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Niven on Her Craft

She’s no bag lady, but Fernanda Niven, a granddaughter of David Niven and John Wanamaker, is building her handbag business with a smart restraint.

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With beauty, brains and a sparkling family name to match, Fernanda Niven might seem to have it all. But there was one thing that life didn’t provide — the perfect bag.

All this summer, while the rest of the social girls put their feet up in Saint-Tropez or Northeast Harbor, solving that fashion problem has taken Niven on a journey of her own. She’s hit the very unglamorous backroads of New York’s fashion circuit, tinkering with samples at the factory she uses on 25th Street, booking appointments with hard-to-reach retailers and searching for a showroom to hawk the chic line of handbags she started to sell under her name late last spring.

This story first appeared in the August 12, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“I design the things I need,” says Niven, 32. And what Niven needs, her fashion-loving friends need, too. But then, she comes by her stylish sophistication naturally. Her paternal grandfather was the debonair actor, David Niven, and her maternal great-grandfather, Philadelphia department store magnate John Wanamaker.

In her second season, Niven’s client list for her sleek suede evening bags — the Fern, with its smart scalloped trim, and the Eugenie, a clutch named for the designer’s sister — already reads like any young designer’s dream come true, with Samantha Boardman, Carolina Herrera Jr., Patricia Lansing, Beth Blake and Rachel Peters all carrying her clutches. Even better, they all paid for their bags. “My friends have been so supportive,” said Niven, who has learned to nudge her own clutch front-and-center when a society photographer appears. “I’d like to be able to give everyone a bag for free, but I can’t do that right now.”

Fashion inspiration first struck Niven while she was living in Los Angeles, working for a producer and doing the Hollywood thing. “One day after work I went to Sears and bought a sewing machine — the cheapest one,” she said. “Then I read the directions and started to sew.” She shipped her first batch of tiny totes to friends, then left the idea of doing an entire line on the back burner. After five years on the West Coast, she returned home to New York and the friends who benefited from her first efforts convinced her to give fashion a try.

Retailing may be in her blood, but the enterprise got off to a rocky start when, instead of showing stores a sample and manufacturing as many as needed, Niven optimistically ordered hundreds of bags from her factory, then set out to make sales. “I did it backwards,” she said with a laugh. “I’m still learning, and I’ve made a trillion mistakes.” No matter. For fall, stores including Scoop and Language in New York, Dari in California and Cala in Madrid have already picked up the bags, which sell for between $200 and $500. In addition, the Carolina Herrera boutique on Madison Avenue will carry a special group, made to match Herrera’s collection.

Spring 2004 promises more matchups: the Serena, a tote named for Serena Boardman; the Beth, an evening bag big enough for Beth Blake, who, Niven said, “always stuffs her bag to ridiculous limits,” and the Umberta, inspired by Umberta Beretta’s own vintage bag. Up and down Park Avenue, the designer has been dragged into some of the best closets in town to check out a favorite clasp, examine a cell-phone pocket or marvel at hand-beading. “Now people come up to me and say, ‘I have to show you this great bag of my grandmother’s,’” she said.

Yet while all her hard-to-please friends love the simple, subtly feminine look of her line, chatting up store execs and potential showroom representatives hasn’t conquered Niven’s bashfulness. “The shy girl picks this profession,” she said, shaking her head. “Talking to strangers isn’t easy. It’s nerve-wracking.”

Unsettling or not, the thought of not only her friends but stylish strangers carrying her wares keeps Niven in the game. “Hopefully, I’ll design something women just can’t live without,” she said. “I’m really looking forward to seeing someone I don’t know carrying one of my bags down the street.”

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