Blurring the line between art and fashion
Most of us, we simply look at the sky. Sure, we might notice how it’s blue in summer, or grey in winter, or orange during a sunset. But most of the time, the sky is just there: a pleasant background, and that’s all.
Sylvie Quartara is different. When the Brazilian accessories designer sees the sky—or a flower, or a leaf, or a far-off Tuscan landscape—she also sees something else. Art. Beauty. An entire universe of creative possibilities, in a single glance.
“Nature is 100 percent my inspiration,” Quartara says. “It’s fascinating and inspiring. It is organic—all the shapes—but it’s geometric as well. Sometimes I’m in contact with nature, just sitting and having a coffee in the garden on Sunday. You have a beautiful blue sky and [there is] a tree here with beautiful big orange flowers—I can see perfectly the size of a handbag, with this blue and these orange flowers.”
For the past 30 years or so, Quartara has been crafting finely designed home and fashion accessories that blur the line between art and fashion—first in Milan, then Paris, and now back in her native Brazil. After more than a decade designing shoes, she dedicated herself to her Sy&vie brand, designing and assembling women’s handbags that function as miniature canvases for her unique vision of the natural world.
“I’ve done home accessories—trays and small tables—and I’ve done jewellery as well. But [with] bags, I have more physical space,” she says, pointing to the squared surface of one of the small handbags behind her desk. “I can put more things [on it]; I can work better with the space. I really can do something very exclusive, one-of-a-kind.”
For Quartara, “one-of-a-kind” is more than a marketing strategy—it’s the way she approaches her art, her business, and her life. In much the same way that the name of her Sy&vie brand highlights subtle details and unexpected connections (is the character a flourishing, handwritten “L”? Is it an ampersand in swash italic? Is it both at the same time?), Quartara’s designs depend on oft-overlooked observations and associations between shapes and forms.
“You see one day a combination of colours that you like,” she says. “Then another day, another week, another month, you see a composition of elements, of materials, of textures, that you like. You have all this baggage in your head—and one day the ‘click’ comes.”
Each handbag in the Sy&vie collection is a compelling combination of modern style and traditional craftsmanship. Quartara attributes this fusion of old and new to her upbringing: the child of a French father and a Brazilian mother, she spent childhood holidays in Brittany, learning about the heritage of the various family antiques and heirlooms on display throughout her grandparents’ house.
“This is the purpose of the brand, exactly: to [bring together] my very formal French side with my very informal Brazilian side.”
Quartara estimates that each of her handbags takes over 140 hours from start to finish. After she sketches an initial design (either by drawing, or more often these days, on her computer), she consults with a team of trusted artisans, carvers, and metalworkers who create her explorations of shape and colours using exquisitely detailed pieces of wood, metal, and other materials.
“It’s not [enough] to have a great idea,” she says. “You have also to sit down with the artisan and see what is possible to do and what’s not possible to do.”
Wood-carving and inlay are at the heart of most Sy&vie creations, with delicate shapes and flowing curves carved out of various native Brazilian woods. But there are other materials too: wrought metal, fallen leaves, polished glass—all of it put together artfully using the technique of assemblage, by combining, arranging, and rearranging disparate elements, contrasting materials, and found objects to create a whole that’s more than the sum of its parts.
“I used to walk and [pick up] every single little leaf and twig, and beautiful things in nature, and bring them to my office to use on the handbags,” Quartara says. “I noticed I was not using only natural [objects], I was using wood, I was using leather, I was using leaves, metal, stones. This is assemblage.”
The result is what we might call a different way of looking at a fashion accessory. Instead of being an add-on to a look, Sy&vie’s intricate designs are intended to be the centrepiece of it—a kind of wearable artwork or “fashion sculpture” that combines the best of high art and haute couture.
And that’s when you understand: It’s not just a handbag—it’s something worthy of special attention. It’s a celebration of the natural world. It’s a supreme opportunity for personal expression. It’s all of the above, all at the same time. It all depends on how you look at it.