J Paige & Co crafts artisan leather handbags to hang on the arms of connoisseurs coast to coast.
After Paige Bruguier graduated from Sisters High School, she left home to attend the Art Institute of Portland. Her goal was to become a jewelry artist—she’d always been creative and had taken jewelry-making classes at Sisters High School. “Metal had always been my medium,” she recalled.
But a trip to Portland leather supply outlet Oregon Leather Co. during her first year of college changed her trajectory forever. “I walked into this incredible shop, this room filled with hides,” she said. “It was so inspiring. I hadn’t realized what it meant to shop for leather.”
In a way, it was a return to her roots. Bruguier was born on a Native American reservation in Montana, and her father has long been a maker of tipis. As an infant, she’d played at his feet in his studio as he ran the industrial sewing machine. Sitting down at a machine to make a leather bag for the first time felt nostalgic. “I absolutely fell in love with bag making,” she said.
Just a few short years later, Bruguier, 25, is at the helm of her own business, J Paige & Co. (Her first name is actually Jessica.) The company creates leather handbags and other home goods sought after throughout the United States. Her artisan bags are simple and beautiful, each handmade by Bruguier in a clean, simple style. “I’ve always liked classic products. I started making what I wanted, and then other people wanted it, too.”
Bruguier left the Art Institute after a year and returned home to Central Oregon to launch her own endeavor. Both her parents are self-employed in artistic fields, and the teachers and peers she’d found here had been particularly supportive and nurturing. Being back home, she felt, would be a good incubator. “Bend is a very good place for artists,” she said. “They make you feel like being a maker is actually possible.”
It was two local shows—at Bend’s creative co-working space The Wilds and then at the athletic apparel store Lululemon—that kicked things off for Bruguier. Her work ended up on a Lululemon blog, she received a flood of orders, quit her job and was able to become a full-time artist. “I love having my own business,” she said. “I feel so free. I have the freedom to create what I want to.”
Bruguier’s process is self-admittedly unstructured. “I grab a hide and start cutting,” she said, demonstrating with a flourish of her hands and a smile. At the same time, she said, leather is famously unforgiving. “It requires me to focus. I have to be patient. It’s good for me.”
Late last year, Bruguier moved production from her living room into an industrial space. This allowed her to acquire a third industrial sewing machine and an industrial kick press. “I’ve become super geeky about machines,” she said. “You feel invincible. You can sew through anything.”
Bruguier’s bags range from $60 for a pouch to $480 for a Wild West bag and can be purchased online or in specialty shops. She hopes to keep J Paige & Co high quality with a modest volume. “I used to think I wanted this to be huge. But there are so many factors to being self-employed that take away from the creative process, and that aspect is very important to me,” she said. “I want every bag to be meaningful, even if that means I don’t sell as many.”
In any case, along the way, she’ll continue to benefit from support from the Central Oregon artist community, as well as from mentors a little closer to the heart. “My parents have been very helpful,” she said. “They are still who I go to for advice.”