Up To The Mark

The French word marquage describes the art of literally making a mark. Three marquage artists here who specialise in painting on luxury goods tell us how they fell into this growing art, the styles they do best, and how they can help you make your leather goods truly your own.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

The French word marquage describes the art of literally making a mark. Three marquage artists here who specialise in painting on luxury goods tell us how they fell into this growing art, the styles they do best, and how they can help you make your leather goods truly your own.



While Gao has no formal art education, she has been artistically inclined since she was a child. “My younger cousins loved getting me to draw for them, and I’ve always enjoyed picking up hobbies like crocheting and jewellery making.”

She has turned that dexterity with her hands into a successful 13-year career so far, as a full-time hairstylist at Kim Robinson, and the go-to hairstylist for many local It girls and socialites.

If you have been following her on Instagram, you will have noticed that she is also an occasional artist who paints cartoon characters, animals, Marvel superheroes and the like on leather and canvas bags, pouches and cases – a hobby she picked up in 2013. “I wanted to find a passion outside of hairstyling. And I started to paint.”

Her first project wasn’t marquage. It was a mural on multi-label boutique Tribeca’s wall at Forum The Shopping Mall in 2013. Her dabbling in marquage only started the following year when socialite Jamie Chua, her regular client at Kim Robinson, entrusted her with her Birkin So Black bag to paint on. “I had never painted on leather before, but Jamie encouraged me to try. I made the mistake of using acrylic paint on it – not a good medium, as it gradually peeled off. I repainted it with leather paint a year later.”

She has since painted on one more bag and two leather jackets for Chua, and has more customers from the salon.

“Although I’m partial to popculture characters, I am still trying to find my personal style and am learning more. My customers usually leave the design to me, though some have requested specific designs. I usually try to accommodate what they like or ask for, but I add personal touches or tweaks to complement the client’s personality and preferences. For example, when I painted Simpsons characters on matching cardholders for me and my boyfriend, I painted them wearing football jerseys and holding footballs, because my boyfriend likes the sport. ”

Contact Gao via Instagram for her marquage services. This is her part-time gig, so the wait will take months. Her charges vary according to the complexity of the design and size of the bag and material; the price is steeper for materials which have an uneven surface, like crocodile skin. Gao does not paint on patent leather and PVC, because the paint peels off them easily.

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This Birkin So Black was the first leather piece Gao ever painted on (and then repainted).
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Gao prefers elaborate artwork to painting initials.
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Before going independent four months ago, Isfandari was a Singaporebased marquage artist at Louis Vuitton where, for six years, she sharpened her skills on the leather trunks of clients from all over the world.

“For the first year and a half there, I was only allowed to paint initials and stripes, because the material was completely different from anything I had worked on before – I had to master how to paint perfectly straight lines without using any tape,” says the Indonesian, who is a Singapore PR.

But once deemed up to par, she was granted creative freedom to paint her own bespoke designs, and the opportunity to “produce pieces for well-known celebrities and people all over the globe”. Among them was David Beckham, who commissioned her to paint on a Vuitton suitcase as a 17th-birthday gift to his son Brooklyn (the painting was of Brooklyn on a skateboard, holding a Leica camera).

Her stint at Louis Vuitton didn’t come about by chance: Isfandari had studied art and design extensively since she was 10, starting with fine oil painting in Indonesia. She was a graduate in visual communication design in Jakarta, and subsequently relocated to Japan for four years to study fashion at Tokyo Mode Gakuen.

“I specialise in semi-realism, whimsical and charming designs. I think it is important to ensure that each is full of character. Animals, vintage characters, pin-ups and portraits are my favourite things to paint. I also prefer to design and paint my own characters. If you show me a photo of a person, I can paint him or her in a semi-realistic style, or transform them into a Lego character. “My palette is mostly colourful and playful. I hope that the more you look, the more details and emotions will come through the piece. I also really like to dig into the archives of the particular brand I have been commissioned to paint on, to incorporate a connection between the bag owner and the brand itself.

“My pieces are always unique if they are for a single client. But I have also done collaborations in the past where I would paint a series of pieces that were the same as or similar to part of a collection. I’ve worked with Klove (a leather-goods brand in Indonesia) to collaborate on a range of lambskin bag straps that were sold in a multi-brand shop, Masari, in Jakarta.”

“I listen to my clients’ stories and brainstorm with them before I make a digital mock-up for the piece. I try to cater to requests as long as there are no copyright issues, and the piece is visually appealing. It has to look good, so I always advise what will work.

“The painting may not take long, but the waiting time really depends on the complexity of the design and the time needed to communicate with the client to make sure the design is what the client wants. Creating the designs can take anywhere from a couple of days to several months – I have to be sure that the client is happy before we ‘tattoo’ their beloved leather goods. I don’t always prioritise speed. I believe that great quality takes time and craftsmanship, and I always try to involve my clients so they can enjoy the process too.

“My waiting list is six to eight weeks long, but things always change, so I would encourage customers to contact me sooner rather than later.”

Contact Isfandari via Instagram or e-mail her at vania@thebrushlady.com for a quotation or an appointment. Monogramming starts from $200 a character, and customised images start from $650, which includes two revisions.

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Isfandari uses Kolibri’s sable brushes. “My designs sometimes require me to do micro-detailing, and the German brand has very thin brushes that are great for that.” 

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This Louis Vuitton piece is a work in progress. The tiger’s “tail” is actually an outline of an owl.

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Sim collects Bearbrick toys, and found a fellow collector who commissioned her to paint a fortunecat Bearbrick onto a Goyard bag.
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Before marquage became a full-time gig for Sim, she made bespoke leather bags after attending a leatherworking course in Italy. To value-add to the service, she started personalising the bags she made for her customers.

From there, she refined her painting skills for her portfolio and experience by working on her own items and her friends’, at minimal or no cost.

Eventually, a paying customer commissioned Sim to paint a Louis Vuitton Delightful GM in October 2015 – the first luxury bag she ever painted on. “The owner of the bag engaged me to alter it into a bucket bag and paint the Powerpuff Girls onto it.”

But that wasn’t her “first breakthrough”, which she says happened in August 2016, when a client came to her with a Louis Vuitton Keepall 55, requested an Astroboy theme, and told her to “give me something from you”. “That was when I started looking at the canvas as my own and taking ownership of what I created,” Sim says.

“I would like to think that I can paint anything. I never paint the same thing twice, so technically, it’s always a new challenge each time as I never really know what the final outcome will be.

“My strength lies in pop art, icons, and cartoons in a Superflat style. Superflat is a term coined by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. It’s a style with no gradient or shadows, but can still look 3-D – just like old-school cartoons. I like that it looks more graphic and stands out more on the canvas. Sometimes, I also paint realistic works. But what I paint is largely dependent on my client – my understanding of the client’s preferences, the item I’m painting on, and the subject matter I’ll be painting, which will determine the suitability of the style that I choose to apply.

“Another of my signatures is imperfect symmetry, where the left and right sides of a piece are different, but look the same from afar.

“My custom work starts from $1,000. The fee goes up according to the size (very small or very big is more expensive), the number of colours (more colours are more expensive), the number of straight lines (the straighter the lines, the tougher it is; it requires a lot of patience, skill and good handling of the brush to paint a perfectly straight line or circle freehand), the size of the details (small details are difficult to paint), the material (supergrainy leather and super-smooth leather are more difficult to paint on).

“When clients need something urgent to be made for gifting on special occasions, I sometimes accommodate them if I can. Although most of the time, I don’t, because I always prioritise the clients I’ve already promised a deadline to.

“In cases where I agree to expedite an order, I charge 30 per cent more, because it means I will be losing sleep over completing that particular piece.”

Sim is so dedicated to perfecting her craft that she flies to Japan up to four times a year to buy paintbrushes. Getting them online is not an option “because they may get damaged on the way”. She retires her brushes after every one to three projects, so the trips are essential. “I choose my brushes by picking up an entire bunch, and examining each one carefully to identify the best ones with the smoothest and neatest bristles. My tools are always of the best quality as I believe that great tools make a great craftsman. Good brushes make my work flow, and make the outcome of my work better. I spend more than $2,000 on paints and brushes a year.”

Contact Sim via Instagram, but be prepared to wait until 2020, as she is fully booked up to end 2019.
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Sim’s “breakthrough piece”, the Louis Vuitton GM with Astroboy marquage. The owner has travelled frequently with it for two years, but the artwork has stayed crack-free and pristine.
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