Introducing the Calgary bag and Crowdsourcing Experiment with Bill Amberg

The making of the CALGARY by Bill Amberg for BoF | Source: Crane.tv

LONDON, United Kingdom – At the beginning of last year while roaming around the gargantuan labyrinth-like Florentine trade fair that is Pitti Uomo, I had the pleasure of meeting Bill Amberg for the first time. One of the UK’s most respected leather goods craftsmen, for some time Bill had a small shop around the corner from where I live in London. Over the years, I would pop into his store to have a look at the beautiful leather products and, once in awhile, splurge on a piece for myself or a gift for a friend.

So when CNN coincidentally contacted me later that same day in Florence to ask about my favourite luxury brands in 2010, Bill Amberg was already top of mind, and at the top of my list. A couple of weeks later, we filmed a segment for CNN in his shop, which has since moved to London’s Burlington Arcade, and I listened to Bill talk eloquently about his favourite products, which is something like listening to a storyteller speak about their favourite characters; each has its own personality and history. If I was a big Bill Amberg fan before that day, now I was a true convert to his way of preserving traditional English leather goods craftsmanship, while creating great products suited to the realities of modern life.

Then, after the interview was over, Bill spontaneously popped the question: “How would you like to co-design a bag with me?” he asked. Surprised and admittedly a bit excited by the chance to work side-by-side with someone Vanessa Friedman recently called a “leathergoods czar,” I immediately said yes, before he could change his mind.

So, it is with great pleasure today that we unveil the CALGARY bag by Bill Amberg for The Business of Fashion.

CALGARY Bag in Brown Cowhide | Photo: Bill Amberg

It has been more than a year in the making and I have met with Bill several times over the past 12 months to fine tune what was originally intended to be a small project, but has organically grown into something more interesting, substantial, and very BoF.

Now let’s make something clear. I did not design this bag, nor did I really “co-design” this bag. I am no designer, nor do I fancy myself one. Rather, what I did was give Bill an idea of my day-to-day life, around which to design the bag – a life that’s not so different from that of many urban professionals around the world, who are always on the go, have long days that start at the gym and end at a late dinner with friends, and carry technology and gadgets around with them that need to be protected from being dropped or bumped. Basically, Bill was getting input from a loyal consumer, and that consumer happened to be me.

Interior of the CALGARY Bag | Photo: Bill Amberg

I went to our first meeting with a long list of functional and aesthetic requests for what I thought would be the perfect urban bag. But I quickly learned my first lesson. Good design is about compromise, and no matter how hard I pushed (and push I did!) Bill made it clear that all my requests could not be met. In order to achieve that right balance between fashion and function, some concessions would have to be made.

Then one fine day in July, I spent the afternoon in Bill’s studio and watched as Damian, one of Bill’s finest craftsman, made the first prototype. I road-tested the CALGARY for a couple of weeks, taking it to meetings and showing it to a few friends, fashion designers, and a couple of very experienced fashion editors to gather some additional feedback, which proved to be extremely helpful. Again, I went back to Bill with yet another list of requests.

After a bit of back and forth, the CALGARY took shape: a unisex, tote-style bag, simple and elegant on the outside, functional on the inside, designed to fit the lifestyle of the busy modern gentleman or gentlewoman. The bag is entirely padded with neoprene to protect technology, is lined with suede inside, and includes specially designed pockets for iPads, Blackberries, and iPhones.

9 versions of the CALGARY Bag | Photo: Bill Amberg

Then came the real kicker. Bill liked the silhouette of the bag so much, he suggested we make them in more than one material and colour, possibly up to nine different versions. But the question quickly became: How many should we produce? And in which colours? We had arrived at the typical quandary that so many fashion merchandisers have faced over the years: trying to predict consumer demand before launching a new product.

This got me to thinking. With all of this talk about fashion crowdsourcing and the potential benefits of integrating input from consumers into important merchandising decisions, why not conduct our own little crowdsourcing experiment? It would be a great way to learn first-hand about how effective these new feedback mechanisms can be in predicting consumer demand, bringing a little bit of science to what, until recently, has been mostly a fine art, based on the gut instincts of some very talented merchants, informed by a little bit of past sales data – not the most reliable indicator in a forward looking, trend-driven business like fashion. Plus, then we’d know exactly what to produce, lessening the risk of unloved CALGARY bags sitting around in the dark in a Bill Amberg warehouse somewhere.

So, here’s how the experiment is going to work – and for those of you who participate and give us your feedback, there is one CALGARY bag up for grabs which will be given to a person selected at random from amongst the names of those people who have responded to our survey.

We propose three bags, in three different colours. We’d love to hear what you think about these colours and, if you were to buy one, which one you would buy. We’ll discuss this feedback with Bill Amberg and decide which bags to produce, and in what quantities. And of course, we’ll share all the results with the BoF community in a few weeks and let you know what we’ve learned, based on our little impromptu experiment, about the potential of crowdsourcing. Let us know what you think!

For those who are interested, there are six limited edition CALGARY bags available for sale right away at www.billamberg.com

Thanks to our friends at Crane.tv for working with us to produce this behind-the-scenes video on the making of the CALGARY bag

UPDATE, 19 September 2011 : The crowdsourcing survey is now closed and the results have been posted here

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38 comments

  1. What an amazing project! Personally, I prefer the grey one, but I think all of them are very nice. The craftsmanship looks amazing. I can’t wait to see this in person. Congratulations BOF on another innovative project we can all learn from.

    Sarina from New York, NY, United States
  2. Congratulations on a terrific collab with Bill Amberg. As someone who is a total ‘Tote’ maniac, I can tell you that ‘The Calgary’ looks great and so practical. I must admit that I would like to see it in more ‘edgy’ colours then Black, Brown and Grey! In your picture above there is an ‘Acid Yellow’ (bang on trend) and a Dark Red that both look amazing!
    I am sure it will get a great reaction.

    DW.

  3. Good work Imran. Congrats! Love the name.

    Meeta from London, London, United Kingdom
  4. Juun J does the perfect gym bag, personally. While the Cow hide brown looks very nice and the use of internal neoprene and suade is a masterstroke, there’s no way on earth that can double as a gym bag. Gym kit, Tennis kit, swimming gear, towels, accessories… ? In a tiny tote? alongside an ipad…don’t thinkso. Never understand the compartment for iphones in bags either, who puts their mobile into a bag? Girls shoving it into a clutch, yes…However, the primary goal in increasing Bill Amberg exposure accomplished and was great to see the internal workings of the studio, nice collaboration.

    moi from United Kingdom
  5. Love the practical and easy application you are giving to crowdsourcing through the Calgary. Hoping sales are strong. You mentioned compromises in the design process of this all encompassing bag, very curious as to what was compromised and how that impacted the overall final product. Thank you for yet another very cool day on BOF.

    Mira from Madrid, Autonomous Region of Madrid, Spain
  6. Black is sooo basic I’m tired of it, enough already.

    The grey patent, while gorgeous, isn’t a warm enough color/texture for me-too chill.

    That leaves the chocolate cowhide which I would choose for the texture and touchability & warmth of color. I could use this everyday…plus, who doesn’t like chocolate?

    Marcia

  7. Not to be rude, but is this a joke? Would Valentino, Lagerfeld, or any other proper designer give a toss what the average punter has to say? Bill Amberg, to be truly successful, has to have the guts to put his vision forward on his own terms.

    Anyway, the bag, by any objective measure is quite feminine. At least all your market research — and this is a prediction — will lead you to focus your resources on selling this to women. Men don’t really do “totes.”

    Imran – did you get paid for your consulting work on this and the press you are generating for the brand?

    Nick Jones from Deanshanger, Essex, United Kingdom
  8. Imran, what is the significance behind the name of the bag? Are you from Calgary? The bag is lovely — my vote is for the brown cowhide!

    Anjli from Calgary, AB, Canada
  9. Nevermind — I just saw the explanation on the Bill Amberg website. Props to Calgary! I’m graduating from U of C law in a few months! = )

    Anjli from Calgary, AB, Canada
  10. Truly elegant. Simple yet highly functional.

    I think that you will be wildly sucessfull with this bag.

    Patricia from Brooks, AB, Canada
  11. I love the bag, but I hate the price. It’s very unclear to me what differentiates this bag from other bags, say around $100.

    I like the way it looks, but it doesn’t look 10x better than some other bags; it seems functional, but not 10x more functional than other bags; and it seems like it’s good quality, but not 10x better quality.

    Obviously, luxury goods are priced at a premium for the branding, above and beyond the increased price necessitated by high quality materials and craftsmanship. While I’m willing to pay more for a high quality item than a low quality one, this price seems unreasonable.

    jd from Bellevue, WA, United States
  12. Always shake my head at people who hop on the “crowdsourcing” bandwagon. It’s the new phrase. The new frontier. Problem is, most people actually lose interest fast.

    A true designer has his/her own vision. One on one with Bill is not really “crowdsourcing”.

    Few c-soursing websites have really taken off and I’d be surprised if any actually turn a profit. Give people too much freedom and at the end of the day, many don’t even know what they want.

    snail from Lexington, VA, United States
  13. Congrats Imran! This is awesome. A newbie to living AND working downtown, my eyes are constantly studying what people are using to carry their life around…everything from oversized luxury hobo’s to reusable grocery bags. I do put both my berry and my iPhone inside my bag, next to each other in their appropriate pouch, so thanks for taking this out to us real users for a say. I choose grey (until it comes in a mushroom-kinda-purple colour). Can’t wait to get my hands on one!

    Natasha from Montreal, QC, Canada
  14. I like the gray. Hope the bag is a great success. As a female, the bag seems more feminine to me than masculine. Maybe I’m wrong and I have no clue about the fashion sensibilities of men.

    Thanks for the video. As this is the BOF, maybe you can create a post about some of the business/economics behind the bag development process and bringing it to market. That would be highly insightful.

    H M from Bronx, NY, United States
  15. HM- you’re correct, the tote is quintessentially feminine, always will be. Works for some guys, personally not my thing. Some good responses by people, ‘crowdsourcing’ is certainly a fad coined by companies, or user-centred design synthesis. It’s a load of bullshit, Philips, Canon, Apple, Google…they do nothing but listen to themselves and innovate. That’s the hallmark of a great product, relying on its strengths and compounding them! This wasn’t really crowdsourcing, just straight-forward PR. We’re all talking about Bill Amberg, somebody many people would never have heard of before this collaboration. Will it see me rush out and pick up an Amberg bag? No, but somebody else might. Which is the point of the whole exercise. :)

    moi from Richmond, Surrey, United Kingdom
  16. Mr. Moi, I am not sure I agree with you on this debate about totes being feminine. Have a look at what many guys are carrying around these days, and its totes. It might not be the right look for a more conservative gentleman (perhaps that’s you?), but on lots of stylish, young guys, it looks great, and it is the right shape to carry lap-tops, etc.

    jimbo-bob from United States
  17. I think this is a beautiful bag and a fantastic innovative project! My favorite is the yellow (I know it’s not among the three options) but I think it makes it stand out as a “different” bag…from all the others we already have.
    I would suggest you don’t promote this as the bag where you also put your gym stuff (it looks a big small to me)…but as the bag for all our technology stuff (ipad, computer, telephone, camera etc). Sort of innovative bag for innovative tools.
    As an Italian who loves bags I would definetely buy one.
    Congratulations! I really love this project.

  18. Thank you to everyone for all your feedback and comments. We are thrilled with the conversation that has ensued here on BoF, and elsewhere on the internet, about the Calgary bag, and crowdsourcing in general.
    Now to some of your questions/comments:
    @moi and @cinzia – Yes, you’re absolutely right, the bag cannot fit tons of gym kit. However, it does comfortably fit a tshirt, shorts, and a small toiletry bag, which is exactly what I needed in the mornings. I leave my trainers at the gym, and wouldn’t use this bag if I was going to play tennis or go swimming on the weekends. This was intended to be a bag for the working week.
    @Nick Jones – No, I was not paid as a consultant for this project. It was something I did because I love Bill Amberg products and felt I would learn from the experience of the collaboration and that it would be fun. I will however earn a nominal commission on the bags sold.
    @mira – When I first went to Bill with a laundry list of requests, these included an external pocket (which was tough to do as we had the leather padded with neoprene) and zip closure, but we compromised on things like a folded leather closure on top and more pockets inside the bag.
    @moi and @Nick Jones – Indeed, Bill Amberg may not be well known where you’re based, but here in the UK he is very well regarded as an expert leather craftsman amongst sophisticated consumers. He has a big following in Japan, where craftsmanship is very much appreciated. He also has a substantial private client business, making bespoke leather products for people’s homes. Sure, Bill will gain something out of this collaboration in addition to the bag sales, but that is what a collaboration is about! I partnered with Bill because I respect him and his work, and have very much enjoyed working with him on this project.
    @everyone Regarding the use of totes for a bag, I really do understand the hesitation for some guys to sport a tote. Until a few years ago, I felt the same way. But when I bought a tote by Dior Homme (egged on by a stylish sales associate in Hong Kong) it became my defacto bag of choice. It was the right shape, easy to pop things in and out of, and looked great. Then, I bought another tote-shaped bag by Bottega Veneta and over time I have grown to like the tote shape. So when Bill suggested that a tote would be the best way to meet the list of needs I gave to him, I decided to run with it and am very happy with the result. What certainly makes the bag more feminine is some of the materials we have chosen. While the dark brown version is very rugged and masculine, the patent grey version (and other patent options) may be more suited to women. We’ll see what the results say!
    Thanks again to everyone for your feedback and input. We are learning more and more about the bag everyday.

    Imran Amed, Editor from London, London, United Kingdom (post author)
  19. I love this idea and everything about it. As a fashion merchandiser, I am faced with these kind off business challenges all the time. For some reason, the fashion industry — especially at the high-end — has always been allergic to consumer research, which is effectively what this kind of “crowd sourcing” is. Once upon a time, they were allergic to the internet too, and look how that has changed. It’s initiatives like this that will help to foster e understanding that just because you get feedback from a consumer, doesnt in anyway lessen the impact of a designer’s vision. One could argue that actually it helps to further this vision by making it economically feasible. Great job Imran as usual. BOF rocks.

    Melissa from Manchester, Manchester, United Kingdom
  20. Beautiful and functional. A true tribute to Calgary. I vote for the brown cowhide – epitimizes the Calgary Stampede.

    Joan Joyce from Rochester, IN, United States
  21. Interesting idea the crowdsourcing. I have seen small entrepreneurs use it with much success here in Vancouver BC – it is a smart business tool that has it’s useful applications.

    Like I said on the survey, the product becomes more exclusive by being inclusive.

    As for the 3 choices, the Brown Cowhide is quintentessially classic as the leather will age beautifully. The Calgary Bag being of both Canadian and English roots, the brown cowhide represents the “no-fuss no-muss” qualities of Canada and the practicality that the English do like (even though London is a fashion leader and I am married to an Englishman who is PAINFULLY practical).

    Martine from Garibaldi, BC, Canada
  22. I saw your bags in the Vancouver Sun today. Love the look of them. I collect bags when I travel and this bag looks like one I would love to have. Is the lining a bright colour? I have a bag right now that I love. The purse is black and the lining is bright red and it is so easy to find everything that the cost was well worth it.

    Joan Wootton from Richmond, BC, Canada
  23. This is the perfect bag—one to take anywhere. It is definitely and distinctly western/Canadian —while at the same time it’s urban and modern– and any downtown Vancouverite would love to have this functional and GORGEOUS bag—I know that I do! Out of the three choices above, I would definitely go for the brown cowhide. Black is too basic for such a beautiful bag and the patent leather gives it too much of a beach bag look for me (sorry). Brown leather goes with just about anything.
    I also went to the website and found the Tan Nubuck leather, which I love, and the nearest to that of the three above is the brown.
    I want this bag! It is so Western Canadian chic!

    Aaron Leslie from Langley, BC, Canada
  24. I love the bag. I think it is overpriced. The styling reminds me of Matt and Nat, but I bet they would do it for about $200. If the price was lower, I think it would do well. Otherwise, my guess would be that someone else will produce something very similar and price it lower.

    pjn from Edmonton, AB, Canada
  25. I like the bag in brown…

    It is a classic look with a modern twist – and would be most welcome addition.

    Congrats to Bill Amberg and Business of Fashion for embracing the digital age and taking the bold move to crowdsource. It makes sense to gauge reaction before going to production – and enables a smaller brand to sense check its products.

    Good luck!

  26. Love this bag! Want to say how nice it is to finally see a bag being made that covers all my needs; something suitable for work, ideal for carrying my work documents/ gym kit/ spare pair of high heels for after work and most of all looking good. It’s perfect and the idea of the crowdsourcing bag is great. I’ve voted and I really want one in the Brown Cowhide Leather – can’t wait to see the results!! Great to see an iconic British brand making yet another gorgeous bag, I’m a big fan. Look forward to seeing what else Bill Amberg and Imran plan to do for the future..

    Cassie from Cannock, Staffordshire, United Kingdom
  27. one word perfect!!!!

    arniece brown from United States
  28. the design aspects of this bag is spot on! all in one bag – just what so many people needs. my vote is for the brown cow hide – will age beautifully.

    catherine from Milan, Lombardy, Italy
  29. I think the Mock Croc Leather Calgary bag has it all. From texture to colour to design, it is one truly amazing bag. As for the three proposed choices, the black one would of course be most versatile but I’d rather more colour in a bag, I’m not too keen on the brown which means my winner is the grey patent. It’s extremely chic and not the least bit dull.

    Len from Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
  30. What I love:
    1. It’s close to the body, not a lot of bulk – easy movement while navigating though life.
    2. It has the ability to stand on its own – literally. Meaning, if you place it on the floor, or on a counter, it’s easy to take a look inside & shuffle through your stuff.
    3. Love hands free option. Very important as I have children, and need to be able to use my hands for other things – urban professional are not your only market!
    4. Various colour options are great. The traditional black/brown/gray are obvious, but the bright patent orange and weaved leather are superb, and perfect for someone who isn’t scared to have a least one item on their person stand out.
    5. The name. Calgary is more than the stampede. These days it’s more international than most people know. Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Saudi Princes and the like do business here. Over half of the leading Canadian Businesses are head quartered in Calgary (according to none other than the Financial Times Global 500).
    6. I know a lot of men AND women who would love this bag. The design is reflective of the needs of busy individuals of any gender.
    7. Great work, great design.
    Sonia.

    SONIA BASATI from Calgary, AB, Canada
  31. love love love the internals and some of the leathers used on these bags, not so happy with the strap as I feel would be more handsome without the strap. The price is right and competetive for the quality and durability. Bill Amberg is certainly known for his leather work and craftsmanship, so the quality is second to none. Love the colour wheel presentation as it is quite eye catching.

    Will from London, London, United Kingdom
  32. This is the 3rd time I have tried to post a comment – never works but try again. I am cutting back on my words as retyping them is too much work.

    Great Bag! Price is right for the quality – not sure what one commenter thought they would get for $100. Yes I too see this as a girls bag only because I observe the ‘up and coming under 40’s’ in Calgary still favour the over the shoulder soft back laptop bags.

    Love it – particularly the brown – grey too trendy and black is already everywhere. The brown stands out and will be noticed.

    Edith McKnight from Calgary, AB, Canada
  33. I think this is an elegant, practical, stylish bag and that it looks amazing in the brown cowhide. The man in my life (who doesn’t leave the house without his shoulder bag) liked it too, but felt that the small flap closure on the top made it look rather feminine, and that a wider one would suit the bag better. He covets the interior, with all the pockets and protection for electronics, and says that in his opinion that is the most important thing to get right in a bag. He also votes for the brown cowhide. Hmmm…in a perfect world where we both had this bag, they couldn’t be the same colour, so it would be the beautiful yellow one for me! (Love the name – a nice tribute!)

    Michele Reid from Calgary, AB, Canada
  34. Love the idea. Will check it out in London next week. Any chance of burgundy as a colour.I find it goes with lots of clothes colours

    Brigid o Connell from Navan, County Meath, Ireland