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New Handbag Designers: Indie Darlings

Independent handbag designers continue to sprout up.

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Appeared In
Special Issue
WWD A issue 07/21/2008

WITH NEWSPAPERS CONSTANTLY FILLING THEIR pages with word on the dour economic outlook, it comes as no surprise that consumers are exerting pensiveness when shopping. While handbags — especially those from young and independent brands — have been a boon at retail as of late, the question remains as to whether people will still clamor for bags at the astounding rates they have in the recent past. While the quandary is on the minds of industry
members, it has not stopped a crop of new bag designers from popping up. By and large, these young designers
have allotted for a slow start to their businesses, chalking it up to the looming recession and weak dollar. Retailers, while exerting caution in their buys, are still showing interest, looking for the next big thing. “None of the parameters have changed,” says Ed Burstell, senior vice president and general merchandise manager for nonapparel at Bergdorf Goodman. “In order to have the customer spend, you need to have great styling, great design and
original thought. Things that are reactive and repetitious are just not going to be successful.” Burstell says brands such as Tano, Stephane Verdino and Pauric Sweeney are some of the independent bag brands that are performing at Bergdorf’s. Monica Prestia, founder of Stefanibags.com, a new e-commerce site geared toward bag lovers, says despite the rocky fiscal outlook, “women want a welldesigned, beautiful, timeless bag…without having to miss a mortgage payment for it.” Stefanibags.com carries designs from Bliss Lau, Jenny Yuen, Jalda and several others with prices ranging from about $200 to $850. Some designers are also following that credo, such as OneOctober, a new handbag line out of Los Angeles that uses salmon skin, which looks like snakeskin, but is actually a sustainable material. Launching this fall, prices range from $30 wholesale for a bracelet to $196 for a larger handbag. “We feel 100 percent confident launching in this economy as we are providing a product with a very reasonable price,” says co-designer Roxana Zal, who founded the company with Naomi Stokeld. “We had buyers that were very skeptical about entering into a new collection in this economy, but [many] ended up placing orders with confidence based on the product and the price point.” Sukari designer Alicia Ferriabough is also new to the bag game. A former entertainment lawyer for recording industry artists such as Nas and Run DMC, the Boston native is finally pursuing her love of accessories. The line incorporates clutches and day bags with accents of exotic skins. Prices wholesale from $300 to $1,500 for fall, the brand’s first season. “Overall, it’s a challenge proving yourself as a new designer,” says Ferriabough. “It’s a challenge of getting in the right boutiques and showing something that’s unique, in colors that transcend each season.” Other brands such as Notting Hill and JT Handbags are focused on top-tier luxury. Created by husband-and-wife team Kimberly and Steven Yurisich, the London-based Notting Hill offers bags in classic shapes and options such as all ostrich skin. The bags can take up to nine months to develop and wholesale from $550 to $6,800. “Some people say we take too much time, but I think we’re laying the ground work for the
future,” says Steven Yurisich. “Building something unique and different takes a little while to get some traction.” Only one U.S retailer, Sophie Curson in Philadelphia, has picked up the line so far. Kaia Peterka, who has been designing an eponymous bag line since fall 2006, will be introducing more exotics. JT Handbags, founded by Jeffrey W. Parker and Tony T. Ta, who collectively designed accessories for brands such as Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, DKNY, Kate Spade and Furla, are attacking the luxury sector, too. The supple leather totes, hobos, satchels and clutches are named after friends and loved ones, and retail prices range from $1,200 for a clutch to a large satchel for $4,000. The bags had a soft launch for spring in Henri Bendel and on luxcouture.com, and JT handbags also has distribution in stores in the Middle East, Moscow, Austria and Italy. “The only thing that seems to be a bit of a drawback is the exchange rate,” laments Ta. “Some say our bags are expensive, but our bags take from six to 12 hours to make. They’re artisanal.” Henri Bendel is one retailer that is an ardent supporter of independent designers. The retailer still has its Open See event in which new designers bring their collections to be reviewed by the store’s buyers and styles are showcased from the finalists of the Independent handbag Designer Awards. Scott Schramm, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of fashion for Henri Bendel, says, “We are always on the hunt for new designers and collections that fit into our lifestyle merchandising [strategy].”

This story first appeared in the July 21, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

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