Monday, 29 November 2010

Seventy Eight Per Cent

Back in March I unearthed a gem of a retail space in the Wanchai area of Hong Kong. Kapok showcased products by younger labels, those whose work has not previously been available in this bustling, shopping obsessed city. The stock presented a well curated selection of European and Asian brands. It was great to find a store which had such an obvious desire to showcase products that see a happy marriage between craft and design. It included a mouth watering array of old favourite labels but also introduced me to a few new ones. Local accessories label Seventy Eight Percent was certainly the latter.

Seventy Eight Percent's passion for bags was clear and contagious the moment my eyes fell on their much loved Back to School collection. Here, the label managed to meld the functionality and performance of outdoor equipment with the craftsmanship of couture and the edginess of urban street-style. The bags are engineered to fulfill people’s practical needs and are built to last. Unsurprisingly, I wasn't the only one impressed and the label has since been featured in Milk, Monocle and most recently Wallpaper. With the recent launch of a new collection, Harrison Fold and a plethora of new products, we caught up with the man behind the label, Shai Levy to discuss the evolution of the brand and to take a closer look at the latest designs...

A close look at the leather notepad.

SS: What were your inspirations, dreams and the driving catalyst for launching in to the world of accessories?
Shai Levy: I have always loved bags. I love travelling and being mobile and I think that bags are intertwined with these experiences. My launch into the world of accessories was therefore driven by my love of the product and the fact that I could not find bags that I really liked.
Running my own brand was not a calculated decision; rather, it was an emotional one. I had to do it, to create something from scratch and take it as far as possible. Had I thought about it too much I would probably still be working for someone else, I am glad I didn't.

Among the people who inspired me to go out there and start my own gig are Sir Paul Smith and Sir Richard Branson. Both are highly creative spirits who built successful brands that are different and cheerful. They also managed to do so while keeping a healthy family life. Being a father of four, I find that very inspiring.

Dreams? Many. If there is one dream that sums it all up, it has have my grandchildren run around the sample room playing with pieces of leather.

An aged Fritz Card Holder

SS: What does Seventy Eight Percent mean to you? What can you tell us about the story behind the name? How has the design philosophy of Elad Klein influenced your brand?
Shai Levy: 78% is a conceptual design manifest created by Elad Klein, an artist, designer, musician and an uncommon creative spirit who was a very good friend and creative partner who died in a kayak accident in Hong Kong. In short, the manifest calls for designers to embed intentional flaws in their designs, thus creating products that are less than 100% functional. The idea is to force the user to develop new ways in using daily objects and adjust his behaviour to compensate for the product's flaw. Elad figured out that 78% is just the right amount to flaw an object. More than that would not create the desired impact and less than that would result in a useless product.

Naming the brand Seventy Eight Percent and using the whimsical logo, which Elad designed, gives me a constant reminder of Elad’s restless creativity and joyful, energetic spirit. More than the philosophy of the Seventy Eight Percent manifest, it is Elad’s spirit that influences my brand and creative path.

Two Fritz Card Holders side by side, one aged and one new.

SS: How would you describe your style and your own design philosophy?
Shai Levy: My design philosophy is very simple: Things should work, last and be desired. They should connect with us, users, in an emotional manner. They must be innovative. I see no point in doing the same old. I do not design towards a target price but a target value. That's about it.
It is a bit harder for me to define my style, as it is rather intuitive. I stay away from trends but to create timeless products. It is very much about proportions too. Function aside, good proportion is the most important aspect of any object. I will never compromise on that. I also like to celebrate with diverse colors, as they set the tone of the products, like soundtracks do for movies. I am lucky to be married to a woman with great understanding of style. She is a great advisor and a tough critic.

The srecently launched Small Leather Goods collection

SS: I recently read that you spent two years sourcing the right materials, could you tell us about this search and how you arrived at the perfect combination of vegetable tanned Italian leather and Egyptian cotton canvas dyed and woven in Japan?
Shai Levy: You should not take everything you read for granted. I was a bit misunderstood on that point. It took me two years to develop the first collection; finding the right materials was only one part of it. The quest for the right materials started very methodically, then eventually, luck kicked in. I had a very clear vision of the bags from the get go and knew exactly how I wanted them to look, feel and age. I knew that to achieve that look and feel I had to combine cotton canvas and vegetable-tanned leather and that the materials must be extraordinary.
With the leather it was somewhat simple. It had to be Italian. No one else does vegetable-tanned leather as well as they do. I searched for quite awhile until eventually, in a trade show, I found what I was looking for. There were these skins that were like nothing I have seen before. The natural feel, the smell and the vivid colours were amazing. They had beautiful natural marks. It happened to be that they were made by one of the top vegetable leather tanneries in Italy. One box was ticked.

The canvas took a bit longer. I checked canvases from many quality suppliers but their canvases, albeit very nice, lacked the X-factor. I was than introduced to a Japanese bag designer called Mr. Sato. He showed me his beautiful bags, made of leather and canvas that looked and felt like no other cotton canvas. Hearing the story behind the manufacturing of that canvas it made me want it even more. I hesitatingly asked Mr. Sato to introduce me to the canvas manufacturer and to my surprise he agreed. It was very kind of him. He really liked what I was doing and realised that although we are both bag makers, my style is very different to his.

Made from Japanese canvas and Italian leather.

SS: What were the first and last item you remember designing?
Shai Levy: I was designing and building things since I was a kid. I am not really sure what was the first item. The first Seventy Eight Percent item I designed was never produced. It kept evolving on the drawing board for quite a long time and ended up as Dimitri, the first Seventy Eight Percent bag.

It is hard to decide what is the last item. Ideas keep on flowing and we are working on so many product at the same time. There is one that we are about to launch. It is a wallet made of 100% leather and it is very unique. Very functional and like no other wallet that I know of. We named it Vax.

The Gustav messenger from the new Harrison Fold collection

SS: As all of your designs are expertly handmade, craft and local manufacture are obviously very important to you...
Shai Levy: Craft is indeed very important for me. I think that this is a pivotal factor in making products desirable and valuable. The fingerprints of the person who makes the bags, the fact that each bag is slightly different, that means a lot to me. The same goes for local manufacturing. I need be very close to where my products are made. I am quite a control freak this way. I cannot send drawings and wait for the sample to get back with a courier, I need to be there when the product is actually developed. Many design decisions are made on the production floor. I have to be there to feel the materials, see how they work together and what does it take to actually make them. Same goes for production - I am there on top of the craftsmen and women, checking each one of the products in person, to make sure that it meets the standards of Seventy Eight Percent.

Some people are put off by the fact that I make my bags in China. However they miss the fact that I live in Hong Kong which is two hours drive from the workshop. That's as local as it gets. Not to mention that the level of workmanship in China can be very high. As high as in Europe.

A closer look at the Gustav

SS: Each bag is hand made by up to three craftsmen and women that spend as much as fifty hours to assemble one bag. Can you talk us through some of the process involved in creating your accessories? What can you tell us about the workshop?
Shai Levy: The workshop itself is pretty simple. A hall with tools and equipment. It does not look like a renaissance-period library as it appears in some brand’s advertisements. It is the people that makes it tick. A mix of people with various skills: leather craftsmen, fabric seamstresses and more. I have been working with them for three and a half years now, during which they got to understand my style and expectations, and I also got to learn their abilities and strengths. They used to think that I am crazy and tough but now they are happy to see me.
Some of my bags are indeed very complicated to produce. It is really mind-blowing to see the bag come together in so many parts with so many processes involved. Lots of steps, which all have to be executed at the highest level.

One of the most interesting step is cutting the leather. Each skin is different and within the same skin there are lots of variations. The natural marks, the thickness, mosquito bites and scars. We use rather large pieces of leather and finding the right piece of leather for each bag is very challenging. We have to make sure that the marks work well with the silhouette and that the thickness is right. We also have to bear in mind that the leather we use is very expensive , so cutting it right is very important to reduce wastage. If you see several of our bags together could see that each of them is unique.

Another amazing step is making the internal three-dimensional pockets of the Back To Old School Collection. Each pocket is made of several pieces of fabric and a strip of leather. Every time I see a bag being made it strikes me how many steps there are and how much time it takes to assemble one single pocket, and each bag has three of these 3D pockets. I can keep on going for hours as there are so many steps and challenges in building our bags right. I plan to film it one day, when I have the time.

The Jurgen

SS: Now on to your latest collection, could you talk us through Harrison Fold and the inspiration behind the pieces?
Shai Levy: Harrison Fold was an interesting collection to design in several aspects. Firstly, it was a collaboration between myself and Harold Poon, a young talented designer who joined Seventy Eight Percent after graduating design school in Australia. Secondly, it had to meet high expectations following the success of the Back To Old School Collection but at the same time be different. The pressure was on!

The inspiration initially came from waterproof outdoor bags that have roll top closures (hence the FOLD), and was influenced by Indiana Jones' shoulder bag.

The Dirk

SS: Do you have a typical type of person in mind when designing and if so does this evolve with each season?
Shai Levy: The person I have in mind is pretty much like myself. Creative, professional, urban, international and alternative. My products are designed around my likings: I like objects that are functional. I like things that people can fix rather than throw away and replace. I like things that age well and tell a story. I like things that make me feel special and unique. I like to keep things as simple as possible and to make them well, from the best materials. There is not a single Seventy Eight Product that does not meet all of these characteristics.

The evolution is not seasonal but depends on my personal development and on the people who join Seventy Eight Percent. Harold, for an example, is pretty much a Seventy Eight Percent type of guy. He is 15 years younger than me and comes from a different background. You can sense it when you compare the Back To Old School Collection to the Harrison Fold. They share the same DNA but are evolutionary.

A closer look at the Jurgen.

SS: What bag did you carry with you today? What was inside it?
Shai Levy: I carry the same bag that I carry for almost two years (apart from testing new products) - the Schults. I love this bag. It is big as I always carry a lot of stuff with me. In it: 15" Macbook Pro with its charger, Moleskin notebook, Emile notepad, Lumix LX5 camera with its spare battery, SD card reader, USB memory stick, online banking pin generator, Monocle’s November issue, sunglasses, reading spectacles, chewing gum, Tylenol, lots of papers from my accountant, earphones, iPhone with its sync cable, wallet, keys, Magnifying glass (for my nerdy leather inspection), passport, business cards and an avocado and cheese sandwich.

The other side of Dirk

SS: Finally, how would you like to see the brand evolve over the coming seasons?
Shai Levy: Firstly, I want to see more shops stocking my bags. I get a lot of enquiries from people around the world that wants to see the products and I want to have shops where I can send them to. Secondly, I would like the brand to gain global recognition and to be associated with strong creativity and high product quality: I want people to know who we are and what we stand for. Thirdly, I would like to include more creative spirits in Seventy Eight Percent. I enjoy working with people and hope to have enough staff to have small corporate parties. I want to have a full time DJ working in the office, a DJ would probably have been our first employee if Elad was running the brand.

Seventy Eight Percent's Harrison Fold collection is now available to purchase from online and from Kapok, Lane Crawford and Cumulus.


Urban Da Vinci Clothing said...

Nice blog, this is why I love this site and why it stays as a source of information for me and inspiration.

Anonymous said...

I've not heard of this label before but the bags are beautiful. Tank you.


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