Meet the Makers: Sarah Conners

Sarah Conners is an artisan of the east side, who makes beautiful, handcrafted and ethically-made leather bags and accessories from her studio in Hawthorn’s Auburn Village.

You have such a strong interest in fashion, and in particular accessories. How did that first spark?

I can’t remember ever not wanting to work in fashion — actually, there was a year or two that I thought about being an architect. But honestly, it probably sparked when I was in primary school. And it’s always been about accessories. 

Hero image source: Sarah Conners

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You’ve worked with some high-profile Melbourne names, like Peter Jago and Melbourne Theatre Company. What was it like working with them? 

In the nineties racewear was very theatrical, and we made a lot of over-the-top headwear at Peter Jago. It was my first job out of university. I went from small-town Newcastle to fashion school — which was an experience in itself — then just landed into this wild world of millinery. It was just the most inspiring thing you could imagine for a first job. Melbourne Theatre Company had a much more rarified atmosphere. It was quite serious and all the of the crafts people there — the tailors, the sewers and setmakers — are just consummate professionals, so everyone took their job very seriously. While it was theatrical, it was much more serious there.

From hats to leather work, that’s quite a change. How did it come about? 

By chance! I started working with leather when I was in millinery, making some headdresses and hats with it. I love the three dimensionality of hats and bags particularly when using leather, so it was a natural progression. Because I had trained so hard in millinery, I knew I didn’t want to be an average bagmaker so I hung around two older bagmakers in Melbourne to properly learn the craft. These older gentlemen were a little rough around the edges and their workspace was a bit of a mess, but through this experience I learned how tough bagmaking is, particularly on your hands.

You’ve had some interesting adventures overseas that helped to hone your craft. You must have learnt a lot of interesting things.

When I look back on it, it reminds me how lucky I was. I went to Italy on a grant, to the Vicenza district where a lot of leather bags are made. I lucked out and met a guy at a hardware supply company that sold buckles and that sort of thing, and he offered to show me all these other bagmaking places. He took me to a little workroom that had about three people working in it and I saw a bag being made from start to finish before me, from cutting the leather to the final product. I got to go to the Bottega Veneta School and one of their factories which has inspired the way I work — lean and clean. Here, every strip of leather, every drop of paint and every bit of tissue paper was accounted for and nothing was wasted. The quality control was just incredible. 

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Opening your own store would have been a dream come true. How did it come about?

It was a little bit of an accident to be honest! I was selling bags online and wholesale from a lovely studio when the building was sold. So, I was looking for a studio and saw that this place was for lease, and fell in love with the doors. Plus, it had huge windows so I thought, I may as well open a shop. Auburn Village is just such a makers’ village. There’s Silvana Tedesco [142 Auburn Road, Hawthorn] just around the corner with the most amazing dresses. There’s jewellers and so many craftspeople here, so it’s like this little oasis in between the bigger Glenferrie Road precinct and Camberwell. It’s its own little world and I really fit in here. The passionate locals are wonderful too.

The process of making bags sounds fascinating. Can you tell us more about how a bag takes shape?

The actual constructing side of things is not particularly delicate. I get to use hammers, knives and an anvil! But before I do that I sit down and draw it on paper first and work out all the measurements. Then I’ll make a sample which I’ll usually do in a heavy cotton to get the shape. Leather is so expensive you really don’t want to waste it.  I cut all the leather with knives, not scissors, and then it’s a combination of gluing, sticking things together and working on the sewing machine. The sewing machines I use are hefty things — it has to be to sew through leather. It’s definitely not delicate couture sewing, it’s more heavy duty and sometimes, you have to get the hammer out. 

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You’re now helping others to get hands on too. Tell us about your workshops.

I do a workshop with a stylist named Sally McKinnon. We talk about finding your style, getting your wardrobe organised and the basic pieces you need. We also get someone else to come in and talk about beauty or other related topics. 
I also do private workshops where I teach people to make bags. I do a two-day intensive for up to four people, so it’s quite a small group I work with each workshop. We step through every part of making a bag and at the end, each participant walks out of the workshop with their own tote. 

How would you describe the Sarah Conners style? 

Classic, with a bit of a witty twist. I love bold shades and I do hand painting on some of the leather. I also think everything can be enhanced with the addition of a tassel, big or small. 

With such an amazing career, is it possible for you to pick a highlight so far?

Although the grant to go to Italy was amazing, I get such a buzz out of just selling a bag to a woman and her loving it. The big stuff comes and goes; I remember I had a piece in Vogue, which was great, but happy customers and beautiful feedback about my bags is the highlight. I don’t want to be a famous fashion designer. I just want to make beautiful pieces for people who will love them. 

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What do you love about the Hawthorn area?

I love the bars, restaurants and cafes here. We have such great food. Everything is within walking distance too, so it’s really easy to get around, and the area is very dog-friendly. Hawthorn has this lovely community quality to it. 

If you had a visitor in town, where would you take them in the Hawthorn area?

Obviously Auburn Village! We’d start at Hello Sailor [89 Auburn Road, Hawthorn] for breakfast, which is my favourite cafe, and then take a look at all of the beautiful boutiques. I’d then take them to the Lido Cinemas [675 Glenferrie Road], Hawthorn on Glenferrie Road, and the beautiful Venetian bar and restaurant, Vaporetto [681 Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn]. 

Sarah’s favourite local: 

Cafe Hello Sailor . It’s just down the corner and has a beautiful big mural on the side of it. 

Restaurant St Cloud Vietnamese Eating House [644 Burwood Road, Hawthorn East]. It’s delicious and I always leave very full. 

Nature spot The dog parks in Boroondara are great. I love Central Gardens [32 Henry Street,Hawthorn], which is a beautiful, lush oasis behind Swinburne University.

Place to shop Auburn Village [Auburn Road,Hawthorn], of course!

Check our Sarah Conners at 604 Burwood Road, Hawthorn East.

All information is considered to be true and correct at the date of publication. 
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