- Buyer's Guide
Design Heads :: Kika Vliegenthart
Brooklyn-based Kika NY believes in creating high-quality carry goods that blend New York style and functionality with traditional crafting techniques and top-notch materials. Founded in 2009 by Kika Vliegenthart and Sabine Spanjer, the brand prides itself on its understated and minimalistic designs that are handmade with attention to detail. Kika kindly agreed to share her insights on working with leather, design inspirations and what’s on the horizon for Kika NY…
Are there any key insights that guide your stuff?
We design and make our samples with the two of us, meaning Sabine Spanjer (co-founder) and I. All our production is handmade in our studio in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Inspired by the bridle industry we work with thicker, denser leather than most people in our field who make things for human beings. Most of the seams on our bags are on the outside, they are beveled and waxed. Almost no other bag maker uses this old-fashioned technique. Another thing that sets us apart, I think, is that we don’t focus on making men’s or women’s bags. We make and design bags, like we would make furniture. Objects that can be used by anyone.
We work with the highest quality leather we can find. Mostly Italian leather we import ourselves and we work with Horween from Chicago as well. The hardware we use is hand-tooled in a family-owned foundry in Europe. Coming up with new designs is a process of seeing shapes, sometimes in architecture, sometimes in particular fields of work, sometimes in animals and insects, sometimes in objects made by other people.
The basic idea of our work is shape and functionality. We strip our bags from all the unnecessary until only the naked shape is left. The functionality of course being our highest goal. Showing the beauty of the leather is the most rewarding aspect of the process. I think the “stripping” is what sets us apart.
What do you know that most others haven’t realized?
I think showing the beauty of the leather is what others don’t do as much. People work with a lot of hardware, canvas details etc. We prefer to be led by the purity of the materials and show off its beauty.
What are your main channels for your creative inspiration?
Architecture, clothing and art of Europe and the Middle East mixed with the latest trends on the streets of Brooklyn.
Where is your most creative space and why?
Our studio in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. We have a large space in one of the old buildings in this large industrial (still functioning) complex with ships, docks, old cranes, buildings and empty piers and fields. We have a gorgeous view of New York City and the East River through our large windows. Thunderstorms are the best thing to watch!
Any unusual places or circumstances where you got an idea for a new innovation in carry?
Watching people on the subways and streets of New York is the best place for ideas. What do they carry, what do they need in terms of pockets for phones, laptops, and other devices. How do they quickly jump in the trains, go down stairs, ride their bicycles, ride taxis and walk long distances on avenues in extreme hot summers and crazy cold winters.
Do you get a lot of ideas in the shower or the corner market foraging for organic dragon fruit?
Mostly in bed at night between 2am-4am and at breakfast.
Who do you look to in the bags world? Who does rad stuff?
Bicycle messenger bags, bags used in the fields, oceans and mountains by indigenous people, Swiss army bags and old tool bags. Isaac Reina is our hero.
Are there any trends or things folk do in carry that drive you nuts?
Not really, I think it’s always fun to see what people come up with to try make their life easier in the streets of New York. It’s mostly information for us. And most New Yorkers are very particular about what works best for them, no nonsense. When they are on their feet all day and easily commuting 2-3 hours a day, most of them figure it out quick. But things that bother us: too much bling bling cheap, fake hardware on bags. Bad construction of bags.
What materials do you most like to work with? Are there any new materials you’re experimenting with? Anything that will break the time-space continuum?
Leather from free-running animals, the thickest canvas we can find and hand-tooled brass.
What products are you most proud of?
The Leather Postal BackPack #3 and Leather Harvest BackPack.
Can you tell us a little about the inspiration behind them and their development?
The Postal BackPack #3 is inspired by a vintage postal backpack we found some years ago mixed with the latest bicycle messenger bags in New York.
The Harvest BackPack is inspired by the Harvest baskets used for picking fruits in the fields.
How do you test your product? What do you look for when testing? How many prototypes do you go through before release?
We wear and use it ourselves for a few weeks. Mostly 2-3 prototypes.
Do you have any burning goals or desires for your career? Are there things you really want to achieve?
We would love to grow a little bigger so we can expand and invest some more. Teach more people this old craft and make our lives a little easier. We are slowly learning that surviving in New York is not only making high-quality bags but also good marketing and PR. Europe is next. We are doing our first fashion trade show in Paris on 26-29 September. We have been doing MAN NY in New York for the past 3 years and it works very well for us, this September we will do WOMAN in Paris.
Do you have any favorite tips or habits for carrying better, either EDC or when traveling?
Backpacks are the best. Your hands are free and the weight distributed. Less injuries, and less toll on your body. The problem is that most backpacks are sports backpacks and not everybody is on the way to the top of a mountain or a workout. That’s exactly why we are giving an alternative. Beautiful, sturdy, functional backpacks for day-to-day living.
You’ve been in the game for a bit of time now. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about design and secondly about the carry industry?
1. A bag can be extremely beautiful to look at, but if the bag is not super-functional it loses its beauty.
2. Without solid PR you are nowhere to be found in this world. (We are still working on this…)
One great tip about working with leather?
My teacher told me it takes about 7 years to master the craft. And I agree, no hide is the same, there is a surprise factor every half hour. You have to be open to find alternatives and that’s why you need a lot of experience. I worked for Barbara Shaum, a well-known leather master in Lower Manhattan for 15 years and learned new things every day. Use the entire hide, honor the animal.
What product do you enjoy wearing the most?
I love my BackPack #3, I don’t use anything else all year around. Easy walking, biking, carries a lot of things, size is adjustable. Easy acces to my phone in the small pocket on the back panel. I love feeling the structure against my back, it’s waterproof, light and looks beautiful I think.
What wouldn’t the layperson know is essential to a good carry product? We all tend to appreciate convenient pockets, for example, but is there anything that we wouldn’t notice about an excellent carry product off-hand but a master of carryology always would?
High-quality zippers are super-important. It can destroy a bag if not working properly. Our Japanese buyers are always inspecting all the zippers we use and the way they are put in.
What would you love to do if not a bag designer? Any other dreams?
We were both documentary filmmakers before and we loved the extensive traveling and exploring new places and new people. But right now I can’t imagine doing something I love more than working in our studio and living in Brooklyn. Maybe a little more time to explore the world would be healthy and great. But we hope that will happen again in the not-so-far future. If I could do everything all over again I would probably study Architecture instead of Economics like I did, before moving to New York. Sabine probably Philosophy instead of Media Studies.
What would you tell a younger version of yourself (say five years ago) taking into account the experience/wisdom that present-day you has acquired?
Go for it! It will be a really tough ride but worth it. Don’t be afraid, keep your standards high. Never forget you are working with animal skins. Thank the animals every time for their gift.
What’s next for Kika NY?
Higher production with more people on board. Our team consists of 4 people now, 1 or 2 more would be fantastic. More emphasis on marketing and PR. Find some great retail partners in Europe.
Would you mind taking a photo of your workspace, and perhaps identifying any tools or personal items that help you most in your creations? Specific drafting pencils or a lucky charm or an explanation of why your workspace is so tidy and ours is . . . something not describable using the terms of polite conversation?
Oh, and here’s something a little different. This picture of the Chinese man in an animal corpse is one of my favorite artists and a large inspiration in my life. His name is Zang Chuang and he is one of the major contemporary Chinese artists.