Jason Stalvey has standards. And not in that annoying denigrating way — you know, when people turn their nose at Prosecco in preference for Champagne (what's wrong with Italian white wine anyway?). But rather, it's an inherent appreciation for quality. You see it in the way he carries himself, strong and upright, meeting you with attentive eyes in conversation; you sense it in his warm smile, flashing his bright pearly whites; and, most noticeably, you feel it when you embrace him, touching the supple crocodile leather — dyed in a rich tobacco hue — that he hand-selected to create his jacket.
"Do you like it?" asks Stalvey. "Freaking love it! It's so soft and the colour is stunning." "I couldn't find a crocodile jacket in a casual bomber style, so I made one for myself."
It's this proactive attitude — combined with a mindset for excellence — that has led Stalvey to swap a career in medicine for exotic handbags; meticulously crafting gorgeous pieces that now retail from Barneys to Browns, Harrods to Lane Crawford. And with IT girls the likes of Gigi, Bella and Kaia Gerber all spotted carrying his creations, Stalvey is undeniably the hottest new name in exotics.
Seated outside a cafe in the Lower East Side, both of us cupping hot beverages on a chilly Manhattan afternoon, I speak to Stalvey about the genesis of his brand, the allure of exotic skins, and how he managed to embed 24 carat gold into porous crocodile skins — yes, you heard right, he's created 24 carat gold bags.
You used to work in medicine before becoming a bag designer. Tell us about that journey. What inspired you to leave neurology for handbags? The transition was a bit of a fluke, actually. I started in bags because I was looking for an alligator duffel for myself and couldn't find one that I liked. Not realising the process was so complex, it took quite a bit of due diligence to create the first bag. Once the formula was in place, the process became a bit infectious and I continued making pieces — after working in medicine for so long, it was quite exciting to create something that was tangible.
How did you go from making pieces for yourself to making bags for other people? People started responding to what I was doing and, eventually, this landed me in front of retailers. It was then that I needed to make a decision on how I wanted to dedicate my time. I found the fashion space more exciting because it's so unpredictable and uncontrollable. I liked the challenge of it. Medicine definitely has its benefits, but I find the love that people have for their bags quite overwhelming and rewarding.
"Exotic pieces are like works of art. They have to be meticulously crafted, and because of the scales of the leather, each individual piece ends up being unique."
Why do you think people are drawn to exotic leathers? What is the attraction for you personally? Exotic pieces are like works of art. They have to be meticulously crafted, and because of the scales of the leather, each individual piece ends up being unique. People tend to study and connect to their particular bag and it becomes super personal to them.
What about you? Why do you love exotics? For me, I've collected quite a number of bags since I was a child, and when I was ready to splurge on an exotic piece, I justified it because of its durability. Alligator skin is some of the most durable leathers, so it's something that will last for generations and only gets better with age.
Stalvey bags retail in the same price bracket as other luxury brands. What are people buying when they invest in one of your creations? Where do you source your leathers from? People have grouped us with top luxury bag makers when it comes to quality, however, when it comes to pricing, we are actually quite competitive. When comparing bags of similar sizes, our prices tend to be a bit lower. Being a relatively new company, we price our goods based on the cost of materials and craftsmanship, rather than needing to factor in things like extensive marketing, storefronts, staffing and so on. We are very fortunate to have a great relationship with one of the top luxury houses in France that supply our skins, thus we're able to create a premium product. Our customers tend to have a considerable knowledge of skins and they understand the value they are getting when purchasing one of our pieces. Some of our early success has come from this type of customer — someone looking for something a bit different from what's already in their current collection.
Let's talk about the spirit and ethos of your brand. It combines the sophistication of exotic leather with a downtown street sensibility. What is the thinking behind this approach? Knowing that alligator is one of the most durable leathers, we really wanted to create pieces that were functional and that people would want to use in their everyday lives. This goes against the grain a bit in the way that exotics are traditionally perceived. Due to their costs, people are used to purchasing them, housing them in their closets, and then only taking them out two times a year for a special occasion. I'm much more of the cost-per-wear mindset — you've spent a considerable amount of money on something, you should use it and enjoy it. We try to create silhouettes that are a bit classic, but yet, has a fresh feel to them. 'Luxe meets street' is a perfect description for what we are doing. After all, why shouldn't a person's everyday essentials be elevated?
What do you want people to feel when they are carrying or wearing a Stalvey? At the end of the day, the exotic Stalvey collector gets a piece in their arsenal that their friends don't currently have. It's something that they will cherish for many years to come. When our customers carry them, they seem to have a sense of pride, and that's something I really enjoy seeing.
Although you started with men's exotic leather pieces, you're increasingly known for your mini bags for women — touted by the likes of Gigi Hadid, Bella Hadid and Kaia Gerber. How did these girls become aware of your bags? I was fortunate to get connected with Gigi early on — she responded to the mini even before it was out in the market, which created quite the demand. After Gigi had been carrying the bag, we were contacted by Bella's stylist for a Stalvey bag. However, not having any bags available, we suggested that Bella simply ask her sister. Needless to say, we started seeing Bella with the bags the next day. Kaia came totally unexpected. We spotted her carrying a bag by flipping through Instagram — the Mini Tote became her go-to bag during her inaugural fashion week.
Have you spoken to these girls about whey they love carrying your creations? For them it has been about cleanliness of the design and the size. At a moment when there are so many embellishments in ready-to-wear, the classic approach of the Stalvey shapes fit well into their looks — it makes it easy for them to wear the same bag time and time again. These girls are also always on the go, the size allows them just enough space to carry the few items that they need to have on hand.
Tell us about your 24 carat gold capsule collection. Who did you work with to come up with this unique process of embedding gold into porous crocodile skins? The original concept wasn't to actually end up with 24kt gold embedded handbags. The brand's colors are black and gold, so I wanted this represented in our colour palette. We spent about a year testing out different dyes and trying various processing techniques — all of which never came out to be quite the aesthetic we were looking for. Having a background in science, not being able to come up with gold skin didn't seem quite like the right answer. So, we stepped it up a bit and started playing around with actual gold, which lead us to working with one of the world's leading aeronautics laboratories.
How is gold actually embedded into the crocodile skins? Two years into the process, we were able to develop a process that transforms gold from a solid into a gas vapor, allowing us to force the particles into the skins. Once the particles are in the skin and cooled, the gold transforms back into its solid state — the leather is left feeling extremely supple, but with a lustrous soft shade of gold.
And then Harrods bough into the idea? We showed the technology to Harrods and they instantly partnered with us to launch the products — they said their two top selling items were handbags and fine jewelry, and we were offering them both at the same time. The bags come with a letter certifying the content of the gold, and each product is stamped with a 24kt hallmark as you would see on a piece of fine jewelry.
I would love to see you do more men's pieces; something more formal for the workplace like a briefcase or even a slim trunk. I think men, especially in Asia, would really gravitate to exotics for work. Any plans to develop more men's bags in the near future? Absolutely! And hearing this feedback is a great push to make this happen. I too feel there is still quite a void in what seems to be a continuously growing market. The success of the women's collection quickly overshadowed our men's business, and being a newer company, we had to focus rather than stretch ourselves too thin. But seeing how the brand started with men's, I want to always keep this as part of our offering.
For someone looking to buy their first exotic piece from Stalvey, what would your recommend? The Mini Top Handle 2.0 seems to be a hero piece — I think it's easy to use and it comes with a lot of design at a reasonable price. If you're looking for something a bit more unisex, then I would suggest the baseball cap. Before we offered the Mini Top Handle, the alligator version of the cap was our best selling item. There seems to be something uber luxurious about taking an every day common item and having it elevated with alligator.
What's next for Stalvey? I think right now it is about enjoying the moment and listening to our customers. I was fortunate coming into this space that I was creating a bag for myself rather than looking at this as a company with a business plan in mind — this has allowed me to take time sourcing and building the relationships that are now needed to create a product at this level. Now that we are here, it's about connecting with the customers and finding out what they respond to, what is missing in their lives, and using that feedback to figure out how we can develop our business. People have really responded to the 24kt process, which has been quite exciting. The nerdy science guy in me would love to continue trying to add a bit of technology into what we do.