Every Western Meadowlark on a Montana Bag Works bag has migrated 10,368 miles from Missoula, Montana to Bergamo, Italy, and back. So has every horse, wolf, trout, and bumble bee.
Missoulian Paul Wade is the owner of Montana Bag Works. Paul employs local artists to paint designs that showcase the natural word of the mountain west to appear on the bags. The designs are then sent to Bergamo, Italy, where Paul’s business partner, Paolo Valli, takes over turning each design into a 100% handmade handbag to be sold back in the states.
The history of Montana Bag Works goes back to when Paul taught English in Bergamo in the early 1990s. After teaching, he would return to Bergamo often over the next several years, making friends and connections, with his daughter even attending kindergarten there. One of those friends was Paolo, a former student of Paul’s and best man at his wedding.
Paul is originally from Missoula and he returned to live here in 2014.
“I always wanted to connect something with Missoula and Bergamo,” said Paul. Two years ago he was visiting Paolo, who had started a handbag company in Bergamo using work from local artists.
With some encouragement from Paolo, Paul began the line of bags and starting showing them at trade shows, only to notice a disturbing trend.
“Everybody liked them but nobody bought them,” Paul said. “I just went away from the trade show empty handed. It was a total dud.”
Then, at one show, he was approached by Jordan Kim, an artist out of Hood River, Oregon. After talking to her he said, “I should hire you to design some bags for me.” She agreed. Paul then began to form his own business model thinking he wanted to do things his own way.
“And I’m going to pitch it on a mountain west theme in Montana,” he said. Thus Montana Bag Works was born.
Today, Jordan Kim and Missoula artist Mary Durbin Firth create a few proofs based on a design Paul is looking for that relates to Montana’s outdoors. They generally fit into three different product lines: Prairie, River, and Backcountry.
Paul’s daughter Dominika has also contributed a couple of themes involving a Red-winged blackbird pondering, a grazing horse, and bees buzzing over sunflowers. After considering each proposed design, Paul selects one along with two to three background colors and then sends them on their way to his longtime friend Paolo to finish the job using 100 percent European-sourced parts.
The bags currently come in two sizes and range in price from $150 to $185 online. A larger bag Paul refers to as a “shopper” is coming out in the upcoming spring months. You can find the bags in Dillard’s in Missoula and Billings. They are also sold in specialty shops around the west such as a trout outfitter in Sun Valley, Idaho, and other boutique stores in Seattle, Hood River, and Bozeman.
Paul and Paolo face unique challenges running a venture across continents. Duty, or payments levied on the sale of foreign goods, takes a big hit from sales.
“Our margins are very thin,” said Paul. “Also there’s an ocean of competition out there. It’s very hard to be found and once you are found you have to maintain a level of volume to make anything.”
Financial gain does not drive Paul to make Montana Bag Works a successful company.
“My thought is if I can combine unique artwork with fashion on a local level based in Missoula then it makes it worthwhile. But if it’s just for a buck then it’s not worth it.” This is evident in his commitment to give a percentage of his profits to local organizations helping the wildlife represented on the bags. “I would really like it if the company gets big enough to have a portion of each themed bag go to a specific nonprofit,” said Paul.
A donation is currently made for every 100 bags to plant trees. A mountain lion bag is coming out in the spring and, recently, Paul made a donation the Cougar Fund out of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Paul said, “I grew up fishing on the Blackfoot and spent so much time on that river so I’m going to eventually replace that (tree) donation with something that benefits the Blackfoot locally.”
A true Montanan, Paul’s talents and interests span many different endeavors. He is an impressionist painter, a builder, and he continues to run an apparel label company he started many years ago. But his commitment to making Montana Bag Works a successful, lasting company is unswerving. “It’s a unique little bag company in Missoula,” he said, and adds, “It's a bag company that showcases our extraordinary natural surroundings and our inherent entrepreneurial spirit.
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