Justin Oh Bags – Utilitarian Beauty

There is a wonderful sense of calm amidst the organised clutter of Justin Oh’s Holborn studio where he produces his signature bags. It’s a far cry from the cut-throat world of the high-end fashion houses where he used to work. Does he miss that dynamic environment? ‘No, I didn’t really like it!’ he laughs, ‘It was soulless’.

Originally from Malaysia, Justin left in his teens and settled in London in order to study Fashion at Central Saint Martin’s. After completing his degree, he was awarded the Courtauld Bursary to do his MA at the Royal College of Art where his talent was immediately spotted by industry insiders - he was offered a professional position before completing his studies.

Justin's fashion career encompassed some of the world's most prestigious names – Yohji Yamamoto in Tokyo and Joseph in London and Paris. It’s evident that his extensive clothing background has served him well by honing his attention to detail, to the quality of the finish and the importance of different materials. In spite of his impressive CV, Justin retains an air of thoughtful consideration about his work and his creative journey. His in-depth knowledge and experience has stood him in good stead for his move from clothes into accessories. However, as this is all relatively new for him he claims to still be ‘finding his feet’.

Although Justin describes working alongside tailors in a Mayfair couture house as a ‘wonderful experience’ he admits he missed the sourcing, designing, cutting and doing the actual making himself. The desire to get back to being more hands-on prompted his decision to go solo and start his own business. Cockpit Arts in London has been his creative home for 6 years now; the move to his own studio plus a short course in leatherwork in Florence led to his transition into making bags.

Craft Editions asked Justin why specifically he is drawn to making accessories and we were surprised when he talked about his enjoyment of constructing the bags. It harks back to the fact that he had originally wanted to be an architect, but couldn’t afford the fees for architecture school and so chose fashion instead. For him, the craft of creating accessories is about ‘building, designing, marrying materials together, constructing’.

As a result, Justin’s bags are works of supreme craftsmanship and utilitarian beauty. They are functional rather than frivolous, created to last rather than to be items of throwaway fashion. The shape, dimensions and structure of his bags are uppermost in Justin's mind and yet the detailing is so impeccably finished it’s impossible to tell that they are hand made. The simplicity of the final product almost belies the enormous amount of work needed to create them. Justin's designs have a very strong, modern aesthetic, but they are not without a sense of joy and playfulness. Leather tote bags in sand, tobacco and beautiful, muted caramel tones sit alongside waxed canvas beach bags in tomato, verdigris and bright yellow. All of them are stunning both to look at and to the touch.

Continuing the theme of durability and functionality, it’s noticeable that many of the cues and materials he uses are drawn from English outdoor pursuits; leather and sturdy cottons from the equestrian world of saddlery with waxed canvas and ropes from chandlery and sailing. ‘They’re known for their heritage and quality, and that’s important to me’ he says. He is often inspired by the source materials themselves; so having seen a fabric or material he likes, it triggers an idea in his mind that then enables him to create a design that is ‘beautiful but functional’.

Justin has the alluring air of the professional expert, yet now and again there's an unexpected flash of naughtiness. The names for his individual bags and different collections from a variety of sources. Whilst some have classic female names like Eve and Sophia, he was initially surprised at how many of his bags are bought by men. This led him to choosing names that are appealing but not too gender-specific. Some of the most notable are from literature: Juno (from Shakespeare’s Tempest) and Harper have both been popular. ‘It’s for Harper... Harper Lee... Not Beckham!’ he adds - just to clarify, ‘It’s my homage to her’.

Having decided to create accessories, it is as if this master craftsman can now focus on the form of the bag at its purest. So far this has been reaping rewards for him; Justin's bags are utilitarian works of art and he is delighted that the response to them has been amazing.

Find out more about Justin Oh Bags here.

All images by Craft Editions.

Brian Waring