One bitterly cold mid-January afternoon, my friend Kimmy and I decided to head over to Sinsa-dong, an artsy, hipsterish sub-district of Gangnam, to try our hands at making our own, personalized leather bags.
The shop we chose was called Classico, run by a Mr. Dong Hyeon Kim. In addition to letting patrons make (or rather, assist in making) their own bags, they also take custom orders and make some items to sell in department stores.
The interior of the shop smelled strongly of pungent leather glue. The walls were a no-nonsense, bare cement that offered a sharp contrast against the brightly colored paints, tools, and materials found within.
The first step in the process of making our bags was deciding on a design. The shop offered several different varieties, ranging from tiny folding wallets to purses you could carry a small mammal in. We both chose a simple, fold-over clutch, just large enough to fit our phones and wallets in for a night out on the town.
The second step was picking out a leather we liked. There were dozens of different varieties and textures to choose from. I went for a smooth, buttery black and Kimmy chose a textured purple.
We sketched out the rough shapes of our bags on paper with the help of a ruler and Kimmy’s engineering degree, then cut the design from the leather with what looked like a good knife for stabbing a guy. The same was done for the creamy, off-white leather used for the inside lining of our bags. A lot of cutting, gluing, and even some minimal stitching was done during this stage to help smooth out the edges of our bags-to-be.
After much weeping and gnashing of teeth, largely over frustrations due to me smearing glue in places I shouldn’t, Mr. Kim gave us the choice to stamp our bags with our names. Unfortunately, we both misunderstood exactly how he would put the names on our bags, and spent twenty minutes or so trying to create personalized signatures. I wanted “가을” — the Korean translation of my name — to be printed on my bag in an artsy, stylized font. We soon found out that only Latin letters were offered.
A very shiny machine did the job of stamping our bag-shaped pieces of leather with our names in a rather pragmatic font.
Once our bags could remind of us of our own names, we chose zippers out of a big plastic bag Mr. Kim had stashed away in one of his many cupboards. Kimmy went for silver, to go with her purple leather, and I picked out a polished gold. The aforementioned zippers – along with small golden hoops which would serve as bases for the chains our bags would hang on – were first glued, then sewn to the bags.
Our projects had stopped resembling cow skins and started to look like real, grown-up lady bags. We roughly glued the inside lining of our bags to their outside shells. All that remained was to sew the entire thing together. The bag was turned inside-out prior to sewing so all the stitching would be hidden inside.
Essentially, all that was left to do after the sewing was to turn the bag right-side out and attach our chains.
In total, the experience took about five hours or so. While smiling with dead eyes, Mr. Kim told us that it normally only takes about three hours. I expect time was added on for my glue inexpertise and the fact that Kimmy had to translate most of the technical instructions into English for me.
The entire cost of the experience was 140,000₩, or about $120 USD. Given the quality of the leather, the craftsmanship of the bag, and the fact that we took five hours’ of some poor man’s time, I would definitely say it was worth it.
You can find Classico at on the second floor at 525-16, Sinsa, Gangnam, Seoul (Korean address: 강남구 신사동 525-16 201호). Their phone number is 02-540-2316 (possibly Korean only, but you can try your luck. Mr. Kim studied leatherwork in Florence, so I’m betting his English is actually pretty proficient.)
EDIT: The Classico website linked above is down for the moment.