The Mystery of Handbags
Kadri Kruus is a bag and accessory designer who graduated from the Estonian Academy of Arts with a degree in leather art, and will next year celebrate the tenth anniversary of her own brand – Kadri Kruus – Bags and Accessories. Long-term professional commitment and passion were also highly valued at Tallinn Fashion Week this fall, where she won the Golden Chamber of Needles – an award for the best accessory designer, which was given out for the first time in TFW’s history.
When talking about Kadri Kruus‘ design, one can refer to the high quality of material, masterful craftsmanship and functionality, to which just the right amount of glamor and playfulness has been added. Kruus’ creative handwriting is recognizable to long-time customers and becomes an eye-catching for those who are still diving into the Estonian design landscape. In addition, Kruus’ strength lies in her openness to new, constant (re)interpretation of her activities and in consideration of the broader social context. With this in mind, we thought it suitable to make a short stop to explore Kruus’ thoughts on the development of the brand, her creative work, and her plans for the future.
Kadri, you wrote that you were initially fascinated by the passion and dedication of the professionals of leather art. After so many years, what fascinates you most about leather art today?
To be perfectly honest, instead of being excited about leather, I was even more fascinated by creating accessories and especially handbags. How the bag looks like is one thing, but only the wearer herself knows what is inside. There can be something scary, but also something very loving. And sometimes the owner herself doesn’t know what is there! Years ago we made a game with my friends, where everyone took everything out of their handbags. It was hilarious! From fish-shaped stained glass to real personal items – all kinds of things came out. Also, the handbag has always been accompanied by various myths and teachings. I immediately remember the mother’s childhood teaching that no one should look into another person handbag. This is what fascinates me to this day – the mystery that comes along with handbags.
How much have your thoughts, team and creative handwriting changed over the years?
Oh, a lot! On the one hand, I have been influenced by all the designers and professionals I have worked with, and on the other hand by my clients, who are a very important source of information. If in the early years the brand was my personal self-expression, i.e. I made products based on my vision and needs, then today I am mainly guided by customer feedback. When you think about it this way, my brand and I are two completely different people today.
However, the team has not grown much larger over the years. Two assistants help me with the production of bags, and for photography and writing I have the same people with whom I have worked with periodically over the years. In ten years, it is possible to gather a very talented and not a big team at all around you!
Do you think leather will remain your main medium until the end of time, or have you thought about completely changing it?
Actually, I have been experimenting with new materials for quite some time, but I have not yet found the right material to stick to and which quality I would be completely satisfied with. I will certainly not say that I will stick to the leather forever. And that should not be the case either.
I am very much in favor of consuming less meat, which would also reduce the surplus of leather. Unfortunately, as long as the meat is still eaten, leather will continue to be a residual product. It is also sad to note that, unlike to Italy and Spain, where the use of leather as a residual product is very strictly monitored, the Estonian leather industry does not have a circular economy. The raw materials are purchased from Italy. However, I agree that the residual material must be used, and I think that small design studios have an advantage here. In contrast to larger industries, small production allows the material to be used in full.
You have said that your products are also made of Italian leather. Is that still the case?
That’s right. I buy material from Italy and Spain. In the latter, for example, there is a small town called Elda, which is entirely devoted to the leather industry. Althought the industries are, of course, wall to wall, I have seen that factories do not necessarily have to be insanely large. Instead, many small businesses have been established in Elda.
As already mentioned, when talking about your work, it is impossible to overlook the key concepts that are becoming increasingly important in the wider social context as well – sustainability and environmental awareness. How have these keywords become important in your work?
I think it’s been coded inside me since the Soviet era. Leather, even very small pieces, was always used completely because it was expensive and difficult to obtain. However, while teaching at the EAA, I noticed that as the material became more accessible, the attitude towards it became much more light-handed. And it has remained that way until today. I hope that the social processes will move towards a restoration of the value of leather, as it was seen years ago.
The more time passes, the more transparent the brands become and thus, the customer has an understanding of why to prefer a seemingly too expensive product to an “exactly the same” product in a fast fashion chain. How have you designed your pricing policy and how often have you had to explain it?
I actually feel that I haven’t had to explain my products price that much. In the end, the price is of course determined by the percentage that the resellers add. For my part, I try to ensure that the people who work for me are satisfied and fairly paid for their work. Furthermore, the price is influenced by various other aspects – for example, where the showroom is located and much more. As for the difference between designer and fast fashion products, I have been thinking about so-called „aura“ of the products. When I design my own products, I always try to transfer the best energy to them. I wouldn’t like to think about the fact that the shirt I bought, and which is otherwise very beautiful, may have been made by a child with an empty stomach under very bad conditions.
Not to mention the fact that leather goods are often sold at incredibly low prices. How is it possible for a large retail chain to sell a full leather bag for 20 Euros? It is completely illogical. It should not be ignored, but it should be thought about who or what causes such a low price. Often it is not possible to radically change our consumption habits immediately, but I think it’s still worth investigating, looking and thinking about what is happening around us in small steps. Otherwise, we will soon simply no longer have this world.
You have mentioned that your customer profile varies from housewives, kindergarten teachers to entrepreneurs. The average client is not described by profession, age, or location, but by similar values. Could you describe a little of what your customers value?
My client wants to speak the same language as the brand. She often distinguishes herself by observing her own social and natural footprint and appreciates the quality. Often she is also a patriot of her own country. This became particularly clear during the crisis, when a large number of customers approached me, who, in a great fear of me being suddenly forced to suspend my work, wanted to consciously support the brand with their purchase. For these people, local production is invaluable.
How long is the „average lifespan“ of your products? Do customers have the opportunity to come to the studio and ask you to repair the purchased products?
Yes, we do fix our handbags. Recently, for example, it has happened that the bags have been used so much that the metal fittings of the bags are worn out! On the other hand, it is quite complimentary because it shows that our bags are very durable. We have also changed the zippers. Just think how much it has to go back and forth throughout its life on a bag! This is why we have also tried to make the customer think more about what she is buying the bag for. If she chooses a bag for everyday use and for carrying larger things, it would be wise to choose a larger bag as well. If everyday bags are stuffed on the bench, the zipper textile will wear out much faster than it should.
However, it would be difficult to determine the average lifespan, as it depends on how often a person uses it. A high-quality bag can be a lifetime investment, but wearing it daily, it will wear out involuntarily. Although we have customers who like this worn-out look even more! This kind of client will ask us to change the zipper and then carry on wearing the bag with pleasure. However, I do not impose this way of thinking on all customers and I believe that it is not necessary either. I think my job as a designer is to raise the client’s self-esteem according to her wishes, not to say: “Yes, this bag is worn, but it’s not broken – you should keep wearing it!”
Which of your products has been the most popular over time?
The most popular bag model is ANNA. It is a very simple march bag, which is most praised for its softness. In a way, Anna may seem too simple, but it is extremely comfortable to wear and to use every day. This has also made it a customers favourite.
2020 has been a year of many turbulent moments, and likely no one is to be left unaffected by the changes, whether major or minor. How has it affected you? Have you had to redefine your brand or production in any way?
Fortunately, this year has not caused any colossal damage to the brand. Few bigger companies did cut their costs and some orders indeed went down, but that did not affect our workflow that much. Rather, the predominant emotion was fear, and it seems to me that a certain overthinking and imagining possible scenarios have been worse than the actual situation itself.
It’s good to hear that! And finally, have you already set plans and goals for the coming year? Exciting thoughts of which you could gently lift the veil of secrecy?
My this year’s collection for the Golden Chamber of Needles is completely different from my usual work. If I generally pay a lot of attention to the wishes of my customers, then this collection is my own pure experience and introspection. The bags in the collection have kept their functionality, but each bag is a test of some technology and material that should ultimately help me further in the future. Each bag represents an idea, that can be made into a separate collection, therefore I could reveal that at some point one of these „experiments“ might become a serial product.
Photos: Anari Hagel
MUAH: Marii Lotta
Outfit: Eve Hanson
Model: Anna Vandel