The Bag Lady

Photos by Peter O’Driscoll

Four years ago, if someone told Blithe Sanchez O’Driscoll that she will be designing bags as a business, she would have thought that person crazy.  This not-so-plain housewife, who is a Certified Public Accountant by profession, was living in Taipei at the time and juggled her responsibilities as a wife and mother with her duties as the vice chair of the British Section PTA in Taipei European School. Yes, she’s got a good eye for fashion, has a penchant for bags, but never dreamt of designing them, much less making them herself.

The turning point came in April last year when she attended a 4-week creativity course.  “Our homework was to submit a creative project at the end of the course. I decided to buy a sewing machine – something I always meant to do but never got around doing – and make a dress. The dress wasn't perfect but I discovered a love for sewing. One day, I decided to dabble in bag making and made myself a plain canvas bag. When I wore it to PTA meetings, it got noticed and complimented. That's when I realized there is a market for these kinds of bags. It all started from there.”

It was in November 2010 that Blithe decided to embark on her colorful journey in the road of bag designing. Asked why she chose to venture into the bag business instead of designing clothes, she has this to say: “I think for a woman, a bag is the ultimate accessory, an accessory that one can carry whatever her shape, size or age. It flatters not only the young, slim, modelesque girl but also the older, curvier woman. Because it is so visible, it can really make or break a woman's outfit. But a bag need not be ridiculously expensive to make a statement. I believe that beautiful things don't always come with hefty price tags and this is the philosophy that guides me in every bag I make.”

As an active PTA mom who helps organize and run fundraising events, it wasn’t surprising that her first customers were her fellow expatriate moms who are mostly Europeans and South Americans.  Her foreign friends love the indigenous fibers and the ethnic vibe; hence, her bags were an instant hit.

Her bags became known through word-of-mouth.  “My first customers tell me that their friends would like the look of the bags and ask where they got them from. I found that the best way to market them is to hold open houses where my customers can bring their own friends – I serve drinks and food while they shop. But next to word-of-mouth, nothing beats Facebook in bringing your product out there. My friends from around the world order bags through my Facebook account (”

Blithe has no formal training in fashion designing; however, being creative is in the family genes as she claims to having inherited her talent from her maternal grandmother.  “My maternal grandmother was quite the designer when she was alive.  She used to make clothes for me, my mom, and my cousins. She also did interior and stage decorations for friends. I guess some of her creative genes trickled down to me.”  She fondly remembers her younger days when she would draw and sketch a lot, making comics and renting them out to her classmates.

When asked what are her inspirations for the designs, Blithe admitted to her obsession with shapes.  She likes to play with certain shapes in her head and figure out a way to turn them into beautiful, yet practical, handbags. “The 'Kuyab' style mimics the shape of a traditional Ilonggo hand-held fan, while the 'Abanico' bag derives its shape (and name) from the popular childhood art of fashioning a Spanish fan out of paper. But whatever the design is, the vision is always the same: create a bag that is simple and classic, but never boring.

“I prefer working with indigenous fibers and natural materials. I especially love abaca, jute, woven bamboo and hemp – their textures add dimension and elegance to a bag that no synthetic material can give. I also work with canvas and hablon – they are durable, breathable materials and perfect for my reversible, two-in-one designs. To accentuate the bags, I go for natural materials such as Capiz shells, wooden beads, nito, and jute cords.

“We live like nomads so I utilize the local materials wherever I am currently based. Taiwan was home for the past two years so my suppliers were the vendors from the local fabric market. My abaca and hablon come from the skillful weavers of Miag-ao and Igbaras.”

'KUYAB' in Black and Natural Abaca Stripes

Abaca Shopper with Capiz Shells

The designer’s main challenge is having a sustainable source of materials especially since the demand for abaca made the fabric increasingly difficult to obtain. As a result, she buys whatever material she can purchase whenever she goes back to Iloilo. “My nomadic life also means that I will not have instant access to the hardware I am using now, which are mostly sourced from Taiwan markets. Establishing contacts and suppliers are some of the challenges I will have to tackle to ensure continuity of my products.”

For Blithe, running her own business is a challenging, yet very rewarding, enterprise. “It has reaffirmed my belief that hard work does pay off and that perseverance will get you somewhere.  At the same time, it has reawakened my passion to create things, a passion that has long been forgotten with the onset of motherhood and its relentless demands. It has also opened up previously closed doors, such as being able to support local tourism events and to display my bags in a major department store. Most of all, it has given me the opportunity to showcase our indigenous fibers and products overseas which, in itself, is a source of pride.”

At present, the designer treats her bag business like her baby which is still in its very early days. She is a one-woman show as she does the sourcing of the materials, the designing, and making of the bags.  “I prefer it that way. Of course, every designer has hopes of opening his or her own shop or being recognized for his or her craft and I'm no exception. But there is time for that. For now, I am happy to cater to a few loyal customers, to learn new techniques, and to hone my skills with each bag I make. I'm just taking each day as it comes, making one bag at a time.”

When she made her first bag, Blithe never thought that things will turn out the way they have. She has an advice for aspiring designers/entrepreneurs out there.  “Find something that you love to do. It may take most of your life to find that something – I know I did – but once you find it, do it, and do it fantastically. As cliché as it may sound, it is true – let your creativity take flight, do not be shackled by the expected. Oh, and don't forget to have fun.”  Indeed, for the designer, getting serious in the bag business is a lot of fun.