The fact that customers continue to place orders despite the waiting time of over seven years (!) says a lot about the status of the Tokyo based bagmaker Fugee. Completely hand stitched bags with hardware designed and made in house to the highest possible level. Fugee has been the gold standard for bespoke leather bags and accessories since the 80’s, and a report from their showroom and workshop should interest all shoe nerds that also admire superb craftsmanship.
The respect between shoemakers and bagmakers making handmade products have always been high. Even if they create different products and have different challenges to a large extent, they work with the same material, leather, and use a lot of the same techniques. A bespoke shoemaker recognise a well-made handcrafted bag, and vice versa. In the shoe world, the Japanese bagmaker Fugee is more admired than a lot of the best shoemakers. I don’t have to tell you what Fugee’s status is among those really into leather bags and accessories. Or perhaps I do. These people are legendary.
I sure had high expectations when I rang the doorbell of the combined showroom and workshop of Fugee in the outskirts of the Tokyo city area. I knew I were in for a treat. When walking out of there after a couple of hours, my expectations were even surpassed. I had the same feeling as when I first visited for example Eiji Murata of Main d’Or or TYE Shoemaker. To witness craftsmanship of the highest level is one thing, but it’s the mindset, dedication and attention to detail that really blows you away. People who don’t cut any corners, do everything to the utmost they can, and never settle, are surely inspirational.
The door is opened by Yukihiro Fujii, the founder of Fugee, who run the business together with his partner Rie Kimbara. Guides me into a rather large showroom with bags and accessories placed on shelves around the entire room, with a sort of conference table in the middle. On this table Yukuhiro and Rie makes the first sketches of the bespoke commissions their customers are dreaming of, and on here they fold out the drawings of the designs when these are ready to be displayed, which looks similar to architectural plans. A bespoke order from Fugee follows a strict procedure, where nothing is left out to chance.
– For bespoke orders we make one, or sometimes two, test bags to make sure we get everything correct, says Yukuhiro.
Yukihiro Fujii went to college to study engineering in the 1970’s, and worked at the car manufacturer Daihatsu for six years. He came across a book about a man who made bags by hand, which connected with him, and he started testing it out himself.
– It was only a hobby at first. But I had a friend who worked for Hermès in France, who I started visiting regularly, who teached me a lot of the basics, Yukuhiro says.
He then sent in his work to Porter Yoshida, a famous Japanese brand of leather bags and accessories. and got to work for him back when that brands was on the rise, this was 40 years ago. He worked for Porter Yoshida for a few years, before going independent. In 1986, he founded Fugee, and it has been his baby ever since.
As mentioned Yukuhiro runs the business together with Rie Kimbara, she started working with him in 1995. I met her during the visit as well, also very kind and friendly, but too shy to be part of the interview or in photos. For decades now they have pursued making the absolute finest bags possible.
– A lot have been learned from disassembling old vintage bags. Back in the days it was more common to really do things as good as one possibly can, they used more difficult techniques and spent more time producing the items, where end result was all that mattered, says Yukuhiro Fujii.
With that said, Yukuhiro means that in general it’s not that complex to make good bags, less complex than making shoes, the difficult part is to execute things to perfection, to achieve the most beautiful end results.
– I like the combination of both the design part and the making, very different even if they of course are closely connected. But I always focus on how I can improve things in both areas.
Yukuhiro places a bag that they just finished on the table. It’s a large, high bag made in a light brown embossed grain leather, which at first I can’t really make out what type of bag it is. The handle is extremely solid, like it’s made to lift solid gold bars. He then opens it and shows a remarkable storage solution for wine bottles and glasses. Four compartments with clever magnet bottoms which makes it possible to switch between storage for a bottle and a glass holder, with hidden compartments on the side where you store the magnetic bottoms not used. When the bag is opened you also get a serving table. To bring this to a picnic would make anyone king. Yukuhiro estimates that they spent around 140 hours on this product, including the design work, developing and making the hardware, producing samples, and then the final making of the bag.
That’s a special product though. For regular briefcases or similar they usually spend about 70-80 hours, still a serious amount of time, obviously. This combined with the high demand have made the waiting times constantly grow in time. When I visited a couple of years ago the wait time for a commission was seven years (could perhaps be even longer today).
– It’s not good, but it is what it is. We would like to get the wait time down to about one year for MTO bags and two-three years for bespoke products, but it’s not easy to find people that we can bring in and expand production with. Not when quality always comes first, Yukuhiro Fujii says.
Prices are high, though certainly reasonable. Standard model bags which you order as MTO starts from about €2,500 for document carriers, and from about €3,000 for briefcases. The simplest accessories starts at about €150. For bespoke bags, prices vary vastly depending on model and leather, type of hardware, how much they need to develop etc, but begin a bit over €4,000.
Apart from manufacturing all customers are recommended to bring in their bags for repair and restoration every three years, which also takes time. They work seven days a week in the workshop, and also hosts bagmaking school in the evenings of some weekdays. When I visit late in the evening a group of students are working in the atelier, under the supervision of Rie Kimbara. Nine people are in the class at once, they usually stay for several years, and the waiting list to get in is long. Some famous names have gone through here, one being Naoyuki Komatsu of Ortus Bags (who started out at the premises of bespoke shoemaker Clematis Ginza, before moving to his own place), he studied with them for a year, worked at Fugee for eight before he set up Ortus.
In the back part of the workshop Yukuhiro Fujii has his workplace. Next to it stands a bag which is in the middle of the production with lining leather and other parts placed inside waiting to be assembled, plus some steel hardware laying in front of it. They also make all hardware themselves, sometimes newly developed from scratch to solve new designs. And everything is stitched by hand.
– No machine can make quite the same quality stitches as can be done by hand. So if quality and beauty is everything, the only option is doing it by hand.