Despite spending most of his adult life working as a photographer, Naj Jamai was practically born to craft fashion. “I started working in leather years and years ago, as a kid,” he told us. “My father’s in the leather business making shoes in Paris where I grew up, so I’ve always been around leather and leatherworking machines. After school or when I was grounded, I’d spend time stitching or dying leather.”

Even though working in the shop may have been a form of punishment, it soon became a passion for Jamai. He now has turned those lifelong skills into a business, creating one-of-a-kind, handcrafted bags and belts in his L.A. home.

We recently joined Naj to see him in action, and he shared with us the steps to making one of his iconic styles, the envelope clutch. Each step—which include punching, carving, painting, and stitching—gives him a chance to express the creativity that he utilizes in both his photography and in his leathergoods. “My photographic work is based on shape—often the shape of a woman’s body,” Jamai said. “And that can lead me to imagine pieces while I’m shooting. Also, I love texture and try to add it to my photos wherever I can, so I do that with the pieces I create too. They feed off each other—my photography and I what I design; they always come from the same creative place.”

Also learned from his father is Naj’s drive for craftsmanship and quality. After extensive research and hunting, he finally found a tannery that met his needs for the leather he was looking for, St. Louis-based Hermann Oak. One of the country’s oldest tanneries, they still use plant-based dyes in the tanning process, a practice utilized by less than 5% of tanneries today. “The way that they tan their leather uses tree bark—like when you boil tea bags in water,” Jamai told us. “It was important to me that the leather be the best quality, but also that it’s organic and better for the environment.”

This passion for quality in the details is at the heart of everything Naj makes. “I love the bags so much that I’m happy there are few of them that are made,” he said. “It helps the pieces to feel special, not over-producing them—that’s not the philosophy of what I do. I want to continue to put the right product out there—it’s about the craftsmanship and quality, about creating something that will last a very long time.”

Scroll on for a step-by-step look at the work that goes into each and every piece Naj makes, then head over to Barneys to pick up one of these beautiful bags for yourself.

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“We did a lot of patterns before we found the right shape for the bag, but finally got it right. I get the leather cut into the pieces—I have a guy who cuts it for me. I don’t do it anymore, because I made a lot of mistakes cutting leather, and those are expensive mistakes.”

“The stars and all the punching came after I found these tools. I thought they were really interesting,  so I bought them and started playing around on some small pieces of leather just to see what was happening. And I loved the idea, so I kept looking at it over and over again and thought it was great so wanted to try it on belts and then on the bags.”

Naj punches stars and dots into the leather freehand, creating the design as he goes.

Using a tool originally designed for use by artists to carve linoleum for printmaking, Naj is able to make shallow lines and designs in the leather.

Shapes are then filled with a variety of neon-colored paints, creating bags that are entirely unique—no two are exactly the same.

“I took the inspiration for the neon stitching from the Berbers of Morocco. I always loved their pillows and carpets, all the colors they used, so I started by sourcing threads in these amazing colors. Then my idea was not to get too caught up in coordinating threads in certain colors. It was just to grab any color and make it work.”

The tools of the trade: leather working, some of which Jamai has adapted to his own needs or repurposed from their original function, and embroidery thread in a variety of neon hues.

“There are no rules on how I use color—I just pick and say ‘ok I’m going with this one.’ All that’s important to me it to have contrast between the ones that are next to each other.”

The finished pieces display Naj’s distinctive aesthetic and eye.

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