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In the Studio with Florist

Florist bags are the intersection of beauty and utility with durable leather bags in conventional silhouettes and unique floral embroidery setting it apart from the rest. George Banks is the founder and sole proprietor of the Brooklyn-based company—doing everything from sourcing the leather to occasionally hand-delivering bags all himself (pre-quarantine).

We talked to Banks in his studio in Bushwick before the shelter-in-place order about his homeland of Australia, his favorite flower, and what goes into making a Florist bag.

FYI — this is what he’s up to now:

How has quarantining impacted your creativity?

Initially, I was finding it really difficult to muster up the creativity to work. But after a couple of weeks of news/political indigestion, I decided I needed to spend some time making something fun to help rejuvenate my motivation. It has been nice to be able to slow my process down and take more time with everything. There’s obviously a lot of anxiety associated with the current state of affairs which defiantly makes it difficult to be able to pull the creative cords, but all the financial pressures of New York are still there so that’s certainly keeping the pressure on.

What does your typical day “In the Studio” look like now?

I take more time in the morning to relax, given there aren’t any day to day time constraints due to nothing being open. So I’ve been giving myself more time in the morning to read or go for a run. But for the most part, my day looks much the same as it did before COVID-19  :)

When did you start Florist?

About 18 months ago, it was a hobby at first. I was doing embroidery on bags and things. Then about a year ago, I started doing it full-time, and I was taken much more seriously.

When did you get into embroidery?

Before I moved to New York—so three years ago—I used to do hand embroidery on my own clothes and things. Then when I moved here, I started learning to chain stitch and then it took about a year or so to get okay at it.

And so what were you doing before you did this?

Before I was an Operations Manager for a men’s clothing company in Bushwick called Knickerbocker. Just making sure production was going smoothly, managing inventory, managing wholesale accounts. There were just the two of us so it was quite a multiple hat position.

Before that, I was working retail within a heritage menswear industry;  that gave me an introduction into the industry and Japan. From there, I decided that that was sort of something I wanted to be doing or working within for the foreseeable future. Yeah. Then I realized that fashion and clothing wasn’t exactly my kettle of fish. I really just wanted to make things. Embroidery is a medium for me. It’s a form of expression and bags just ended up being a vehicle for that. It wasn’t intentional to end up making bags or anything. I had no vision of that. That’s just sort of how it happened.

When did you make your first bag that you sold? 

I sold the first probably two years ago. I made just some hair-on cowhide bags and I had three of them in my bedroom at home. I had friends over for dinner and they went into my room and saw them and came out with them. And they all sold instantly. 

You’re from Australia. When did you move here and what prompted that?

I moved here in 2016, at the beginning of January. I was working in retail back in Melbourne and I couldn’t see myself doing that for much longer. I came to New York in 2012 to do summer school at Pratt. I did a digital photography course and I fell in love with it. It was the first time I traveled overseas by myself and I loved the vibrancy of New York and the diversity and I always felt like Melbourne was just a tiny little baby version of that. So while I was living in Melbourne, it was always like in the back of my mind that New York was a place that I really could see myself. I wasn’t doing much in Melbourne so maybe I will come to New York. I came over and interned at the factory with Knickerbocker for six months. I figured that’s a great place to start because I’m around young people that would at least give me an opportunity to learn from people who are of a similar age. So that was it. I just jumped in and then I got hired and I was there for a year after I was hired. 

So what goes into making a bag?

So first, I source the leather. So I go to a factory in Kew Gardens, Queens. He imports leather from a couple of tanneries in Argentina. He sells to bigger people, but he’s been kind enough to let me just go out there and pick it. I don’t get any assistance. I don’t have to book an appointment or anything. I can just catch the train out and I know where the leather that I usually get is. So, I just go sift through a pallet and pick out ones that I feel are a good weight and nice. Then I come back, cut it into various patterns for the various bags. And then I just stack it all over there. Then the orders come in and I grab the cut pieces and embroider them, which takes anywhere from three hours to seven or eight hours. I usually try to do embroidery for a day or two and I’ll do construction for a day or two. Rather than making embroidery and then construction. So anyway, once it’s embroidered, I finish all the edges and then it gets sewn and then I if it needs a strap I make these straps that are quite labor-intensive. Everything is labor-intensive. One bag is probably five hours or so. But then the bigger ones are more because of embroidery. 

You started off selling your bags through Instagram and you used to hand-deliver them on your bike. Now that you have a website, does Instagram still play like a really big role for you?

Oh yeah, definitely. I mean, I still do a lot of sales through Instagram. I’m slowly directing traffic to the website. It’s probably now like 60% Instagram 40% website. When you’re in your early stages there are so many things. I’m working with a factory to start doing some of the cutting and sewing and sampling and things are so expensive. It’s like $2,000 a sample. And it’s nearly impossible to have that kind of money right away. So step by step, little by little, you just start to like, grow it into its boots. 

Would you describe like, the bag is like one of a kind?

Yeah, everything is one of a kind. I replicate designs, but still, there’ll be a different thread color. They can’t be the same. It’s impossible. I don’t have a pattern. I don’t draw the designs out beforehand. I just do it straight away freehand. So everything is different. That’s actually a problem for me. Having an online store and having everything be different, I can’t photograph everything before it leaves. It’s just too hard to keep it all in order and looking the same and consistent and things like that. So that’s another hurdle. But, you know, everything gets worked out.

Do you have a signature design? What was the first design that you made? 

The first bags I was making were bucket bags and a really utilitarian kind of crossbody tote bag style. Hey just had the florist embroidery on the bottom. I was consistently doing that for six months or so it was just those two styles. Then I wanted to grow followers. I wanted to be more serious and I figured I had to learn how to make you know, some back that represented that growth. So then I started doing like beaded handles then leather handles and then I started doing an actual tote bag. Now I’m working with other silhouettes and trying to make something a little more interesting like a squarer more rectangular bag. Then the little bags took it to another level. I guess people really loved the baby bags. Those are a funny shape. They look like a bowling bag or something. 

So you just came out with the key chain. Do you have any other plans on expanding the brand past bags?

Oh, yeah, absolutely. Initially, I wanted to do clothing and things like that. And like I said, the bags one, it wasn’t my intention to be solely making bags. I decided a few months down the line that I probably should if I wanted to build a brand and some sort of identity, I should stick to what I was already doing. Do that until it’s there is a brand there and an aesthetic. Then start introducing clothing and more accessories and things like that. But now I’m at the point where I need to be making bags constantly to grow. So that’s another part is just getting it to a point where I can step back a little bit. Where I’m not like doing all this sewing doing all the cutting myself and I can start working on other things like I wanted to. I’ve got a knitting machine, which I feel like goes hand in hand with my aesthetic, like the hands-on approach. So it’s like just a whole bunch of experimenting and trial and error and things like that. So I guess next will be knits, whether it’s sweaters or scarves. Then it’ll be probably more clothing and accessories. I love little charms and things like that. So that’s something that I just always work on. I’ll just think of a little concept for like a key chain or a necklace or something like that and turn it into an illustration and then like talk to someone who does 3d modeling, and then it’s all done. I put these little D-rings on the bags because I want people to put things on it.

Why did you name the brand florist?

One of the hardest things to do is name brand. Especially when it’s just a thought and you haven’t really done anything. You haven’t made any progress with it or anything. It’s just an idea. I was indecisive for months. Then I was sitting in somewhere in Chinatown and I suppose a shop across the street was called Lucky Florist and Gifts. And I really loved the way like florists in that area, I guess there’s a loss in translation, but they just call it whatever they want. I thought the idea of a florist made sense for me because I make something that’s kind of and I wanted to make something that was unique and individual and kind of triggered different emotional reactions based on its appearance. I figured flowers represent that also in terms of like, if you give them to someone, or if you buy them for yourself, it’s based on an emotional sort of decision. I feel like that sort of applies to these, like, people buy them for people and it’s a token of appreciation. It’s like, here’s something that’s not like a regular bag. It’s something that you can look at it and admire. I figured Florist was just appropriate. But so many people, like my parents, were like, “Why are you calling it florist? Is that really a good name? I think you should probably think about that.” I guess it takes a moment for things to grow into the names now I think it’s, like even more appropriate and other people like it as well.

What’s been the most exciting moment for you in this journey?

I guess like the fact that people buy them? Every time someone buys one without me saying anything. Like with the online store and stuff like that every time I’m just like, “Whoa, you know, that’s crazy.” There are so many things that just give me this really insane sense of “Wow.” I had an intern come in and he found out about me because he was talking to a girl at a bar about wanting to learn to make bags and they were like, “Oh, you should go. Have you seen these ones.” Or people from magazines wanting to do an interview. Celebrity people getting in touch. Just seeing people on the street with them. It’s crazy. Also when people who have bought them will say, “I can’t tell you how much this means to me” or like, “you don’t know how many times I get stopped and during my day, say, ‘that’s such a cool bag or say like, where’d you get that bag?’” I’ve heard from people that they get it a lot and that really is something special. Also being responsible for something that people like is a really crazy sense of fulfillment and satisfaction.

What’s your favorite flower?

My favorite flower. That’s hard. I like Orchids cause they take so many forms. I also like daisies cause they’re such a classic iconic flower. Also, wildflowers, native Australian flowers can dry out and they look so really beautiful when they’ve dried and they can last forever.

Stay tuned to Milk for more artists we love. 

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