Bag designer refashions her family’s seamstress history with Modokot

Gerard Ortiz
Amy Guan, founder and designer of Modokot delicate items, assembles a sling bag at her house workshop in San Francisco. Photo: Stephen Lam / The Chronicle

In Hoiping, a city in the Guangdong province of southern China, the dominant language isn’t Mandarin or Cantonese. It is Toisan, a regional dialect that is not generally spoken somewhere else. In California, it is unusual to find anyone who understands it, even among the Chinese immigrants. 

But for Amy Guan, a first-era San Franciscan whose moms and dads emigrated from Hoiping in 1986, it is all she appreciates. Now, approximately 7,000 miles absent from her parents’ homeland, Guan, 32, is restitching her family’s origin story into a newfound job as a bagmaker for her unbiased label, Modokot.

“ ‘Modokot’  is slang in our indigenous tongue. It indicates ‘nothing goes to squander,’ ” Guan mentioned. “If we had rice still left over in our meal bowls, my grandma would normally yell “Modokot!” She utilised this phrase for all the things, so we read it often escalating up.”

The thought for her enterprise grew from a check out to her parents’ hometown in Hoiping, where by she found out her mother’s stitching device. Guan resolved she would recast her family’s history with materials by generating a layout venture that operated on sustainability, savvy and excellent — pushed by the “do not waste” spirit she was instilled with.

Following 7 several years in the company tech planet encouraging immigrant workers get hold of do the job visas, Guan left a additional worthwhile placement at Fb in 2021 to launch her fledgling organization. 

Amy Guan sews a sling bag at her house workshop in San Francisco. Guan switched from a prosperous position at Fb past yr to earning baggage complete time. Picture: Stephen Lam / The Chronicle

At Modokot, she’s a one-female assembly line, creating and making trendy sling bags by hand in her Sunnyside apartment utilizing a manufacturing facility-quality stitching equipment and techniques she picked up from her mother, Julie Guan, who worked as a seamstress in both of those China and the U.S.

Amy’s operate is an ode to the legacy of resourceful women of all ages in her daily life, all of whom labored as seamstresses and caretakers although living in Sunnyside, Mission Terrace, and Excelsior — at periods with up to 15 other individuals in a one family. For the duration of those yrs, Julie Guan would generally bring property materials to sew, exposing Amy and her two sisters to an amazing work ethic and standard design principles.

In 1995, Amy’s mother was hired by Levi Strauss, immediately soaring to output supervisor. She worked there till 2002, when the enterprise closed its San Francisco factory and started to outsource labor abroad to overseas nations, like China.

Julie Guan ongoing to sew until finally she inevitably retired, but she hoped her daughter would capitalize on her education and come across a substantial-income work that did not count on the type of arduous actual physical labor she endured. It was a shock when she learned her daughter was leaving Facebook to take up sewing.

“Sewing is tough to make a dwelling from,” Julie Guan advised The Chronicle in Toisan by way of an interpreter. “Whatever you make is needle by needle. I inspired Amy to maintain her whole-time business office job and do it section time only.”

Amy Guan discovered how to sew from her family members, along with her mother, who worked at the Levi Strauss & Co. manufacturing facility in the ’90s. Photograph: Stephen Lam / The Chronicle

But Amy Guan was undeterred. More than the earlier 12 months, she has applied the exact type of target and self-determination her mom when did to master the art of the needle. The COVID pandemic offered time to build a operate space in her living home and experiment with types.

“Modokot, at its core, is the cumulation of my family members and community,” claimed Guan. “I have carried this mentality in so numerous parts of my existence. Not wasting my enthusiasm and skills, employing all the scraps I have to make meaningful pieces for some others, obtaining deadstock fabrics to decrease my footprint in the textile business. My hope for this brand name is to be a reminder for some others to not enable issues or concepts go to squander.”

Balancing operation and aesthetics, Guan’s baggage include utilitarian minimalism with vivid hints of colour and worldly touches. She mixes non-traditional, rare and specialised fabrics ranging from Mexican serapes to sunbrella, ripstop, corduroy and Dyneema composite, a lightweight sail substance made for open-drinking water racing.

Following significantly trial and mistake, Guan can complete an ordinary bag in beneath 3 hours. 

Guan’s operate can be uncovered at community gatherings and festivals like 415 Day, the place Guan was advertising her slings upcoming to a reside phase exactly where Hunters Place rap pioneers RBL Posse done. She also collaborates with other modest-business entrepreneurs, like Dominick Morales of Pamana Plantas, a Filipina-owned plant nursery on Solano Avenue in Berkeley.

“Amy is totally amazing to function with,” claimed Morales. “Her strength hypes me up, and when it arrives to style and creative imagination, it feels like we’re on the exact page.” This summer season, Guan is teaming up with Morales for the a single-year anniversary celebration of Pamana Plantas on June 18.

Amy Guan sits for a portrait at her property workshop in San Francisco. Image: Stephen Lam / The Chronicle

As her expertise have grown, Guan has been capable to teach her mom what she has learned. Collectively, they have gone cloth browsing and custom-made a bag to her mom’s liking.

“I study from Amy now,” Julie Guan reported. “I was a manufacturing facility worker, not a designer. But Amy is a designer. It is interesting. (She’s) performing an even much better position than me.”

The daughter has introduced her mother to textiles a lot more exotic than the denim and cotton she labored with at Levi’s, and to her more youthful generation’s way of thinking. Nevertheless, after earning a bag jointly, Julie Guan couldn’t totally forget about her standard track record.

“After we made the bag, (my mom) set an old Levi’s label on it,” Amy reported with a laugh. “There’s a large amount of magnificence in her do the job, but she’s utilized to currently being an invisible maker in the creation line. Individually, I refuse to be ignored or silenced. I want to clearly show her that it’s even now probable to do what you adore and delight in it.”

Observe Modokot online at for much more updates and custom orders.

Future functions

Increase Off Market place: Sunday, June 12, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., 400 Contra Costa St., Vallejo.

Pamana Plantas’ Just one-Year Anniversary Fiesta: Saturday, June 18, noon to 5 p.m., 1615B Solano Ave., Berkeley. 

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