An architect by education, Sylvia Pichler has moved from designing buildings to transforming everyday materials into visionary bags, which she sells under the name Zilla. Combining cork, sponge and other unconventional objects with more traditional textiles, like leather, the bags recall her native northern Italian region’s (Alto Adige) artistic traditions and reveal a progressive view of sustainability, design and style.
Giulia: Who is Sylvia Pichler—how would you describe yourself?
Sylvia: Physically stable, mentally nomadic…always looking for something and incredibly curious.
Giulia: What would you have done if you hadn’t become a designer?
Sylvia: I couldn’t imagine myself in another way. I already tried to become an architect, without great success…
Giulia: When did you realize you wanted to become a bag designer, and why bags—as opposed to other accessories?
Sylvia: When I first started making my own bags, I wanted something different and amusing. My first bag was made of an orange sponge, one that was used to wet stamps.
Giulia: Why Zilla? What does it mean?
Sylvia: Zilla is an old female name that is very common in Alto Adige. The old “zilla” used to knit and sew clothes and bags; I am sort of a contemporary “zilla.”
Giulia: What inspires you when you’re designing a bag?
Sylvia: My inspiration comes from the materials I use. They are the most important thing for me; it’s the material that sets the shape of a bag.
Giulia: Your bags don’t have specific seasonal features… They almost seem timeless.
Sylvia: What interests me the most is the possibility to transform the materials, things and objects into something unrecognizable and far from their original purpose. I don’t refer to fashion when I conceptualize a collection, instead I think of women’s needs.
Giulia: What does being in the fashion industry mean for you?
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Sylvia: For me, it means being ahead of the trends—to perceive the zeitgeist.
Giulia: Does color play any role in your collections?
Sylvia: The majority of the time, I don’t really have a choice. The air filter is black and beige is the natural color of a sponge. I use cork in different colors but the most suitable remains the natural one. Sometimes I match colored leathers and fabrics to give a little bit of a twist to my creations.
Giulia: How do you combine the materials? What role do structure, malleability and shape play in your choice?
Sylvia: From the structure of a material, I can decide its shape—it can be rigid or soft or it can be mixed with metal, for instance.
Giulia: Which of your creations did you love the most?
Sylvia: I’m still in love with the “Granny” bag, a design I feature every season, changing the material.
Giulia: Is craftsmanship a big part of your work? Do you believe it is still important?
Sylvia: At present, my bags are sewn in a luxury leather factory in northern Italy. When I first started, I personally sewed my bags one by one. I think that it’s not craftsmanship in general that increases the value of a bag, but how it is handled. It has to be over the top if you want to be competitive in the luxury goods market.
Giulia: Who is the kind of woman you imagine wearing your handbags?
Sylvia: A creative, independent and self-confident woman.
Giulia: Do you usually wear your own bags or do you also have other designers’ bags in your closet?
Sylvia: I always wear my bags. I have to try them, test them… After all, they’re custom-made for me!
Giulia: How much does the research of materials count in your work—how do you keep yourself up-to-date?
Sylvia: Research is a very important part of my job, but it’s not only a matter of being up-to-date. I also take into consideration a lot of materials that are discarded as well as new and technological ones. I don’t have a precise rule; I can discover that I like something simply by touching it.
Giulia: Does sustainability play a significant role in your work?
Sylvia: A lot of the materials I use are eco-friendly, like cork, raffia and wool, for example. But, although I think that sustainability is a very important matter, where and who produces your creations is even more important. It should be a solid, reliable company, where employees have a decent salary and work in a totally safe environment.
Giulia: “My bag is my castle” is your motto; what does it mean for you?
Sylvia: “My bag is my castle” stands for a wearable house, a mobile home that becomes a bag. We, women, always carry hundreds of personal items in our bag, turning it into a survival kit for the outside world.
Giulia: Describe your creations in three words.
Sylvia: Aesthetic, tactile and unforgettable.