Philip Karto Makes A Stand With Customised Luxury Bags

In the theme of sustainability, designer Philip Karto innovates a range of recycled Louis Vuitton bags for the betterment of the fashion industry and plans to take it further.

Nov 11, 2023 | By Cleo Yong
Philip Karto
Image: Philip Karto

French designer Philip Karto has and still is proving that the waste challenge can be tackled even on an individual level. Karto left the fashion industry nearly ten years ago when he felt increasingly uncomfortable with the unsustainable materials used and huge volumes of pieces that are barely worn or discarded. However, it all changed in 2017 when the entrepreneur and creative in him customised his mother’s Louis Vuitton Keepall bag.

philip karto customised LV bag
Image: Philip Karto

The artist at heart created a range of recycled and highly raved products — selling an average of 1,000 bags a year. Last week, Karto shared on Instagram that ‘Rock and Roll’ customisations on Hermès bags are underway and he will be opening a boutique in Saint-Tropez, France this coming Spring.

Today, the Vuitton Vintage range is a must-have and hotly anticipated, even amongst celebrities like Miley Cyrus, Mike Tyson, Bella Hadid and Floyd Merriweather. Read on to discover more about Karto’s stylish and loudly sustainable creations, as well as his journey to unifying fashion and art.

philip karto customised hermes bag
Image: Philip Karto
philip karto customised hermes bag
Image: Philip Karto

You are both an artist and a designer, originally from Cannes in the South of France. Tell us about your first steps in the fashion world and what led you to move to Miami in 2017?

I started in the fashion industry in 2003 where I worked with KULTE and then I moved across to LA to work with Christian Audigier (Ed Hardy). In 2005, I created my jewellery label CAPTION. Through this venture, I had the opportunity to collaborate with Karl Lagerfeld and I designed the line for faith connexion (for women) over the next two years. In 2017, I wanted to address the important matter of recycling in the world of fashion, so I launched Philip Karto.  

You were actually born in the mid-70s and you became a pioneer in street art, skateboarding and mountain biking. Where did your early passion for the North American culture originate from?

Calling me a pioneer in mountain biking is too high an accolade for me. I was riding a BMX! That offered me a freedom I hadn’t known before. That was my first connection to the US, where I felt everything could be possible. My best friend and I would read magazines and imagine a life in the States and today we are living it, he is a manager in the company!

philip karto customised LV bag
Image: Philip Karto
philip karto customised LV bag
Image: Philip Karto

You often refer to Harley Davidson as the ultimate symbol of the American lifestyle. Why is that?

Harley Davidson is an iconic brand. It captured my imagination from the early days of reading magazines. Much like James Dean, the Corvette or Route66. But, Harley Davidson was the most accessible thing from the US and as soon as I had the possibility to buy one, I did it at 20 years old.

You mentioned feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the unsustainable materials used in the fashion industry and the large volumes of clothes produced that are barely worn and — too often — thrown away. Is it a form of condemnation of the “fast fashion” industry and its exaggerations?

Image: Philip Karto

All the big brands have created “Kleenex fashion”, pieces that you wear once and you throw away. This plagued my mind and heart, so I left the fashion industry. I’m nobody to condemn or judge but one thing is for certain, all too often we hear the excuse (from the fashion industry) that recycling has a cost. This is true but it’s not a hurdle that can’t be crossed. This cost can easily be absorbed into the retail price, which customers will accept knowing they are supporting a fair approach by the brand. Moreover, I believe that customers will become even more conscious that what they bought is precious, and they will take care of it more. Brands have to get over the mental block of pushing product after product and start to take their customers on a journey, sell them the vision, not only a bag or a hoodie.

It’s crazy, but unfortunately, it needs a lot of effort, organisation, and money to create the means to recycle cheap fast-fashion pieces. I decided to begin with the luxury marketplace, and I created the luxury circular economy. It’s hard to say but we are one of the first brands to recycle the luxe, and now this is my philosophy: REUSE, REDUCE, RECYCLE.

philip karto customised LV bag
Image: Philip Karto

Tired of the Louis Vuitton Keepall bag that you borrowed from your mother, you decided to paint and decorate in 2017. It then became impossible for you to walk 50 metres without somebody asking you where you had bought it. And as they say, the rest is history. You knew then that you were onto something potentially big?

To be honest, it was a dream, but I challenged myself and asked why not? Maybe I could use a 20- or 30-year-old bag and breathe a new life into it. Almost everyone that I explained the idea to thought I was crazy, they quizzed how I would source bags, be able to sell them at three times their value etc. It was hard at times but I believed in the idea and never gave up and held on to my dreams. Today, all the naysayers are among some of the biggest supporters!

Today, from your Miami workshop, you are buying up large numbers of second-hand Louis Vuitton bags, often at auction, and then painstakingly recycling these with your personal touch. You are currently selling around 1,000 bags a year. How do you explain this impressive success? 

In 2019, I sold over 2,000 bags around the world. There was no business model, I was expressing myself and people liked it. I paint a design on a side with some words to express positivity, passion, love, hope, humour or peace. I hope that the people understand that they can be a fashionista on the move with a recycled old bag, once again.  

What is success? The number of bags I sell? For me, no. Success for me is when brands engage me and invite me to share ideas about the recycling vision.

You keep stressing how “Recycling is so important to me — and every material that the fashion industry uses can be recycled in this way”. Is your success inspiring fashion brands across the globe?

I am raising my voice and I hope it is being heard in the industry. For me, recycling is not a business but a duty. I’m ready to collaborate for free with brands about recycling. I hope in the future I will be able to inspire brands to join this vision.

Celebrities are part of your success story. Your fans and regular clients include Miley Cyrus, Mike Tyson, Bella Hadid, Puff Daddy, Floyd Mayweather, Cassie. How and when did you realise that celebrities would be the best advocates for your creations? 

Every creator wants to make an impact and influence culture. Celebrities carry influence so every creator has a small hope somewhere that celebrities will wear their creations but you never really know if it will happen.

I have been fortunate that many celebrities like my work. I recall the first time it happened, I was in a restaurant on Valentine’s Day and in the middle of my dinner and my phone started to vibrate like crazy, it just wouldn’t stop with all the messages. Cassie has posted a photo of my bag on social and everyone I knew was messaging me about it. The feeling is so good, but you have to be measured about it.

miley cyrus with philip karto customised LV bag
Image: Philip Karto

A few days later I received a DM on IG from her and she told me Puff wants to talk to me. It just went on from there. Cassie has become a friend and I am thankful to her for the support. As indeed I am grateful to all the celebrities and people who bought my bags because they helped me and are part of the Philip Karto journey.  

Having your creations adorned by celebrities is cool, for sure, but it’s important to keep focus on the mission and change we are trying to affect in the industry. 

Do you see yourself as an artist or a fashion designer, or both?

Image: Philip Karto

One thing is for certain, if I said both that would be very pretentious. Today, fashion designers are artists and have to be artists but, the artists are not all able to be fashion designers. Perhaps, I am an artist with a touch of fashion designer. I will let the history writers judge this!

Your favourite pop art artist? 

Keith Harring.

Your favourite street art artist? 

The master is Banksy. However, for me, there is an artist who mixed pop art and street art brilliantly and he is one of my favourite artists, Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Your favourite art museum, the one providing you with ample inspiration and fresh ideas?

The MOMA, of course.

Where do you see your brand in five years? Will you operate a global network of Philip Karto boutiques? 

I don’t have any limits for the brand. I hope the recycling will be in all the stores around the world and of course I will be opening the first PHILIP KARTO store in St Tropez next spring. I hope I will be able to open others stores too.

If you were to name one person or mentor who has inspired you along your life and career, who would that be?

There is a star above me and all I do, I think about her and she inspires me. However, to be honest, we are all our own self mentors, if you do the things for someone else then you will never be yourself. That’s just my view.

Follow Philip Karto’s Instagram: @philipkarto

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