STUDIO: Panna Kovacs - Panna Bags

It's a lovely, sunny Friday afternoon in Berkeley and Panna Kovacs and I sit down in her bright and airy apartment/studio to chat over a glass of sparkling wine. I met Panna through a meet up put on by Urban Air Market and we've run into each other at a few craft shows, but I'm really excited to learn a little more about her as well as her business. 

Ana: Why don't we start with a little introduction, about yourself and your business.

Panna: I'm Panna and I'm originally from Hungary, I moved here in 2008. I work as a biochemist and during my study I spent a lot of time in my uncle's furniture workshop and in that time I saw a lot of leftover leather and extra leather in the workshop. I always wanted to make bags... I did a sewing course during my studies at the university. It was a Burda course; Burda is a fashion magazine in Europe. So I did that course and that's how I learned how to sew. It's kind of funny because my mom is a seamstress and my grandma was a seamstress as well but they didn't teach me how to sew. My grandma was always like, "Don't touch the sewing machine."

A: Oh, she was protective of it? Haha.

P: Yeah, because there were a lot of kids around with my cousins there. But once I learned how to sew, I learned a lot from my mom - just the details and some tricks. I was interested in sewing bags and making bags so that's why I learned sewing. Once, I spent three weeks with my friends here and I didn't want to travel around and I didn't have money at that time for fabric so I just hung out with my parents in the workshop. At that time, I got a picture of a Nina Ricci bag from my friend, [she said] "Oh, I like this bag, can you make something similar?"

A: So that was your first piece, for your friend?

P: Uh huh. And that was the first bag I got money for. Even though she was my friend, I was like, "If you want to give money, you can, but it's up to you." So after that it was word of mouth, I made bags for my friends and friends of friends. [Then] I spent a year as an intern here in Berkeley and I really missed sewing because my small sewing room was in Hungary and my sewing machine was in Hungary. So I was looking for something part-time, sewing work here, during my internship. I found on Craigslist a part-time job for ILE - Inside Line Equipment, a backpack business here in Berkeley. So I worked for them and they allowed me to use their machines to make my bags. Actually, I bought one of their old machines and now I'm working from home and making my bags. So my life and my business is always [about] connections, networking with people. I think I'm friendly and I like to do collaborations with other artists.

A: Tell me about the collaboration you're working on now.

P: So I saw a picture on Instagram [of a drawing by] Ralph Becker, he's originally from the Philippines but he lives here in San Francisco... I saw a picture and said "Oh, that is really cool, you should do it on my bags!" and [he said], "Of course, yeah!" So he made this Hamsa hand and this portrait. I want [one with] the San Francisco silhouette or the Golden Gate too...

A: Oh, that will look great!

P: Mhmm. And for designing the bags, I like simple designs. Most of my bags are simple and square with pockets. It's also inspired by the custom orders and talking to my customers who order the bags. Now I'm making like 5, 6 designs. I started as a business last May.

A: Wow, May last year?

P: Mhmm.

A: That is really impressive! You've done so much in a year! 

P: Yeah and you know, before, I basically made maybe one bag or two bags a month and since then, maybe 8 bags a month.

A: Oh, that's great. So when you're making your bags do you come up with the specific design first or do you sometimes take the materials that you have and see what you can make with that?

P: Right now, I am making these designs that I already have and basically just combining the colors. So when I'm doing the craft markets, I usually bring leather samples.

A: Oh, so you can take custom orders at the fair?

P: Uh huh. I let them combine the colors together because it sometimes happens that [they say], "Oh, I like this bag, but I wish it was black and white or green and something."

A: And then you're like, "Well, it can be!" Haha.

P: Yeah, they like it actually, they like to play with the colors and with the leather and kids love to touch the leather pieces and play with it.

A: I'm sure it makes customers feel extra special to have a bag that's made just for them, so that's really cool.

P: Yeah.

A: So, you're really new as a business, but what is your main goal, what is your vision for your business?

P: I think if you're thinking about a business, you can go two ways. Like, production and make it cheaper and selling as much as you can. Or you can go other way when you want limited [edition], custom, and higher price but also one of a kind bags. So I want to go that way. I want to offer custom bags. I don't want to be mean, but everything is made in China...

A: That's not mean, just true. Haha. But go ahead, continue that thought.

P: It's like, you go to a shopping mall and buy something and it doesn't mean so much to you and I like the craftsmanship - or craftswomanship. Haha.

A: Yeah!

P: So I want to go that way. I'm a little bit scared [that] I don't have the ability or skill that I can make all the custom orders. But I took some really unique and custom orders and challenged myself and I was satisfied and that was the best feeling ever. Some of my customers are very specific. And I don't copy, but I like when they show me a picture.

A: An example of the style they like.

P: And I always try to turn it into the Panna Bag style, my style, but also I can see the what the customer's style is and I can try to combine the two.

A: That's really cool. So I like that you brought up things being made in China and that we don't always have that connection with our products in this country and that's part of why I'm doing this series - because I think it's so important to support smaller businesses and people who are making things well and sustainably. You're doing a great thing with re-using leather that would just go to waste.

P: [People] at the markets, they like that this is upcycled - its more like upcycled than recycled, because I'm using things that they usually just throw away. So it's environmentally conscious. And I also like to support local businesses [when I shop]. There is a fabric store at the corner here, I'm usually getting zippers from there and they say, "Oh, you're coming every week!" I grab some zippers there, and I think, "I should order and it would be cheaper," but otherwise I want to support this small business, so I'm trying.

A: That's awesome. Sounds like you really enjoy the whole process of making your bags, start to finish.

P: Yeah. I had some bad experiences, the startup that I worked for closed down...sewing was also like a therapy for me at that time. When I'm having a hard time but I have the sewing machine and I start making it's kind of a therapy for me, probably like for you as well, making something.

A: For sure. That's kind of when you know that you're doing something that is for you, when it feels really good to do it.

P: Yeah, I'm getting a lot from the business and the customers and the whole Panna Bags.

I took some really unique and custom orders and challenged myself and I was satisfied and that was the best feeling ever.

A: Awesome! So obviously you're doing great, but what have been some of the challenges in starting your own business?

P: Doing full time is challenging for sure, so I'm not doing full time but that is the goal - someday - maybe you should not write that because my boss may read it. Hahaha.

A: Well... we just won't tell your boss about this. Haha. I think that's a good goal to talk about though.

P: I can picture myself doing this full time - even though I studied a lot as a biochemist - especially because it gives me total freedom as an entrepreneur and I love it. I wake up and go to the coffee shop here and just sit with my thoughts, designing. But it was hard with making enough money with [just] that and the Bay is expensive and also you have this pressure on you: I need to sell the bags because I need to pay the bills. So right now it's kind of a balance. I really wanted to get a part time job in biochem but that's kind of impossible so now I'm working full time and I'm doing the bags in the evening time.

A: Wow, that's so much work.

P: But now I've improved a lot, so I can make that bag in two hours, so that's kind of crazy.

A: Wow!

P: I even make some dinner and make that in two hours. But because I'm doing it as a business just starting recently, I'm experimenting with the pricing... and I'm hesitating with wholesale. Do you do any wholesale?

A: I've just started to. I've only had a couple small orders. Yeah, that's the hard part because you have to get your price right then. You still have to make some profit for wholesale but then that means your retail is going to be double that... which seems a little high to me sometimes but when I'm honest with myself, I know how much time I put into it all and how much that is worth, right? So is that what you mean when you're trying to figure out pricing?

P: Yeah, pricing is the most challenging stuff for me also because I'm lucky - I'm getting the materials from the furniture shop. But I also want to give a percentage to my cousin for the material and also made in US means it's more expensive.

A: Your craftswomanship is a big part of that, yes. You're providing a high quality product and your time is valuable as well. 
So to leave off, I also like to ask everyone, what words of advice you have for somebody who has a passion that they'd like to pursue as a business or as a craft?

P: Just don't give up, don't be down when the market is not the best for you. Actually, I'm always getting feedback, this is also one of the best things.

Most of the markets that I did were in the summer time and for the holiday, I got many returning customers [saying], "Oh, I was looking for you since July. I bought one of your bags and want to buy another." I feel lucky because I really like my customers. So I'm getting feedback which makes me think, "Okay, I need to do it!"

A: Yeah, it keeps you motivated and inspired.

Thanks for taking the time to chat with me, Panna. And I hope you continue to stay motivated and inspired to keep making your lovely bags. 

Further exploration:

Look for Panna Bags at the Jack of All Trades show September 10th and the Cole Valley Fair on September 25th! Keep an eye out for Holiday show dates as well as a collaboration Panna is working on with jewelry designer Vanessa Tosoni.