Though Bulgari started as a jewellery company, and Central Saint Martins as an art college, they’ve found a middle way: a bag design collaboration. Surprisingly, it’s not a handful of highly praised alumni (the list is long) who were approached to participate, but a select crop of three recent fashion graduates: Icelandic Anita Hirlekar (MA Fashion 2014), British Natasha Somerville (BA Womenswear 2013) and American Connie Lim (Fashion Design with Marketing 2013).
Why? To get a fresh approach on Bulgari’s existing codes: Monete, Serpenti and Bvlgari Bvlgari, by the means of ‘disrupting’ these. How? A six week competition style project, going from briefing to designing, visiting Bulgari’s Atelier, making prototypes, and giving presentations during endless Skype conversations. And so, ‘redefined luxury bags’ have come into existence.*
“More and more, we were talking about how to look at the future; involving fresh ideas from new designers,” said Fabrizio Falanga, Bulgari’s Senior Director of Leather Goods and Textile Operations. “The idea was to involve one of the most prestigious design schools; to give them a little piece of our heritage and ask them to look at it with new, fresh eyes.”
The first seed of the collaboration idea was planted in July 2013, and rapidly evolved to a proper project that was pitched to Central Saint Martins in January 2014. The parties were introduced to each other by Florence Rambaud, LVMH’s Creative Talent Acquisition Manager. They liked one another. The aesthetics and enthusiasm just ‘clicked’. The deal was sealed. In February, the designers were selected and immediately briefed on the first day. They had one week to research Bulgari’s three codes and present their ideas on Skype.
After that, each designer was assigned a code. Anita got Monete, which has its roots in mounting coins as jewellery, and Serpenti — the ancient mythological symbol — was destined to be Natasha’s project. Meanwhile, Connie was faced with the challenge of reinventing Bvlgari Bvlgari, the code which finds its inspiration in ancient Roman inscriptions.
Designs by Connie Lim
The beauty of the project lies in the fact that all the girls backgrounds and influences are very different. Anita’s main focus is on textiles and craftsmanship; Connie’s strongest asset is communicating her ideas through drawing, and Natasha’s got a real penchant for intricate handcrafted techniques.
Their differences did not matter. Head of Fashion Design with Marketing, Heather Sproat, said: “Bulgari came for creativity. They weren’t bothered with whether or not anybody fitted with what they thought Bulgari was — at the time they came to us looking for inspiration. They wanted a project which was really going to make them look again at who they were.”
For both parties, it was about the journey. Florence mentions that the designers had to have their own world, but a very important part of the process was their ability to execute their ideas, and explain their plans clearly. Communication, in this case, was vital. “It’s about dialogue. I think the idea of connection and communication is key in design, and [our collaboration] was proof of it. So, you may have a pretty project, but you need to have words to explain the idea to the other.”
“It’s so important to have a dialogue and a common understanding, especially when you’re at the first stage. An idea is not final until it is made, so what was incredible with this project, was the ability to go to Florence in Italy, and for the designers to make it real. That’s the moment of truth. Before that, it’s just extrapolation. It’s design; it’s sketches, and it’s papers: it’s not real yet.”
Designs by Natasha Somerville
Did we already mention the girls went to Italy? After having been assigned a code, designing a bag and presenting their final ideas to the Bulgari team; they were flown to Florence to create a bag prototype in Bulgari’s Atelier, with the help of their artisans. About the experience, Natasha said: “It was really memorable and super exciting. It was just an unreal experience to see this atelier; I’d been to Mulberry before, a while back. It was a completely different from that. [Bulgari] had every machine to do every single thing. The design room was integrated within the atelier, so they could really communicate.”
Denia Masti, who works with the craftsmen- and women, took the graduates by the hand and walked them through all the processes: from how exotic skins are cut by hand, to the assembly process. “On my side, I also went with them to develop their designs,” she told us, which meant that she worked closely with the girls and the modelist to develop the designers’ ideas into real prototypes. Creative freedom reigned, and they could choose any metalwork they wanted, fabricate mirrors or have snakeskins dyed exactly the colour they needed. “What I tried to do, was translating in and out,” she said — both language and technicalities.
Design by Anita Hirlekar
Thinking back to the exotic skins, Connie said, “they were showing us, ‘this is not a defect, this is a scale growing: it’s natural’ so they keep it. There was another batch, and they were saying, ‘this one probably had a fight — we wouldn’t use that part,’ which was really cool. It’s just so hands on, everything. The ladies have to wear gloves so they don’t get any oils from their fingers onto the materials.” Connie called the space ‘super clean’, quite like an atelier indeed, “cause you imagine a fashion house to be vibrant with clothes everywhere…”
After having made the prototypes, the girls could sit back, reflect and relax (i.e. work on their other projects).
In the Real World…
Mireia Lopez Montoya, Managing Director of the Accessories Business, explains a bit more about the timeline for the day-to-day design work at Bulgari, in comparison with the recent collaboration. “We make a brief in July. In September, the designer would need to come in with a proposal that includes the colours, the materials and the shapes. In a matter of three months, the collection must be ready, because in December it needs to be approved.”
Fabrizio Falanga adds to that by explaining the important relationship between artisan and designer. “I often say that the final prototype is really a big mix between the creative approach of the designer, and the strong and deep experience of a modelist. At the end, there is quite a fusion, because the modelist has to follow the creative process of the designer. But, at the same time, the designer has to feel confident that the modelist will create in the right way.”
Thinking of breaking into the Italian fashion design market? Mireia said that there are a lot of brands that are family owned businesses which might be a little bit difficult to get involved in, “but I think that we are all looking for talented, young designers who can help to bring new ideas. On a continuous basis, we think about how we can continue to have this fresh influx of ideas within our creative process. I think it’s important. If you always want to be innovative and fresh, it’s going to come from young people.”
Why did Bulgari do this?
The brand has a CSR department*; CSR stands for Corporate Social Responsibility. Every year, the department creates a new budget for these projects, which are focused on developing a healthy social and cultural environment. But, what exactly does this mean, and what does this have to do with the Bulgari x CSM collaboration?
Eleanora Rizzuto, Head of Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainable Development at Bulgari, brings some clarity. “It’s not just about improving the quality of the product, but also improving the quality of society. Bulgari is part of the community; she would like to make improvements and achieve excellence in this environment, by taking (if possible) a proactive approach towards ethical behaviour and social development.”
They do take the ‘community’ part quite seriously. In 2008, the worldwide jewellery industry had a little crisis. People lost their jobs, or were unable to continue studying. Accordingly, Bulgari started a relationship with a jewellery manufacturing school, Foral, in the North of Italy. They gave those who were in a dire situation some hope: they reopened classes, guided with manufacturing, and gave them an opportunity to get jobs and help the jewellery business flourish again.
The Foral project is a continuous one, and is pretty much in tune with the process of nourishing creative talent that LVMH has in place. Florence compares the creative process with growing a flower, which ‘you need to do step by step, with confidence, even though you’re not exactly sure of what the result would be.’
As the Head of Fashion Design with Marketing, Heather can definitely add to that, and shares some perspective from her experience as an educator: “It’s about telling [the students] how great they are, but also how much harder they need to work. Showing them how great the people they work around are. And, as much as possible, allowing [them] to flourish.
“I’m a gardener. I grow things at home and I grow things here, it’s similar. You plant seeds, you water them, you stand back and you let them do their thing. You’re careful with the pruning — there’s no point raising something to the ground if it’s detrimental to its long-term health.”
Fashion, in fact, is very much in tune with keeping a garden. It’s a concept which even couturiers like Oscar de la Renta have claimed. We think it’s inspiring to see influential brands — like Bulgari and CSM — deeply consider ‘long-term’ and ‘investment’, which in this case means that both parties wish to nurture a sustained partnership to feed creativity and innovation into the brand and its codes. Even though this was a competition, the outcomes were so inspiring that the brand decided to choose not one, but two winners: Connie and Natasha. In addition to that, Bulgari would like to continue developing the prototype bags, and will use Connie’s bag as part of the celebration of the 40 year anniversary of the Bvlgari Bvlgari code in 2015!
We were intrigued by the project, and wanted to know the designers’ stories more in-depth and learn from their experiences. Click to read about their journeys:
*Graduate Consultancy Projects with Central Saint Martins offer companies and organisations the opportunity to work with specially selected graduates to develop innovative concepts and designs according to a creative brief. To ensure that the project delivers inspiring and original outcomes in line with client expectations, every project is run under the guidance of an expert academic practitioner and supported by a committed project manager. Click here for more information.
*The Corporate Social Responsibiity/Sustainable Development department at Bulgari is divided into three main areas: Environment, Supply Chain Auditing, Social. The relationship with Central Saint Martins falls under this frame, and through these types of social activities, Bulgari is able to strengthen its efforts to support schools and Universities of excellence.
Video by William Mathie for 1 Granary
with extra footage by Paul J Cochrane
Portraits of Natasha and Connie by Hanna Moon
A special thank you to the LVMH and Bulgari teams for all their help, time and advices!