Functional arm candy

Not content with simply creating the next It bag, three Singapore-based designers up the ante with thoughtfully designed carry-alls.

Published Fri, Feb 20, 2015 · 09:50 PM
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PRECIOUS skins, statement hardware and trending silhouettes are usually the sexiest details that grab the attention of bagaholics when it comes to their next arm-candy acquisition. But some Singapore-based bag-makers are taking the craft to the next level, pairing such elements of style with padded pockets, stroller straps and roomy interiors to take its users from boardroom to changing room.

Michele Ng

Aide de Camp

NAMED after the French term for "camp assistant", the personal aide to a high-ranking official, Aide de Camp is a line of stylish camera bags that double as everyday totes. "Camera bags were very utilitarian in look and very bulky, with little room for personal items," laments Michele Ng, who realised there weren't any fashionable camera bags that could fit her DSLR camera and look good at the same time, at formal events or fashion shows. "Most of the female camera-owners I knew ended up wrapping their cameras in cardigans or scarves in their regular handbags or carrying them in separate bags."

Travelling with a camera bag also makes one a target for robbers who could spot a sporty looking, clunky case a mile away, and zoom in on expensive photography gear. The graduate from New York University's Stern School of Business with a double major in accounting and marketing then took a fashion studies course on the side, creating a collection of five bag styles including the Valencia, a roomy tote executed in lightweight nylon with a removable, compartmentalised camera pouch and back sleeve that slides securely over the handle of a roll-along suitcase, with a zippered base that converts into a slip pocket.

"I'd been knitting, sewing and making things from a young age and love dabbling in various projects involving creating and designing," says Ms Ng. "While I've never been formally trained in bag design, I just tried to include features that I would like to see in a bag. And I spent a long time exploring various materials available to find the best options for my bags, including features such as water-resistance, the quality if being light in weight and comfortable carrying straps." Her goal was to create a camera bag that looked just like any other stylish handbag, with practical details such as water-resistant material in case of spills or rainy weather, or full top closures so that one's belongings aren't vulnerable to pickpockets. She also did away with superfluous details to keep each design ultra-lightweight, but couldn't resist adding 14K gold-plated hardware on the Valencia for a touch of luxe.

The most obvious demographic for Aide de Camp would appear to be the growing female blogger community, as these modern-day style influencers tend to be fashion-conscious and own hefty photographic equipment.

"While my target market includes the blogger community - many bloggers own a DSLR or mirrorless camera and have a need to carry it out often while looking stylish - it does not make up my entire target market," admits Ms Ng, who is also a freelance make-up artist and runs her own blog, "That said, our bags have been especially prominent in the blogosphere, as lifestyle and fashion bloggers have taken very well to our effortlessly chic designs."

Female travellers who are tired of back-breaking carryalls for lugging around their tablets, documents and multitude of trinkets are Ms Ng's other target customers. Because no self-respecting jet-setter would be caught dead with a neon backpack - even if it boasts easy access to their laptop and protects their essentials. "While we market our bags as camera bags, the padded camera boxes are removable, which means you can use it as a regular handbag on a daily basis," explains Ms Ng. "This versatility is also handy when you travel and decide to leave your camera gear in the hotel. You wouldn't have to bring a different bag to use as a regular bag, nor do you have to carry the bulk of built-in padding around with you, as with many other camera bags."

Next up for the new mum: a multi-purpose bag that appeals to an active mother. The more casual design, dubbed Nadine, has a padded laptop compartment that can be removed and laid flat as a changing mat for busy mums. "I'd been told how the camera box doubled nicely as a bag organiser and I tried it myself as a diaper bag and was immediately sold," says Ms Ng. "The sturdiness of the box allowed for one-handed access and organisation compared to many soft-bag organisers where you'd need two hands to put things back in properly.

"The adjustable dividers also made it great to organise your diaper supplies in your bag! Bottles are held upright and everything can be seen and grabbed at a glance."


Soh Szetiong

72 Smalldive

WHILE most may baulk at toting around a tank, shorts and socks in 72 Smalldive's buttery-soft, grained calfskin bags, the luxurious duffel ranks as high on function as it does on aesthetics. Designed by Soh Szetiong, the brand's creative director who was nominated for The President Award for Designer of the Year in 2013, the oversized front-flap bag serves as a cabin carry-all, weekender and even city gym bag - for those hoping to instil locker-room envy.

But designing bags, or any other fashion item, happened purely by chance for Mr Soh. He graduated with a degree in Chemical Engineering (Hons) and an MBA, and worked as a business strategy consultant and developed an interest in accessory design. "In short, I have had no academic training in designing bags," says Mr Soh. "The idea came about when I was based in Milan. As a pastime, I developed a line of jewellery in collaboration with a contemporary jewellery store. During the collaboration, the jeweller introduced the project to a gallery curator. With her advice and positive feedback, that project led on to two other jewellery collections and eventually a mini-collective of bags with the jewellery serving as clasps."

Mr Soh, who moved to Milan to pursue his MBA at SDA Bocconi School of Management, went on to present his works at Paris Fashion Week in a private showroom in 2007 and managed to secure some orders for the bags. He then learnt the craft by spending time in the artisans' workshop, gleaning basic design principles from textbooks and poring through copious archival images of bags.

"The learning is truly hands-on and to date, I am still learning from the artisans," admits the designer, who also showed his sophomore menswear collection at the world's top men's fashion trade fair, Pitti Uomo in Florence last year. "The bag's utilitarian characteristic stems from a rather personal aspect of myself - I believe that design has to serve a purpose. Most of 72 Smalldive's bag collections begin with envisioning how the collection would fit into the lifestyle of the consumer."

Today, his brand is stocked in countries such as Austria, France, Italy, Hong Kong and South Korea - with 50 per cent of sales from online platforms. Apart from the functional duffel that comes in myriad materials including the more luxurious and perhaps less durable digitally printed silk, Mr Soh also created slim folios that fit an iPad 2 and a suede haversack with calfskin trim for travel or traipsing through town.

While he readily admits that his soft, leather bags aren't made for heavy loads, Mr Soh takes great pains to ensure the durability of the bags through the right sewing techniques, reinforcements, leather and pattern cuts so that the bag isn't damaged with daily use. "At times, one has to compromise on aesthetics for sewing techniques," adds Mr Soh, whose bags and accessories are all handmade in Milan. "Or because I use only full-grain leather and not split leather for my products, therefore for each design, I have to determine the correct thickness of the leather and hence have to visit the leather mill and have the leather milled into varying thickness."

As much, as Mr Soh tries to envision a purpose for each 72 Smalldive bag, the designs serve a whole range of other functions based on the needs of their users over time. "A customer told me she would be using her purchased 9 O'Clock Tales messenger bag as a camera bag for her travels," recalls Mr Soh. "I also know a couple of clients who use the Slow Boat shopper tote bags to hold their students' exam papers. A sales executive in Chicago asked for a customised leather folio with a cross-body strap so that she could use it as a slim computer satchel instead of a folio clutch. Honestly, how these clients use the items weren't that offbeat or unexpected to me because the customers found the purpose and that is all that matters."


Rosie Jansen

Tribe Bags

THE biggest bane of a mum's life - apart from 2am feeds and dirty diapers, is having to carry both a handbag and diaper bag. Especially when the latter was usually designed by a manufacturer whose idea of "chic" is slapping on bows and floral prints on a flimsy tote.

"Insofar as baby bags go, it's all too common for style and quality to come at the expense of functionality, says Rosie Jansen, founder of Tribe Bags. "There are a lot of serious bag lovers out there, and Tribe caters to a customer segment of discerning individuals who want style, quality and functionality in a less-than-ordinary offering."

A practising lawyer for 10 years before she started Tribe, the Australian-born mother of a five-year-old boy moved to Singapore when her husband enrolled in an MBA programme here. From her area of specialisation in derivative transactions, working as in-house lawyer for global investment banks in Tokyo and Singapore, Ms Jansen developed an interest in marketing, branding and niche markets when reading her husband's course materials.

"There was no magic moment when I decided that I would leave banking and embark upon creating a brand of luxury baby bags," says Ms Jansen. "Rather, it was a gradual process which started with me becoming interested in marketing, branding and niche markets. It ended up with me observing that the baby bag market had many average mass-market offerings but very few high-end offerings."

Made from soft-milled cowhide, the brand's signature baby bag looks like any other utilitarian purse. However, it is pretty much equipped for everything besides the kitchen sink: the bag boasts a comfy leather shoulder pad, side pockets for sippy cups, multiple slip pockets for pacifiers and toys, and a generously sized changing mat that is large enough for even a toddler. To date, the playfully named Singapore Sling has been spotted on mega-celebs such as model Gisele Bundchen and actress Katherine Heigl.

"Tribe's celebrity fan base has grown organically with many celebrities buying bags from us to gift to their friends," reveals Ms Jansen. "No celebrity was paid to carry or endorse Tribe, so if a celebrity is seen with a Tribe baby bag, it's because they genuinely like our bags. I like what this says about Tribe and its desirability as a brand."

Following the success of the Singapore Sling, Ms Jansen released a more affordable carry-all-style diaper bag in Saffiano leather - treated to produce a cross-hatch texture that is scratch- and stain-resistant. Named the Balmoral, it also includes a changing mat and nylon pouches with clear plastic fronts to stash diapers, medication and snacks. And creating a fashionable tote that helps organise myriad baby paraphernalia is no mean feat. In fact, the entrepreneur took two years of planning before she launched the brand.

"A lot of tweaking goes on to try to get a good balance across all three areas," admits the working mum. "Material selection, weight, performance, design aesthetics, and production costs are key considerations, and it's a process of constant adjustments across all areas until a suitable prototype is produced. The design process can be challenging because even within Tribe's well-defined customer segment, no two consumers are the same and each individual consumer will have slightly different preferences, such as the mix of style, quality and functionality."

But the effort seems to have paid off. The Singapore Sling won the UK Junior Design Award for the Best Changing Bag within the company's first year of business, and some customers even put down their names for pre-orders of its popular black rendition. "Every year is about improving on what's been done before, particularly in respect of Tribe's product offering, brand awareness, and market penetration," explains Ms Jansen. "I have a lot of ideas, but building a brand takes time, patience and money. There's a time for everything, and I very much hope that the best is yet to come for Tribe."

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