Apiece Apart Woman: Agnes Baddoo
Words: Ellen Freeman
Photos: Claire Cottrell
Agnes Baddoo is learning how to not hold onto things, emotionally and physically. “I have a lot of stuff,” says the designer, including a closet full of beautiful things inherited from a mother who was a buyer for some of New York City’s most iconic department stores. There’s one thing we’re glad she kept: a perfect leather bag of her mom’s which Agnes carried, loved, and mended for decades until it finally gave out. Looking for its replacement was what inspired her in 2013 to create the eponymous line of handmade leather totes that introduced many of us to Agnes’ grounded sense of style.
Though if we were paying attention to fashion before that, we probably knew Agnes’ style without realizing it. After studying painting and printmaking, she had the gumption to apply to 10 out of reach "dream jobs" (in order to fund her real dream of making art in Paris), only to actually got hired at one in the art department at Elle. (“The last office job I ever had, but by far the best office job I ever had.”) Her experience at the magazine springboarded her into decades as an in-demand stylist on both coasts, a job that gave Agnes plenty of practice in making something out of nothing and turning a no into a yes. Later this would translate into running her own brands: first making aromatherapy atmosphere sprays, and then her bags, the original batch of which sold out in hours at L.A.’s Echo Park Craft Fair.
We got lost in conversation with Agnes. “I guess I can talk,” she says. Her words posses the same effortless blend of form and function as her designs, wisdom packaged so practically for real life, you want to write it down on a scrap of paper and slip it into the pocket of a timeless leather tote for safekeeping.
My dad is from Ghana; he was the Director for Student Affairs at the Africa Service Institute, the division in the institute that placed Africa Airlift students, (like Barack Obama, Sr. and Wangari Maathai for example) in universities, and then he was involved with the UN, so when I was little I went to UN play groups. When we'd have graham crackers and apple juice, we always had our flags at our place. I knew that everyone spoke a different language, and dressed differently, and ate differently... I looked at that as the norm. New York is like that—everyone comes from someplace else and everyone's still a New Yorker.
I had this sense of pattern, texture, music, and art. I was really imprinted by diversity, and culture, and storytelling, so all of that informed my curiosity and made my frame of reference super wide. Being in those environments at a young age made me really observant. In train stations, bus stations, airports, you just gaze out at the multitudes and you take in how people dress—having nothing to do with fashion, but how people put themselves together and what that tells you about them. I became aware and curious and interested in the style of different cultures—past and present. It really influenced me as a stylist.
Working photoshoots, I had to pre-edit the film. A photographer would shoot an obscene amount of film; I got into looking through the loop and the composition. Was it crooked? What's her pinky doing? Oh, the lace is wrong here. By the time it was on a page, it felt like it was life-sized. That skill honed my sense of composition and juxtaposition.
I like form and function and practicality...99% of the time. And then there's something else. It's the same with the way I eat: 99% healthy, then every once in a while there's some kind of memory food you have for the pure shits and giggles of it. I don't buy Coca-Cola, but if I pass a certain pizzeria and I haven't had pizza in a long time, I’m going to have a slice and a Coke. I'm not going to have bottled water with pizza.
It's the same in my design aesthetic: I like everything to be beautiful and well-made and useful. But every so often there might be something extra there that's purely because I like to look at it.
With my dad being from Ghana, I saw a lot of wax cloth and all manner of kente cloth and weaving. And then in Jamaica [where my mom’s maternal family is from], there are baskets till the cows come home. Those are things that I really like. But some of those things are super busy, and I've always liked simple.
You know that that Diana Vreeland code, “The eye has to travel”? For me, it's like the eye has to rest. It's about pacing. It's the same with music; I'm much more into a one-note solo with a lot of space in between it than I am a mindless marathon of noodling up and down the fretboard.
I much prefer the space between the sound.
A long time ago, a friend of mine said to me, "Work your way backward. What's the end result you want? Then work your way backward." That's always been a defining model. It applies to a lot of things in my life, but particularly when there's conflict or an obstacle or something that didn't go the way you planned.
And between doing a lot of yoga and having those kinds of principles, it keeps me flexible in my mind.
A lot of times when something doesn't work out, it wasn't supposed to. I've definitely seen that happen in a good way. It reinforces that belief in me that when you get caught up in the moment, and you feel like a wind-up toy in the corner of a room, you’ll get the course correct and you’ll realize that you were spinning your wheels. But when you get out of it, it puts you in the right place at the right time, or into another flow that isn’t necessarily where you thought you wanted to be, but it's what you needed.
I've had several experiences in the last 365 days that support not getting too caught up, but that allow me to say, "Okay, what am I supposed to see?"
A few of the things Agnes is loving right now…
A film: Little, which is sort of a remix of the movie Big. They used some of my pieces, and it was pitched by Marsai Martin and has Issa Rae and Regina Hall, three women who I find incredibly talented and funny. I can’t remember the last movie I saw in the theater, but it was fun to see a big blockbuster film that was lighthearted. There's a lot of stuff going on that can really be heavy, stressful, and upsetting, and that make you feel helpless. It was nice to just have some innocent, wholesome laughter.
A book: I'm finishing Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. "Homegoing" is a Ghanaian term, and it's a story about a multi-generational Ghanaian family in America.
A recipe: I have a go-to almond meal and apricot cake. If I'm going to someone's house for dinner or for somebody’s birthday, I'll make it. Sometimes I do it in muffins. I modified it from a bunch of recipes from The Joy of Cooking, and it's my “If it ain't broke, don't fix it” recipe—comes out right every time.
A mantra: I do a healthy hell of a lot of Kundalini yoga. As [founder] Yogi Bhajan says, "There's a way through every obstacle." It doesn't seem too revolutionary, but it is.
New discovery: Human Design. Goop describes it as a combination of astrology and Myers-Briggs. I found out that I'm a Projector. That was the biggest “dawn breaks on Marblehead” moment for me because that's what I am; when I'm not working on my own stuff, I'm like the town crier, the number one champion of my peers and their work.
Where are you headed next?
I'm going back to California, top to bottom. I intend to get deep in with all the nature: go up North to the mountains and do some deep forest bathing, get that sweet earth between my toes, then certainly the ocean, and then to catch the best parts of the desert.
Where do you go for inspiration?
I'm fascinated by breathing. It's the first thing we ever did. It's the last thing we're ever going to do. And it really can change everything. That's my woo-woo, hiding-in-plain-sight point of inspiration, because you can rearrange so much by just breathing. Everybody with a pulse is doing it.