When I came across this new brand, I instantly fell in love. Sage Femme’s bags have clean lines, perfected symmetry, and classic shapes with distinctive detailing: all necessary hallmarks of Snob worthiness. Corina Stefirta founded Sage Femme after years of working at Tod’s, and her experience shows. She manufactures her own bags in her own artisan studio, which operates in the same space as her design studio. This is unheard of – unless you’re basically Hermès or something. If you’re wondering why the distinction is so important, it’s because Corina is able to collaborate with the artisan, ensuring each piece is produced in the most elegant manner possible, using techniques that allow for the highest-quality results.
When asked about what makes her process unique, Corina’s response was, “The uniqueness of my production process derives from the fact that I make my own products in my own workshop here in Italy. By designing in the workshop, I don’t have to worry about developing around volume-oriented seasonal collections. Rather, I can design and produce based on inspiration, see immediate results, and fine tune to my heart’s content.” Read on for the rest of my interview with Corina:
1) What’s your inspiration for the line?
The heart of the inspiration is expressed in our name “Sage Femme.” In French, this name has a double meaning. The words literally mean “wise woman.” It’s also the French term for “midwife,” a traditional female occupation that embodies trust, empowerment, and service to community. The concept of service is an important element of our project, which I’ll explain later.
Back to the idea of the wise woman: When I designed this line, I wanted to create models that expressed a distinctly female form of wisdom and confidence, an aura that derives from the sheer quality of materials, harmony of proportions and color, and unique practicality. To achieve this, I made a conscious effort to remove all unnecessary ornamentation and superfluous stitching. Simplicity of this sort poses a unique challenge in production. There are no distractions. It’s unforgiving of the smallest imperfection. The cut of the leather must be perfectly clean; the stitching, reinforcements, and edging, flawless. In short, it requires total, uncompromising, and even obsessive dedication to quality on our part.
I also wanted to integrate an almost imperceptible practicality. With my crossbody bag, the clean lines of the exterior hide a full five-compartment interior for organizing everything from a wallet, documents, and receipts to an iPad Mini. The end result, we believe, speaks for itself. To paraphrase Coco Chanel, if a woman carries an overly-embellished bag, you notice the bag, and if she carries a tasteful bag, you notice the woman.
The other inspiration for my line comes from the profession of my mother-in-law, a well-known midwife who practiced in the U.S. and more recently traveled the world, helping other midwives and women in need. I developed this line with the intention of sharing a significant portion of the proceeds with the foundations of the American College of Nurse-Midwives (ACNM) and Midwives Alliance of North America (MANA). Our goal is to offer our financial support on midwife-led projects in the developing world where these “wise women” can make a real difference in the future of public health globally.
2) What is the price range? Were you mindful of being in a specific price range for marketing reasons or did the manufacturing process and materials drive your decisions?
The prices for the current models are $490 for the tote and $515 for the bucket and crossbody. This structure allows us to offer uncompromising quality similar to that of high-end Italian brands (for whom we have produced in the past) at a price point that’s less than 50% of what they charge.
When we ran the numbers, we were confident, given our unique ability to produce in-house and sell directly to the end customer, that we could offer the highest-quality product, pay our employees well, pass some of the savings along to the customer, and still donate a decent portion of profit to a worthwhile cause: namely midwifery in the developing world.
3) There are so many bag lines out there; why are you different? What niche are you filling that’s not already available to us?
I believe the crowded handbag market still leaves a gaping hole. On the lower end, there are bags in the roughly $150-$400 range. The bags in this category tend to focus more on styling and branding (and are often manufactured in China by licensee or franchised brands) than on materials or craftsmanship. How often have you seen a lovely bag in this range, only to wish upon closer inspection that the leather wasn’t so cheap or the detailing less haphazard?
Those of us who want a bag in a really nice leather and with quality workmanship inevitably have had to make the leap to the major fashion brands, who admittedly create beautiful bags in nice leather, but with prices that start at close to $1,000. Hence the gap: Either affordable bags with a mass market look and feel or fine European bags beyond the means of most.
To fill this void, I chose to offer the finest bags possible in the $400-$500 price range and to focus on premium materials and craftsmanship. As for the design, I strove to create silhouettes that suited my personal taste for understated elegance and incorporated the most exacting elements of fine Italian leather crafting, such as:
1) Premium leathers from Santa Croce sull’Arno (the holy grail of leather tanning in Tuscany) firm enough to give the bags body but soft and pliable enough to be delightful to the touch
2) Perfectly smooth, burnished, and finished painted edges – the results of a six-step edging process we have mastered in our workshop
3) Precise stitch lines with exactly three stitches per centimeter in premium Gutermann German thread, hand-terminated and tightened over borders for durability and cleanliness
4) Leather-covered rivets, finished by hand
5) Linings made out of either pure calf suede or high-quality Alcantara with pure leather pockets and YKK zippers for internal pockets.
6) A purposeful absence of metal fixtures and ornamental stitches, allowing the premium leather to speak for itself
4) Why are you producing them in Italy? What advantages does that give you?
So much about Italy’s identity is related to the beauty and authenticity that comes from the specific place of origin of many of its exclusive products. Indeed, in the world of wines, they use a guarantee known as “Di Origine Controllata” (D.O.C., aka guarantee of origin), meaning the grapes must come from a very specific place to assure their quality. The same is true with fine leather goods. In Italy, and specifically in the four regions where leather goods manufacturing is clustered (Tuscany, Veneto, Marche, and Naples), you can find a distinct, integrated network of small and medium-sized workshops that offer everything you need to create high-quality product.
I have my workshop in the leather-making district of Naples, and within a one-mile radius, I can find virtually everything I need for making beautiful and exclusive handbags: Dye-makers, tanneries and leather resellers, leather machinery technicians, box-makers…the list goes on and on. There is a also vast and rich pool of artisans: Model-makers, machine stitchers, prep-workers, cutters who have worked for the most exclusive brands in the world, and those who can lend decades of experience to every element in the development and production of a new bag.
The Italian leather-making districts are unique in their focus on small-volume, high-quality production. This is the significance of “Made in Italy” for Sage Femme. When we bring our handcrafted, exclusive products to life, we are not only expressing the unique talents of our the artisans in the workshop but also the collective skills of a regional network of artisans and suppliers with decades of experience in every element of high-end handbags. It is truly an honor and a privilege to work in the midst of such a richness of talent.
The Making of a Sage Femme Crossbody
Corina also explained the steps of their entire manufacturing process (specifically that of my blue crossbody!), down to every detail:
“As an introductory note, your model was created with a construction technique known in the trade in Italy as ‘lavorazione a Costa,’ roughly meaning ‘raw edge’ or ‘painted edge’ technique. This technique, when done properly and according to exacting standards, gives a bag an orderly, geometric, linear look. All the leather edges of the bag — instead of being turned or folded — are left exposed. The bag undergoes an ornate multi-step process in which the leather patterns are perfectly paired, glued, painted, burnished, and repainted with several coats of edge lacquer. The edges take on a firm, yet smooth surface, accented by top-stitching exactly two millimeters from the border that terminates elegantly with hand-stitched reinforcements. If you look at the bag from any angle, it stands upright confidently, proudly showcasing the converging lines of the gusseted compartments.”
1. Cutting: We hand-cut the patterns of leather on a rubberized surface using thick cardboard patterns as guides.
2/3: Patterns first stage: Once all the patterns of the bag have been cut, they are ready to go into production. We then split all the leather to a consistent thickness, reinforce the leather, and couple it with the calf suede lining.
4: Completed Patterns: With all the leather reinforced and coupled, we cut the patterns to the final size and begin the edging process.
5/6. Detailing: With all the patterns ready, we begin to construct the bag. Each piece of the bag is precisely glued, modeled, and hammered into place on a smooth marble surface.
7. Construction in progress: As the pieces are modeled together, the bag begins to come to life and take shape.
8. Topstitch sewing: As the pieces are glued together, they are machine-stitched with premium Gütermann German thread. Precision is key here. We make exactly three stitches per centimeter to give a touch of cleanliness and sobriety. Note that all stitches on the bag are on the outside of the bag in plain view (instead of being stitched and turned inside out), which requires great care and attention to detail.
9/10. Hand-stitching: All machine stitching is terminated at the end with the so-called “travetto” — a reinforcement that is looped around numerous times by hand with a curved needle to ensure that the stitching doesn’t weaken as the gussets are opened and closed over time.
11/12. Construction, later stages: Slowly but surely the bag takes form as the patterns are fit together and modeled with a tool called the “stringi,” which helps to press the edges together.
13/14. Hand painting/Burnishing: As the bag reaches its final stages, it undergoes a series of edging steps. First, we apply the edge painting by hand and let it dry, then burnish the edges with a special rotating brush composed of felt and leather strips, which smoothes and rounds out the edges.
15. Final Piece: At long last, the Five-Gusset Sage Femme Crossbody is complete, closing a multi-step process that results in a bag of deceptive simplicity.