Julia Gabriel Studio

Julia Gabriel Studio

Julia Gabriel Denim Series Bags

For her Denim series, Gabriel took materials popular in today’s vintage looks – selvage denim, vegetable-tanned leather, brass hardware – and made them modern. She also introduced some new forms, including cubes and cones, while continuing to incorporate accents such as meticulously painted leather edges.

Joshua Anderson, Julia Gabriel (stylist)

Julia Gabriel knows a thing or two about resilience. A maker of artful, architectural, and impeccably constructed handbags, Gabriel was nearing graduation from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2011 when she applied for a residency at Houston Center for Contemporary Craft.

“I’m from Houston,” Gabriel explains. As a teen, she had attended the city’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, less than a mile away from HCCC. “I knew the center very well, and I knew I wanted to be a part of it. Like: I was going to be a part of it. It was a mission.” But she didn’t get a spot. Gabriel moved back to her hometown anyhow and applied again the following year. And again in 2014. The answer was still no.

Undaunted, Gabriel continued to develop her business – and her art form. Even as an undergrad, “I felt like an artist,” Gabriel explains. Her first year, she attended Pratt Institute, intending to study fashion, but found the curriculum too focused on front-end design; she transferred to VCU in search of a more rounded, hands-on arts education. Though her handbags today fall into the realm of fashion accessories – and are absolutely intended for everyday use – they are also how Gabriel expresses a distinctive creative vision.

A revelation came in early 2014. Her father, an architect, called her one morning, urgently wanting to meet for coffee. He sounded “kind of frantic,” Gabriel recalls; her mind began racing through worst-case scenarios. But the news was good. In his daughter’s work, Gabriel senior had been struck by a natural affinity for the golden ratio, a mathematical principle that dictates proportional relationships – commonly used in architecture and frequently found in nature. (The spiral of a nautilus shell is one well-known example.)

Wired for precision, Gabriel ran with the concept, which has become the guiding structure of her designs. “It was awesome to have a rule – to have a starting point,” she says – acknowledging, of course, that rules allow room to play. In August 2014, she launched her website debuting Julia Gabriel Studio with her Ratio series, minimalist leather bags riffing on golden rectangles, as well as squares.

And she applied, one more time, to HCCC. This time, the answer was yes.

“I’m really happy to be here,” Gabriel says sunnily. She’s perched on a chair in her studio at the end of the hall at HCCC, which hosts five artists at any given time. Her yearlong residency runs through this August. “I think the timing worked out great. I don’t think I was ready to be here four years ago, or three years ago, or two years ago, or even one year ago.”

Now that she is, she’s making the most of it. Being in close contact with the four other residents keeps her energized, Gabriel says, and her interactions with the public have given her new insight into how to present and talk about her work. One of her challenges – a paradox of perceptions – is communicating that her well-designed and neatly executed work is, in fact, all handmade.

Presentation is something Gabriel has been savvy about from the start. Collaborating with creative friends, she has created a carefully composed lookbook for each of her collections, showcasing her bags in settings both everyday and surreal. “I love still-life images,” she explains. The idea is to use one art form – her bags – in the other, “and kind of create art with them,” Gabriel says.

She shot her latest one, for the Denim series, right in her HCCC studio, which is seemingly transformed into a vacant industrial building. It’s a fitting vision for the collection, which takes the heirloom-quality, throwback materials of the moment – selvage denim, vegetable-tanned leather, brass hardware – and, with a wink, makes them undeniably modern and urban.

At some point, Gabriel says, she’d love to have the problem of needing to scale up. “Right now, I can supply my demand by myself. It’s hard, but I can do it.”

That said, it’s unlikely she’ll ever completely let go. “I have this compulsive need to work with my hands and tactile things,” she says. “It has to be a profession for me.” 

Handmade in Houston
Gabriel was the only one in her freshman class at Pratt Institute who arrived knowing how to sew. “It blew my mind,” she says. What’s common practice in the fashion industry – sketching an idea and letting someone else handle the details – doesn’t appeal to her.

Early adopter: When Gabriel was 12, her mother found her stapling together fabric. Grandma came to the rescue with a sewing machine. “My brain just went, ‘Yep, got it. Go.’ I immediately understood,” Gabriel recalls.

350 pounds: The weight of her current machine, an industrial Pfaff 1445 walking-foot model. “The walking foot is what makes it suitable for leather,” Gabriel notes. “And the motor size.”

Architectural roots: Gabriel made her first series of bags at VCU. Each backpack was based on an abandoned building in Richmond – a way for the earthbound structures to “travel and see the world and have purpose again.”

Julie K. Hanus is American Craft’s senior editor.