A gift that transformed into a business
Enterprising couple Ruben and Trina Flores share a fascination for leather, and this spurred them into putting up their own leather bag business.
It all started in 2008 as a birthday gift idea, and something of a dare between the couple who were still dating at that time.
Ruben proudly told Trina that he would make a custom bag for her birthday. Trina dared him to go ahead.
He went to Marikina to buy leather and cut it according to the design he had in mind.
However, they hit a dead end when it came to sewing it into a finished product.
There were no local makers up to the task; it was either a factory set-up that accepted only orders in bulk, or smaller shops that were limited to doing repair on leather goods, not creating new ones, narrated Ruben.
For three years, the cut leather simply sat in their studio. That is, until 2011, when Trina came across the work of a Japanese entrepreneur outside of Tokyo who created bags throughout the year, then sold them in an annual exhibit.
Hoping to learn the tricks of the trade, Trina quickly ordered the entrepreneur’s book, which arrived after a long wait of about five to six weeks.
Although everything was written in Japanese, it was highly visual, much like a DIY sewing magazine, and even provided a pattern.
This marked the first lesson in Trina and Ruben’s education on leather bag creation.
Still, it was no easy road to starting a business. Essential to this endeavor are the tools necessary to come up with a finished product.
At that time, most tools were for leather shoes, so everything they did was trial and error.
“We ended up making do with what was available … What was exciting about it was that great urge for understanding it. We wanted to do this properly,” Trina recalled.
With this mindset, the couple started off with a dozen pieces, with the first item derived from the book.
After the first piece, Ruben said they were empowered to explore the craft on their own. They credit their alma mater, the College of Fine Arts of the University of the Philippines in Diliman, for their work ethic and discipline.
Ruben has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Industrial Design while Trina graduated with a degree in Studio Arts, major in Painting.
The first public exposure of Bags by Rubbertree was at the 10A Alabama Handmade Arts & Crafts Fair held in Quezon City in November 2012.
They created 12 major pieces and 20 card cases for the arts and crafts pop-up store.
For this, Ruben and Trina started with three rolls of leather worth P6,000.
Bags by Design
From then on, they decided to continue with their bag production, but still on a scale they are comfortable with.
All products of Bags by Rubbertree are hand-cut and hand-stitched by the couple, and their two assistants.
Currently, their leather items are classified into these categories: Small Stuff, Travel Bags, Totes, Backpacks, Messengers, Sling bags, Camera bags and Suede, with a numbered logo tag stitched on each item.
In a week, given enough leather to work with, the Bags by Rubbertree team can produce about 10 totes and five satchels or two big backpacks.
Functionality and simplicity are primary considerations in their designs.
Trina shared that they do not have a specific market in mind for their bags, to which Ruben added that they do not consider coming up with a type of product simply because it is popular.
Rather, they try to answer these questions: “Would I use it? Do I like the size? Will it be useful for an everyday bag?”
Ruben noted that there is no regularity in the designs they come up with as they enjoy being spontaneous in their creative process.
Sometimes, they have simple builds while there are instances that they focus on producing bigger items.
Part of the reason is their dependence on the availability of leather which can be limited to one hide at a time or 10 pieces at most, Trina explained. However, she considers such dependency a strength of the business as it challenges them to think on their toes. “It’s healthy, creativity-wise,” she added.
Bags by Rubbertree sources its materials from local firms as well as suppliers in Japan and Hong Kong.
Another challenge is working with the leather material itself. The different types of leather react differently to the humid Manila weather, with some even growing mold.
“Sometimes, it’s hard to explain to a client that it’s really the weather, but then [it was a bad call on our end that we got that leather], so we willingly changed the bag … We really took the hit through the years, but I felt we needed that because it keeps you grounded. It keeps you aware of your material, of how it will perform,” Trina noted.
Partners in business
It is no longer uncommon for couples to venture into business, but it can be tricky.
How are Ruben and Trina as business partners?
“Very good. It’s actually fun. It works. Thankfully, we have the same aesthetics. We have the same editing laws,” Trina said.
Ruben explained that they first agree on the design. After that, they work independently on their pieces, but confer with each other during the creation or production process.
She said having their own design practice prior to establishing Bags by Rubbertree was a factor behind their smooth working relationship, as they already know how to deal with clients.
Initially, the couple thought bag-making would simply be a new addition to the design studio, but the income it has been generating is already at par with, sometimes more than, that brought in by their design business.
Does the Flores couple already consider Bags by Rubbertree a success at this point? “Getting there,” Ruben said.
Within five years, Trina hopes to have a studio dedicated to their bags.
It will be a shop where they can receive clients, but will still primarily be a workplace.
Establishing a business is no easy feat; making it a success, even more so.
In the case of Ruben and Trina, it is a matter of doing something that they love. —CONTRIBUTED
Products by Bags by Rubbertree can be purchased through their online store (https://www.bagsbyrubbertree.com/) and through quarterly pop-up events.
Rubbertree will have a pop-up sale event today, 1 p.m. to 7 p.m., at Shutterspace Studios 175 Citigold Plaza, Katipunan Avenue, Loyola Heights, Quezon City, Metro Manila.
Read more entrepreneurial stories in the book Couples in Business: Dreamers, Doers, Risk takers 2, published by the Small Enterprises Research and Development Foundation, Inc. (Serdef). Serdef is located at: 3rd Floor, E. Virata Hall, E. Jacinto St., UP Campus, Diliman, Quezon City, telephone number 355-5348.