When you think of couture, most people think of clothing from the likes of Chanel, Dior and Louis Vuitton, however, there is a growing appetite for one-off pieces in accessories and leading the way is German independent Ostwald merging subtle luxury and traditional craftsmanship to produce unique handbags from high quality tanned and refined leathers.
Handbags have long been desired by women and Ostwald is tapping into the couture market with its heritage, this year marks its 99th year, as well as its unique and personalised approach to high-quality craftsmanship and avant-garde design.
“At Ostwald we honour individuality, we make bags that are a little bit different,” explains owner Bernd Michael Ostwald over Zoom to FashionUnited. “As well as craftsmanship, all our bags and accessories are made exclusively in our factory by our fantastic artisans. We combine heritage with innovative, unique designs like our pyramid, as well as top quality tanned leathers. Each creation is unique - made with passion.”
Bernd Michael Ostwald is the third generation of his family to work with leather, with the company started by his grandfather, Bernhard Ostwald who processed leather into high-quality shoes and accessories with the Oberfränkische Schäfte- und Schuhfabrik. Ostwald states that much of the same machinery and techniques are still used today by the company prides itself on embracing craftsmanship over technology for a truly personalised and niche approach to accessories.
This is highlighted in its handmade approach to manufacturing with its own factory located in Nuremberg, just outside Belgrade employing around 30 artisans. These artisans utilise bag-making methods that have “almost been forgotten” and are usually no longer used in industrial production due to their high labour input.
Family business Ostwald believes in the importance of craftsmanship
This approach is “time-consuming,” notes Ostwald, but does mean that the label can offer an “unmistakable, personal signature” in the construction of its bags, as each style is made in full, from start to finish, by one artisan.
“Our USP is that we don’t follow the IT bag trends, we would never be able to can’t compete with that,” added Ostwald. “We are a niche brand keeping craftsmanship alive. We may have moved away from the traditional, in the bags we design, but not with the techniques we undertake - we finish our products with special refinement.”
Craftsmanship is important to this family business, however, Ostwald describes the bag making trade as a “dying profession” and explains that it is getting harder to find people with the right skills. The company trains and develops its artisans, but even this is a lengthy process, with Ostwald stating it can “take at least a decade to grow in this craft”. Since the turn of the millennium alone, the company has seen 14 bag makers retire and trained 31 young bag makers.
“You have to collect knowledge, you have to train, develop and learn,” adds Ostwald. “Plus you need patience, as no matter how talented, it doesn’t happen overnight. But there is a passion with our people and they are proud of the work they do.”
German bag brand Ostwald on why bespoke works for them
The bespoke nature of its one-off production is what makes Ostwald stand out. Clients can choose a bag model, colour, and even leather type, “we like to let our clients creativity run wild, because we know that when you design part of it yourself, you cherish it much more,” explains Ostwald.
Customers can book an appointment to visit the team in its studio or via video call to talk through the options for a truly personalised shopping experience. This bespoke approach is also reflected in the couture price tag and with customers having to wait on average six weeks for their bag to be constructed by hand.
To add to the uniqueness and exclusivity of its handmade leather bags, a metal plaque with a serial number is placed inside each bag. This information is noted in the company’s studio book for authenticity, recording the date of manufacture and the artisan who made it.
Ostwald is targeting “confident, sophisticated women with personality and independent style” and this is reflecting in its architectural and geometric product designs across its two collections. Ostwald Art Couture features sculpture-like bags that take around 35 production steps and up to 18 hours of detailed handcrafted work to produce, while Finest Couture Bags is a contemporary line of “subtle, classic design”.
While the brand primarily caters for women, it also has a men’s collection highlighted by function. There is a Weekender travel companion in supple goatskin that comes with a trolley loop to attach to a suitcase, as well as front straps to secure an umbrella or newspaper, alongside a messenger bag, cardholder, wallet and travel accessories.
There is a complex and playful nature to Ostwald bags, such as designs curved like a petit fours or modelled on an accordion that are unique and also very minimalist in design. Ostwald cleverly makes them into statement investment pieces by using colour, materials, architectural elements and handmade craftsmanship.
“I would never call myself a designer, I never studied it, I come at it from the craftsman side,” explains Ostwald. “Mostly, I start with an idea, things I’ve seen, like architectural, and something that I see as a challenge. But creating it that’s teamwork and includes creating prototypes, with some styles taking two years of development.”
The sculptural couture designs make the biggest impact, such as the Harmonica with its fan-fold design that can be pulled apart or compressed. The bag is so unique and expertly constructed that it is on display at the German Leather Museum.
Another highlight is the Bow inspired by an oversized petit four featuring a leather bow that dominates the design. The bag also doesn’t have a top or a bottom, with two interior compartments accessible through zips at both ends. Then there is the Samurai inspired by the lines of defensive armour as well as the organic geometries of expanding bodies, and the Nautilus, an oversized clutch that looks like a shell.
One of the most innovative designs has to be the Pyramide, which combines a three-dimensional architectural pyramid body with the playfulness of a folding game, with the bag featuring magnets to allow the band to close by itself.
“Our bags are not in fashion, they are rather part of our customers stories to show their personalities,” adds Ostwald.
Ostwald prices start with clutches from 300 pounds.