The Artisan Series: Basil Racuk (Part 2)

“Luxury is about singularity not standardization.”Thomas Erber

“You can’t copy anybody and end with anything. If you copy, it means you’re working without any real feeling.” — Billie Holiday

On the website WDYDWYD (“Why do you do what you do?”), Basil Racuk posted a photo of himself at his workstation, holding a piece of paper in one hand that reads, “Because I like to be in conversation about ideas” — which pretty much sums up Racuk in one fell swoop.

The guy’s an idea man. He thrives on snappy dialogue and the spark of intellectual stimulation, even if it’s the rapid tap-tappity-tap of fingers on a computer keyboard (and “send!”). After we’d emailed back and forth a few times, discussed his custom bag process, the kinds of leathers he uses, available colors and interior fabrics (“But what if I wanted silver studs and the interior painted a neon metallic green?” I asked, hypothetically; “Show me what kind of stud you want and we can work it out!” he answered), I placed my order for Louise’s Mini-Voyager bag.

He promptly zipped me an email in reply to let me know that he was headed to the Burning Man event (an annual gathering in the Black Rock Desert of artists, free thinkers and counter culturals — or at least that’s how it started off; now people take their kids in the family RV) and would begin work on the bag as soon as he returned.

So, yeah, former Banana Republic designer hoofs it to Burning Man. Needless to say, it didn’t necessarily surprise me when I later complimented his iPad case design and he responded, “As I was putting it through R&D, I went through misgivings about the specificity of the end use. For some reason, the whole operation seemed over-the-top, an expensive price for a case to house the iPad seemed really fancy to me. But there’s the rub — “to me” isn’t the point at all, is it? What seems highly specific to me isn’t an issue for many people, and now we’re talking about TRUE luxury signifiers.”

Because he actually does think about these things, and not just, “Is there a sufficient buyer’s market for a Basil Racuk iPad case?” — but, “Do I really want to design and produce a time-intensive, costly product for such a specific audience?”

When push comes to shove, any good artist wants his/her work to be loved and appreciated by the widest audience possible (like, say, fire dancers AND naturists AND family campers); designing an iPad-only leather case reduces this potential for love (and subsequent giddily impulsive purchasing) considerably — but, in this case it would seem, the risks aren’t unacceptable.

Handmade Basil Racuk Mini-Voyager Bag in brown waxed cow leather
Ogling the chic practicality of Racuk’s Mini-Voyager bag is an acceptable risk

But despite any artist’s desire for applause, Racuk isn’t designing something for everyone. His aesthetic is too particular for that. TMagazine wrote that Racuk “goes for a … minimally structured … rustic-yet-refined look — think Berkeley professor crossed with Milanese aesthete”, which sells very well at Bergdorf Goodman and the upscale Leffot in Manhattan’s West Village, though it might leave your more rough and tumble “I can beat a grizzly bear to death with my bag!” crowd a little cold.

But that’s a choice that every designer eventually has to make — go shallow and wide (and pull in mainstream-sized revenue while outsourcing to Bangladesh) or go narrow and deep, keeping production methods tight by crafting for a much smaller, though far more passionate and demanding, clientele.

Speaking of the difference between careful, deliberate craftsmanship vs. outsourcing to riot torn countries to make a quick buck, I’m posting the remainder of my interview with Basil below — where we talk about, among other things, fast fashion, the rising prices of raw materials and the persistence of bling.

NB: Do you see the rise of fast fashion as beneficial or detrimental to high-end fashion and luxury brands (that hysteria on the sidewalks thing)? Is it possible to democratize luxury, or is this just fast-fashion PR speak to make consumers believe they’re buying something more special than it actually is? For instance, Karl Lagerfeld was quoted as endorsing the high-end embrace of fast fashion, stating: ‘It’s funny for a person who has money to buy something inexpensive and it’s great for a person with not so much money to be able to get something by a designer . . . It’s the new snobbism.’

What do you think of this train of thought? It seems more than coincidental to me that there’s now this almost paternalistic affection for ‘masstige’ among high-end designers ever since the recession kicked into gear. For instance, Alber Elbaz said he would never do a fast fashion collaboration, and yet here he is designing for H&M while quickly stating that he’s not diluting the value of Lanvin, but rather raising the value of H&M.

BR: I saw the documentary ‘Objectified’ recently, and was blown away by Dieter Rams. His statement regarding product designers, something to the effect of “We are not the artists who we imagine ourselves to be”, blew my mind. Here’s the guru of form/function tension telling me that we are here to fulfill a market need, and that need may or may not be something that we feel absolutely passionate to create, but we (designers) must nevertheless get on with it and put out the best damn product we can.

Let me put it another way: the business of design exists as a form of applied art, and therefore must to a certain degree be experienced as a commodity by the maker. Once the item hits the shelf, the consumer will decide whether or not there is merit to the thing. If not, figure out what went wrong, learn your lesson, and move on.

Designers must work towards whatever end state (read: price point) they feel comfortable expressing. It’s your voice to express what you will. If the designer is under the employ of another, then I suggest that this person’s autonomy is limited. Money is a very nice thing to have– at least to many of us it is — and because of this, the lines get blurred when one is “selling out” (if there is such a thing). Make your customer happy. And by the way, your customers include your supply chain, your direct reports — anyone who is directly impacted by the clarity of your design communication.

NB: Louis Vuitton announced that they’ll be raising the prices on their classic (i.e. best-selling) items by up to 9%, citing increases in raw material costs, such as cotton and leather. As an independent producer, how much do these price fluctuations in raw materials affect your own ability to purchase what you need and yet keep prices in line with what you believe the market can bear?

BR: Price fluctuations will always occur. Cotton prices are going nuts for sure. Leather is expensive. The customer will always absorb the increases. No one’s in business out of a sense of magnanimity. Price increases require us to work more efficiently, because the main point of being in business is to stay in business.

When I opened shop, I did it with the intention of bringing to the market something so special that it can’t be replicated. I’m not a commodity trader, I’m a highly specialized supplier, working with an incredibly rarefied customer, someone who truly knows the difference and understands the voice I bring to my design practice. My skins are expensive, and my linings are not only expensive, but in very limited supply. This is a limited time offer that I extend to customers, the custom bag experience. I’m aware of this.

At some point in the very near future, I’ll have to leave some of my sources behind, purely because of availability issues, so prices are a concern to a certain degree for me, but ultimately, I have to put out product that I feel deserves a place in the market, as a thing of beauty.

NB: I read an article that mentioned how some independent jewelry makers bring in a good portion of their income through altering and repairing other producer’s items, much like how a custom tailor might do alteration and repair work on clothes he didn’t make. Do you also provide this service for customers — “fixing” leather goods you didn’t make, or altering an already existing item to make it a better fit for a customer’s needs?

BR: Early in my career I learned that practice begets work. Keep busy as a designer. Continuously strive to master your craft. Show interest in your fellow makers. Be a citizen of the world. Learn to use your voice, earn your keep as someone who is contributing to the dialogue that constantly occurs in the world of design. Because I believe all of this, the idea of toiling with alterations and repairs strikes me as hollow. How can I consider myself to be an important voice in the global design conversation if I’m spending my time otherwise?

NB: Do you have any interest in working with synthetic leathers or leather substitute materials? A brand like Stella McCartney seems to have carved out a niche in this respect, so there would appear to be a market for non-leather bags, shoes, belts, etc. Are you interested in working with synthetic materials? And do you think synthetic leather materials have improved enough in the last five to ten years to rival the usability, durability and beauty of genuine leather?

BR: The initial excitement is there, first for the designer, then for the customer. Some fabric trends become huge (microfiber, ultra-suede), and can change the game of a category for years. Microfiber dominated the outerwear market for a good many years, and still has a decent market share, considering it’s a trend that’s been out there for fifteen years. Inexpensive, long-lasting and interesting hand — it has some very attractive attributes. I have my questions about synthetic leathers. I’m not being snarky, it’s just that I’m not familiar with the latest trends in that area. If there’s a supplier out there reading this, send me a few yards and I’ll play around with it. All materials exist to be experimented with. I’m all for checking out newness.

NB: Speaking of specific designers, your own work has a kind of Phoebe Philo quality to it — that new luxury minimalism that’s sweeping through the fashion industry and making front row journalists swoon — especially tied into your Wabi Sabi ethos, as Philo’s latest Celine collection borrowed liberally from Japanese ‘bare essence’ design as well as Japanese textiles. Has this always been your aesthetic, or did you see fashion trends heading a particular direction, think “I can do that!” and voila, here we are?

BR: The art is in the edit. I build plenty of things, many of which will live on the floor next to my desk for weeks or months. If it doesn’’t go on the display table immediately, the piece might sit on the floor for a long time. It’s no different than any design room in that regard. The design impulse is never wrong; the piece is good, the beauty intact, but is it right for right now? If not, I have to accept that.

Handmade Basil Racuk Mini-Voyager Bag in brown waxed cow leather
Wabi Sabi this!

NB: Do you see this embrace of simple shapes and bare silhouettes as something that will stick around, or will we soon be back to the era of bling?

BR: The market is multi-dimensional for product offering, and I believe will remain so. Cavalli’s tigress, Simons/Sander simply slick, H&M and Zara on the fast — it’s all there and valid. There’s something for everyone, and we should all rejoice as such. I do get nervous about something being on trend — and then not — but I believe that my customer is looking for more meaning in their product than a name.

A bag that exists as currency in the market is just a bag. The experience which brings you to the bag is yours, and here’s where I come in. My customer is coming to me for the bag, but they’re hopefully also aware of the idea behind what it is that I’m doing, which is providing the opportunity to get involved with the design process, to have a discussion with someone who cares about you (I do care) and about your desires. I will allow you to imagine what it is that you want to express.

Will I still be ‘bare essence’ design in two years? Three? Five? I don’t know. If I look back at my menswear design from 1992, I was strongly influenced by Kasimer Malevich, who was indeed a minimalist (ok, he was a Suprematist — same difference). Am I still? Probably yes, but in the eighteen years that have passed since then, I hope that my influences have grown to include other elements as well.

My point here is this — all design is valid. I can insert my point of view into whatever it is that you desire. Bonus point: Great design exists as a result of great dialogue, and good listening, on the part of the client and designer.

NB: You’ve mentioned that you enjoy the peacefulness and beauty of your life on the West Coast, but do you ever feel like you’re missing out on opportunities to promote your brand by having relocated from the epicenter of the fashion and accessories business?

BR: I had a New York trunk show back in May. Over the course of my stay, I had to get some last minute samples together and that required me going around town to get things done. That time really drove home that I can’t have this business in New York– at least not right now, in the current format. My life here in California is so peaceful and rich in experiences. I love New York, and consider it home in many ways, but my spirit is California.

I’m sitting in a chair overlooking the Berkeley Hills, shrouded in fog. Priceless.

NB: How important is the internet for a small business owner like yourself? Do you obtain most of your customers through word of mouth on the street, or do most people find you via the internet? And what percentage of your sales are through physical stores (like Leffot) vs. your website? How much of your work is ordered “as is” vs. customized to some degree (if not fully)?

BR: The internet is a powerful tool, and accounts for a fair percentage of my business. I only sell at two retail outlets — Leffot and Bergdorf Goodman, both in New York. I do good business through both those doors as well. I do a good business in customization. My guess is somewhere around 60% of orders have some custom element to them, and within that amount, about 20% of my total sales are unique pieces which I don’’t offer on the website. Those are my favorite commissions, because they require the client to dig into his psyche and pull out the designer residing within. I get to hear about the person’s life and make a connection that way.

NB: What is your response to fashion copyrighting? Can a fashion or accessories designer say that he/she has created something new that isn’t built almost entirely on someone else’s work before him/her? Do you believe you could produce a leather goods item so unique that it would deserve to be copyrighted?

BR: My buddy Jackie will tell me YES. Intellectual Property and intangible asset work are big business. But I insist there are caveats. The question here is, do I want to dedicate X-% of my profits to ensuring my designs and identity are safe? Or do I have the proverbial finger in the dam wall? And by the way, what is the Return On Investment for such vigilance?

NB: The other side to that coin is, how do you deal with the rip-off artists? Like the guy you discovered on Facebook stating outright that he has contacts in Asia that could copy your bags for a fraction of the price. Which I guess brings me to the question of, if someone can buy a facsimile of one of your bags, what do you believe sets your work apart from a copycat that wants to sell for cheap?

BR: How will I know that I’’m being ripped off? After 1,000 replica bags have been stitched in Vietnam and displayed for sale on Canal Street? Do I want to hire Greenberg Traurig to hunt down the people who are responsible? How long will that take?

My bags, like anything, can be ripped off. What can’t be ripped off is the experience that goes along with the purchase. If you buy from me, you buy from me. You don’t buy from a salesman in a Zaha Hadid concoction store in Las Vegas, or Taipei or New York. You are involved and engaged in the creation of your bag. You might be visiting my workroom. I’ll know that you have two sons and an affection for California that’s like my own. I’ll tell you about another client of mine who works in a similar field to yours. It’s a consciously embodied purchase that my client is getting, if he so wishes.

NB: Which brings me to another question, which is, the knock off trade has generally been about copying items that have a globally recognized brand name or logo. Is it a sign of the recessionary times in which we live that even the copycats don’t have as much work as they used to, and so will copy anyone and anything if they believe they can sell it?

BR: If you’re referring to the fellow who asked his pals on that forum whether they want one of my bags, I think we’re seeing someone who thinks he’s doing the right thing, like offering his virtual pals a bro-deal somehow, since he has a connection. Maybe it’s more sinister than that, but my sense was that his intentions may have been to be helpful, but he didn’t think the whole thing through.

As far as copycats, every design room in the world today is going to have a few competitor brand samples for analysis. They have to. If I don’t check out what you’’re doing, I’m a fool. How can I tell my factory that so-and-so is doing a particular construction, and I want to do the same. Copying is an important part of the design dialogue, and moves the industry ahead. In terms of full-on infringement, I guess this will be a headache that I’ll have to deal with more as the brand grows. But make no mistakes — we’re all looking over each other’s shoulders, and would be fools not to.

NB: How important has scoring a placement at NYC’s Leffot been for your profile as an artisan producer and brand name?

BR: Having my collection at Leffot is of tremendous benefit, and for reasons which are not entirely financial. Steven is the best accessories editor in the game, hands down. Because of this relationship (with Leffot), I have to keep my game tight. His direction for me is invaluable, and his connection to his customer is incredible. He’s like the Matrix lady, the one who is baking cookies when Keanu shows up for an interview (i.e. The Oracle). In terms of helping with brand name exposure, I can’t think of a better place for me to be connected with. It’s the gold seal. And being in Bergdorf’s doesn’t hurt either!

*NOTE: I contacted the people at Leffot to ask them a few questions about their working relationship with Basil Racuk, but they didn’t respond.

NB: Do you ever consider getting back into menswear design again? Do you think you’ll be expanding the Racuk brand in the future to include other items that aren’t necessarily bag/accessory related? As a for instance, Prada has recently initiated a new program where they source items from expert producers in their locales, such as tartan scarves from Scotland wool weavers, but still with the Prada name on the label. And the British Ettinger label started out as one man bringing back items he found across the world to sell in the Ettinger shop — acting, I suppose, as a type of accessories curator. Anything like that in your future?

BR: Expansion into other areas will happen for me, not only because more categories means more business which means more opportunity, but more importantly, I truly enjoy the design problems. And retailing is a fascinating possibility. As a retailer, I tend to get caught up in the relationships with the artisans and end up connecting to a product in a very heartfelt way. This brings me back to the thread that I hope connects this whole interview — if we must be merchants, we might as well enjoy each other’s company and point of view. It’s only natural.

***You can read Part 1 of the Basil Racuk interview here: The Artisan Series: Basil Racuk (Part 1)