Is Fashion Art? For The Designers Behind Motif No. 3, The Answer Is Clearly Yes

A promotional image featuring the Staccato Belt Bag from Motif No.3 (Shop)

I meet Maggie and Joel Bear at Maru Coffee, a small, airy cafe tucked into an industrial part of the downtown LA Arts District. The husband and wife duo are one half of the team behind leather bag brand Motif No. 3, whose products are as high-minded and conceptual as the cryptic name might imply. Joel’s parents, Stephen and Cheryl, are the other half of the brand, and the two of them bring a long history of manufacturing and design experience that makes the brand possible. It’s a tiny family-company run out of downtown LA with an in-house manufacturing team, but the products look like they could have come out of a historic Parisian design house.  

Walking in to Maru, I realize I don’t really know what Joel and Maggie look like. In front of me, however, are two people, both toting bags that can’t be mistaken for anything other than those of Motif No.3. As they order, the barista effusively compliments them on the bags. I take this chance to introduce myself to Joel and Maggie and we take our seats. The barista brings our iced Americanos in glasses on wood slats, which complements the minimalist look of the cafe. There are light wood tables, large windows, gray flooring, and white walls. The seats resemble cinder blocks, and the ceiling has a distinctly industrial look, subtly capturing what’s likely a shared history with the warehouses outside. The couple’s own attire is decidedly minimalist as well: Maggie in shades of grey, Joel in a monochromatic black. They presumably want their bags to do the talking. Obviously, it works.

Joel brought the “Jazz” sling. It’s a small bag with a multicolored patchwork design, which he wears over the shoulder and across the chest — de rigeur in 2018. Maggie carries a large tote — a black leather bag with three bars in the middle. It’s a design that fittingly serves as a motif for the brand. Motif No.3’s tagline is “Art you walk with,” and their bags bring to mind various modern masters. Maggie’s reminds me of minimalists Donald Judd and Barnett Newman, while Joel’s is evocative of Russian abstractionists like Wassily Kandinksy. But the influences are not so obvious so as to feel pastiche. They pull inspiration from a deep and diverse well of figures; free jazz (which inspires their latest collection), abstraction, experiential art, and brutalist architecture. In short, you don’t need an art degree to appreciate what they’re doing. The idea, they stress, is that the products themselves — and by extension the wearer — can be art. 

There’s a certain intentionality — a mindfulness — that the couple brings. It’s reflected in the brand: the artful photography, the focus on local manufacturing, the use of recurring designs, and the way the products are made in limited releases. It’s reflected in the couple, too. The way they style their bags, the in-depth responses to my questions, and even their choice of meeting place all suggest a level of care far above what’s associated with the current fashion climate. We talked over coffee for about half an hour. Below is a condensed transcript of our conversation, in which they touched on their inspirations, lessons from running a family company, and why they set up shop in downtown LA.  

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Stephen, Cheryl, Maggie, and Joel, the family team behind Motif No. 3

Jonathan Zavaleta: Where did the name of the company, Motif No. 3, where does that comes from?

Joel Bear: So it’s broken into two parts. Motif is a recurring design and that’s a big part of who we are, we see ourselves as a design house, not just as a brand.  We want to create pieces and designs that change over time and that will formulate in different objects, whether that’s clothing, fine art, whether that’s bags as of right now. So that’s Motif. And the other part of our business is our viewpoint on culture. The number 3 stands for our viewpoint, our three pillars; “cultivating creative culture.” A big part of our brand is to be able to build a culture not only for creatives but a product for that future, for that club.

I’m a big believer that creativity is the variable of success, and the variable of the future. We’ve [passed] the time of the industrial age, and we’re now moving into a time of the creative age. We want to be a brand for those outliers, for those movers and shakers, as well as be able to create a club around the creativity and the innovation that we’re seeing in our peers and friends. So that’s where the name comes from, it’s twofold.

Jonathan Zavaleta: So it’s a family company right? How did that all come together?

Maggie Bear: So Joel and I got married 5 years ago, and when we got married we wanted to work together from the get go. So he had a background in photography so we thought, cool, we’ll go down this avenue of photography, which ended up transcending into us getting into the commercial photography world, advertisements as well as editorials. So we got to see the background of what made these companies, what they were doing, what their creative process and we were saying, “we want to do this for ourselves.” We’d always be on shoots and we’d say “we want to do this idea” but the brand or whatever we were working with was like “no that’s too risky, too edgy.” So seeing all of these creative visions, we thought, “we want to do this for ourselves.”

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Maggie with the Ebony Three Bar Tote (Shop)

About 3 years ago his dad had been an industrial engineer in technology manufacturing for 30-some years. Basically the tragic corporate story happened. It got sold overseas, the company was dissolving, everybody was losing their jobs. And we thought, well now we have this opportunity to come together and create something together, so do something as a family. And then Joel’s mom is a designer and was in the advertising world, branding, product design, and like she’s amazing. They’re both so smart and bring so much wisdom to the table, it’s insane.

“First we’re a family, second we’re business partners”

And so like we have these skill sets, Joel and I have the photography and marketing background and his dad is in engineering and manufacturing, his mom is in design. So we said “let’s pool our resources.” We did some soul searching for a few months like “okay what do we want to do, how do we want to go about this,” and ended up landing on “we want to be in fashion.” It sounded like something that was super engaging and something that we can continue to grow and it’ll always be ahead of us, basically an infinite platform to grow on, so that’s how it started, our team, in a nutshell.

JZ: So what are some of the benefits and challenges of running a family type company? Usually when you hear that you think of a cafe, or like a bodega or something, not a creative company.

JB: I think the biggest thing is like, every challenge is an opportunity to become better and more refined. And I think as a family business what we’ve found is each of us is very different. We each come from completely different backgrounds, and the beautiful thing is that at the end of the day our differences are our strengths. It allows us to be able to look and be able to refine and be able to create something that’s bigger than us from  multiple viewpoints.

Working in a family business is, I think even stronger, because at the end of the day we have to resolve these issues because we’re family. It’s not like “oh I can dip off and go to the next thing.” Well, first we’re family, second we’re business partners, you know? And with that there is this mutual respect and encouragement that we all have. [It’s asking] so what is the collective [need]? And it’s actually been an incredible thing as we’re growing our team and wanting to move. That family mindset has been very [embedded] and we’re very selective about who we work with. We’re very selective in that, and we want to be a very small but very pointed team, so that everyone knows what they’re doing. And really the big thing, the key thing is communication.

MB: It’s true

JB: Open lines of communication and also having clear delegation, you know, being able to understand, “what are we doing?,” “what do we bring to the table?”… [And] it’s not only a relationship with a colleague, you’re a compadre. And it’s not like “this is my company,” this is our company. There’s a real strength in unity.  

Ruby Red Half Moon Wristlet (Shop)

JZ: Tell me a little bit about the “art you walk with,” tagline, the artistic connection. What are you trying to go for there?

JB: Okay, let’s step back. About three or four years ago we saw that fashion was changing. We saw that retail wholesale, the whole model was completely changing. On that side we are also seeing how consumers are wanting to integrate with their companies. It’s less “I have a need” and [more of] “I want to be part of a club.” It’s the club of Balenciaga, it’s the club of Adidas. So as we we were looking at that, we really started looking at what are the important things that surround us, and what are the needs we’re seeing in the community. And we’re seeing that fashion is really been taking homage and we’re seeing where fashion and art are really becoming cohesive and merged together. You have many designers that are pairing with artists.

“Our goal was to transpose what had been held in the gallery and bring it into the streets … We believe that streets are really the gallery”

Like I was saying, we’re having this whole revolution of creativity, and the jobs of the future are in the creative circle. So as we were looking to what was important to us and it was art. There weren’t, at the time, a lot of brands that really showcased that. There was luxury, there was streetwear, or they were very tech. So we were like, okay what’s a brand that really pushes the aesthetic? That really pushes the design? That really pushes homage to the greats of our time and the past, and innovating through design?

From that we really started looking at, okay we believe that we wear is a reflection of who we are and we wanted to pay homage to that. Not only is it just a bag, we wanted to go further than that; it’s a piece of art. Our jazz bag is a representation of the free jazz movement. How it’s worn, how it’s felt, it’s like you are that canvas. So our goal was to transpose what had been held in the gallery and bring it into the streets for you to wear. We believe that streets are really the gallery…

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From the “Genesis” lookbook

JZ: So it’s more than just referencing something, it’s about creating an entire…

JB: Eco-sphere. We very much want Motif to be a club, or more than a club, a culture. And the product is a conversational piece. And that’s where, if you wear a Motif bag you’ll probably have someone come up to you.

JZ: Like just now [when the barista complimented them]

MB: [laughs] Exactly 

JB:  But it’s like minded. Because [the bags are] very different. We’re becoming very passionate that each of our pieces are conversation starters.

MB: And it’s a way to bring people together. We always use the example of, you’re at a cocktail party. “How do I break the ice to somebody? I want to talk to people, I’m here to talk to people.” And you’re not always sure how to initiate that it’s like, when you wear a piece that stands out it’s like, “oh sick bag where did you get that?” And that kind of bridges that gap where, this person is probably going to get along and be like minded, and have an interesting conversation because you’re drawn to the piece. You’re able to break down that wall, and have an intro into that. So also it’s creating a relationship between people who probably never would have spoken before.

JZ: And you guys can say, “well I made it.” So, how about downtown LA, why here? Did you grow up here, did you move here, why did you make this your base?

MB: So I grew up in Colorado, and then came out here for college. Joel and his family are originally East Coast, Boston, they came over here to Southern California maybe 15 years ago. So we met in college down in Temecula, like two hours south of LA. We had a photography studio there, and had our business there for five years. And as we were building Motif we thought, where do we want to go? What city, what location, resonates with us? And it just kept coming back to LA. LA’s gone through this crazy transformation over the past five or ten years. It’s like film and Hollywood have kind of moved out and then there’s this void or gap…

So there’s this underground creative hustle that’s coming up of people who want to think differently, who want to act differently, who want to try new things. LA is the city where, “I wanna go out there and experience this new life.” Now we love this city, especially the east side, so much has changed. And now film is coming back like never before, it’s insane. And also all the fashion that’s coming in now. The city is taking big steps to bring that in. New York and Paris, they have their big thing. But LA is like “no, we want our own, we’re on our own, it’s a completely different part of the planet — we want to have our own voice.”

Fjallraven Classic
Ebony Leather Artisan Satchel (shop) and Artisan Passport Satchel (shop)

JB: And I definitely think for us, because we worked downtown for a number of years on the photo side, we worked for a number of different agencies and saw what was happening in downtown — Arts District, Echo Park, all this area is, I feel like it’s Brooklyn 15 years ago. And we want to be part of that story. Like Maggie was saying, people who are attracted to the East side are very driven people. And that’s the reason why I think, it’s a very underdog syndrome. And that’s what we’re attracted to. Being where manufacturing is, everything from the garments to jewelry to all of our sourcing, this is the hub. We want to be very close to manufacturing — it’s very important to us … We want American manufacturing to more than just a statement, but a viable process.  

“There’s this underground creative hustle [in LA] that’s coming up of people who want to think differently, who want to act differently, who want to try new things”

JZ: What about for you guys personally, what are your art destinations?

MB: If you wanna go fully into art, the LACMA, that’s one of my favorites as far as museums go. And for even just the architecture here [in Los Angeles], there’s so much brutalism here, and we drool over every single [brutalist building], whatever we can find. Just driving around the city, a lot of architecture for sure. I like going to the outside of The Broad more than I like going to the inside of The Broad.

JB: I think for me it’s changing from pieces of art to experiential art, and probably because I’m such a brand guy. [For example], how did this chef handle this restaurant? The way you walk in, the way you’re greeted, and you sit down. How the whole process, even here in Maru. Sitting down and being like, okay how he handles every little detail, to the height of the tables, to the way the sound bounces off the walls, to the color theory. I’m kind of moving more into brand experientialism, seeing that as a way to drive what we do. Whether that’s a place like here in Maru, or Gentle Monster in downtown [a sunglasses store with art installations] or Manuela in the Arts District too [a restaurant in Hauser and Wirth’s plaza]. The experience is like to me, such a beautiful process. And to see how art is kind of changing from your traditional mediums to experiential.

MB: And how you make someone feel something, on purpose. It’s big, that’s a big deal, to have that thought out. To bring them through this whole process, see something, or eat, or smell or whatever — and it can elicit this response that you planned out in advance. It’s a very cool and interesting thing.

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The Jazz Collection, as seen on their webstore.

JZ: More personally speaking, what do you like to carry in your bags, what are your essentials?

MB: The things we carry in our bags are probably not terribly interesting, if you ask “why do you have that,” you can probably figure it out [laughs]. It’s very practical, and that plays into the bags that we make. You have to be able to carry things that you need, versus “oh that just looks cool,” but it doesn’t carry anything. There’s no point, you’re not going to use it.

JB: And our pieces — this is Cheryl’s background who handles our design — it’s a complete synergy of form and function. Even to the straps, to how it feels. On the jazz bag it’s a seat belt strap, which is like yes, it looks beautiful, but it’s incredibly comfy. Every little piece we want to feel like you’re not even wearing it, cause it’s that comfortable. We’ll get customer feedback which is like, “I wore it through New York all day long and I forgot [I was wearing it].” It should be that functional to wear, that you don’t hesitate to wear that piece.

JZ: That’s how I feel about watches, actually. I want to forget that I have it until I want to know what time it is. 

JB [to me] Yeah and that timepiece is beautiful

JZ: Thanks, I stole it from my dad. 

MB [laughs] Nice!

JB Even Better.

JZ: Going forward, what are you guys looking to do, next steps?

JB I think our next step is, everyone is going very broad. A number of things we’re wanting to do is open international. We’re having a lot of people from Paris, as of now we’re just within the States. Each new level should be because so many people are asking for it, we have a lot of people asking from Asia, a lot of people from Paris, a lot of people from London. Moving international, moving into retail.

We’re very bullish, very anxious to get into pop-ups and retail of our own. We definitely want to start going a lot deeper with our customers and being able to provide experiences with a plethora of the other colleagues, artists, and other people we know. [We want to be] able to create experiences for our customers around the new launches.

Find Motif No.3 on their website and Instagram. All photos courtesy Motif No.3. For another angle on the connection between fine art and fashion, check out our article on New York skate label Supreme.