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A Story Comes With These Handbags

A self-taught leathersmith creates handbags that conjure tales of times gone by



George Lange

Walk into Elke Bergeron’s Boulder studio and the first thing that hits is the heady smell of leather—nostalgic yet fresh. A hanging gallery of Bergeron’s creations decorates the red brick and white walls of her 1,100-square-foot studio, as do the tools of her craft. It’s like being invited into your cool European cousin’s closet with the promise of discovering both history and cutting-edge style.

The location of her creations, one-of-a-kind and small-run handmade leather and canvas bags, is a tiny 1897 house about a block from the home where the designer lives with her husband Joe; teenage sons Jack and Jason; and Ginger, the family’s wheaten terrier.

A modern-day treasure seeker in comfortable shoes, Bergeron cruises the Internet for materials that spark her imagination—WWII-era military canvases and memorabilia as well as turn-of-the-20th-century French linens. “These hardy old fabrics are made with the kind of quality that doesn’t exist anymore,” she says.

Materials in hand, she then imagines the backstory woven into the threads and works her magic from head to hand to fabric.

Give one of her creations a long look or throw a favorite over your shoulder, and you sense the tales they have to tell. The stripe design on a linen sack identifies a grain farmer’s family; the flaps from a vintage tent speak to backwoods adventure; a soldier’s name (Smith E.B.) lives on in stencil on a WWII duffel bag. “We like to highlight the original materials’ unique history in every finished bag,” says Bergeron. “It’s what makes each one so special and is a big part of the attraction and attachment for our customer.”

Each found item had a purpose, and these many years later Bergeron re-purposes them. She works without sketches or patterns, letting the material itself inform the design and shape of each piece. Old leather suspenders, horse bridles, gun slings, and even soft linen fire hoses are the stuff of her straps and handles.

“We never know what materials we may find along the way that end up dictating a look and leading us in a whole new direction,” says Bergeron. “It’s the not knowing, the constant discovery of unique, interesting objects and new ways to incorporate them into something beautiful, that keeps it fun and challenging.”

The bags’ fabulous, soft feel comes from imported vegetable-tanned skins or hides. Colors are custom dyed to her particular aesthetic. Once used, they seem to take on their own life, with a patina that changes over time.

Bergeron, who was raised on the north shore of Long Island, New York, studied textile design and illustration in college, but the DIY gene came with the family DNA. “I’m a maker by nature,” she says. “I’ve been drawn to art and design since forever. My grandfather was a professional artist and he lived in an apartment attached to our house as I was growing up. Creativity was encouraged.”

The handbags and totes were happy accidents. “I was making pillows for a Firefly market, and I brought along some bags I had made,” she says. “At the end of the day it was obvious that it wasn’t about the pillows, but there weren’t any bags left.”

On the advice of her photography teacher, Alessandra Cave, Bergeron started blogging and sharing her creative projects and musings. Making bags took on a life of its own, and soon enough the blog had served its purpose and a business had begun.

Whether in leather or canvas, Bergeron’s bags are contemporary and timeless; they focus on materials, not trends. Her designs, she says, are seasonal rather than thematic: “In spring, I’ll incorporate more white or naval elements, while for summer you’ll see more linen fabrics. Winter calls for those dark olive greens and drab khakis, leather, and wool.”

It seems fitting that this storyteller’s goods are not mass-produced. “I don’t do wholesale and I won’t become a factory,” says Bergeron. “What I have and offer allows me to stay at my pace, have a flexible schedule, and be able to be with my family. There is no big goal or plan; I am still in  the moment.”

TEACHING THE TRADE

Bergeron has led leather-making classes at The Makerie in Boulder. She’s also been conducting online video classes through creativebug.com, as well as custom classes at her studio. One example—a $150 clutch class—includes materials, a three-hour lesson, and “you walk out with your own creation.” For more information on studio classes and a viewing of Bergeron’s latest lines, visit byelke.com.

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