The bag designer revisits the story of her family’s seamstress with Modokot

Amy Guan, founder and creator of soft Modokot products, assembles a shoulder bag in her home workshop in San Francisco. Photo: Stephen Lam/The Chronicle

In Hoiping, a city in Guangdong province in southern China, the dominant language is neither Mandarin nor Cantonese. It is Toisan, a regional dialect that is not commonly spoken elsewhere. In California, it is rare to find anyone who understands this, even among Chinese immigrants.

But for Amy Guan, a first-generation San Franciscan whose parents emigrated from Hoiping in 1986, that’s all she knows. Nownearly 7,000 miles from his parents’ homeland, 32-year-old Guan reconnects with his family’s origin story in a new career as a bagmaker for his independent label, modokot.

“’Modokot’ is slang in our mother tongue. It means “nothing goes to waste,” Guan said. “If we had rice left in our bowls, my grandmother would always shout ‘Modokot!’ She used that phrase for everything, so we heard it often growing up.

The idea for her business was born from a visit to her parents’ hometown of Hoiping, where she discovered her grandmother’s sewing machine. Guan decided she would recast her family’s history with fabrics by creating a design company that ran on sustainability, craftsmanship and quality – driven by the “don’t waste” spirit that was instilled in her. instilled.

After seven years in the corporate tech world helping immigrant employees secure work visas, Guan left a more lucrative role at Facebook in 2021 to launch his fledgling company.

Amy Guan sews a shoulder bag in her home studio in San Francisco. Guan went from a successful job at Facebook last year to making bags full-time. Photo: Stephen Lam/The Chronicle

At Modokot, she’s a one-woman assembly line, designing and creating fashionable shoulder bags by hand in her Sunnyside apartment using a factory-grade sewing machine and techniques she’s learned from his mother, Julie Guan, who worked as a seamstress in China and the United States

Amy’s work is an ode to the legacy of resourceful women in her life, all of whom worked as seamstresses and babysitters while living in Sunnyside, Mission Terrace and Excelsior – sometimes with up to 15 other people in a same household. During these years, Julie Guan often brought home fabrics to sew, exposing Amy and her two sisters to an extraordinary work ethic and basic design principles.

In 1995, Amy’s mother was hired by Levi Strauss, quickly becoming a production supervisor. She worked there until 2002, when the company closed its San Francisco factory and began outsourcing labor to foreign countries, including China.

Julie Guan continued to sew until she finally retired, but she hoped her daughter would take advantage of her education and find a well-paying job that didn’t depend on the type of rigorous physical labor she endured. It was a shock when she learned that her daughter was leaving Facebook to start sewing.

“Sewing is hard to live with,” Julie Guan told The Chronicle in Toisan through an interpreter. “Everything you do is needle by needle. I encouraged Amy to keep her office job full time and only do it part time.

Amy Guan learned to sew from her family, with her mother, who worked at the Levi Strauss & Co. factory in the 90s. Photo: Stephen Lam/The Chronicle

But Amy Guan was undeterred. Over the past year, she has applied the same kind of focus and self-determination her mother once had to mastering the art of the needle. The COVID pandemic gave her time to establish a workspace in her living room and experiment with designs.

“Modokot, at its core, is the accumulation of my family and my community,” Guan said. “I’ve carried that mentality into so many parts of my life. Not wasting my passion and talents, using whatever scraps I have to create meaningful pieces for others, buying unused fabrics to minimize my footprint in the world. industry. My hope for this brand is to be a reminder to others not to let things or ideas go to waste.

Balancing functionality and aesthetics, Guan’s bags incorporate utilitarian minimalism with pops of bright color and worldly touches. She mixes non-traditional, rare and specialty fabrics ranging from Mexican serapes to sunbrella, ripstop, corduroy and Dyneema compositea lightweight sail material developed for open water racing.

After much trial and error, Guan can complete an average bag in under three hours.

Guan’s work can be found at local events and festivals like 415 Daywhere Guan was selling his slingshots next to a stage where RBL Posse, rap pioneers at Hunters Point carried out. She also collaborates with other small business owners, such as Dominick Morales of Plantas de Pamanaa Filipino nursery located on Solano Avenue in Berkeley.

“Amy is absolutely wonderful to work with,” Morales said. “His energy excites me, and when it comes to design and creativity, I feel like we’re on the same page.” This summer, Guan is teaming up with Morales for the celebration of the first anniversary of Pamana Plantas June 18.

Amy Guan poses for a portrait in her home studio in San Francisco. Photo: Stephen Lam/The Chronicle

As her skills developed, Guan was able to teach her mother what she learned. Together, they went fabric shopping and personalized a bag to her mother’s taste.

“I’m learning from Amy now,” Julie Guan said. “I was a factory worker, not a designer. But Amy is a designer. It’s exciting. (She) does an even better job than me.

The daughter introduced her mother to textiles more exotic than the denim and cotton she worked with at Levi’s, and the way of thinking of her younger generation. Still, after bagging together, Julie Guan couldn’t completely forget her traditional origin.

“After I made the bag, (my mom) put an old Levi’s tag on it,” Amy said with a laugh. “There’s a lot of beauty in her work, but she’s used to being an invisible creator in the production line. Personally, I refuse to be overlooked or silenced. I want to show him that it’s still possible to do what you love and enjoy it.

Follow Modokot online at for more updates and custom orders.

Events to come

Off-market growth: Sunday, June 12, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., 400 Contra Costa Street, Vallejo.

Pamana Plantas First Anniversary Fiesta: Saturday, June 18, noon to 5 p.m., 1615B Solano Ave., Berkeley.


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