For Kathrine Baumann, life is a medley of licensing.
When the designer of a certain line of coveted crystal-studded minaudieres needs a little inspiration, all she has to do is look at the list of 23 brands that license her to transform their corporate symbols into sparkling handbags and accessories.
“I wanted to take American icons and make them functional, wearable art,” said Baumann during a trunk show at Lilly Dodson in Dallas that sold over $50,000 of bags and jeweled eyeglass cases.
“The bags are like calling cards. Suddenly people come up to you to talk.”
Warner Bros. was her first license, sealed in 1993 with a handshake agreement for some Betty Boop handbags.
Walt Disney Co. was a bit more problematic. Baumann was able to sell her Minnie Mouse bags via a limited license for Disney World in Orlando, Fla., but wanted a general license so she could sell the products to other retailers.
It was a deal that seemed impossible, but after several failed attempts to connect with the powers at Disney, Baumann discovered that Michael Eisner’s wife, Jane, had purchased two Minnie Mouse minaudieres for herself and socialite Mercedes Bass at Disney World. Baumann called the licensing department for one final try, politely asking, “I want you to know that Mrs. Eisner is carrying my bag, and would you like to see the line?” Within days she had a contract.
A similar tactic worked with Coca-Cola. Baumann created three sample bags that closely resembled a can of Coke and sent two to the chairman with a note that one was a gift for his wife.
“I learned a valuable lesson,” she said. “If the chairman’s wife likes you, you’re in.”
Baumann’s team now creates crystal-studded handbags that personify the Pink Panther, Tweety Bird and Sylvester along with hundreds of other cartoon characters and products, such as a bottle of Perrier Jouet champagne.
She also styles her own concepts, like red crystal lips, or a red, orange and black Chinese take-out carton with a gold fortune-cookie pillbox inside.
Inspired by Judith Leiber, the doyenne of beaded handbags, Baumann started making minaudieres in 1993. It was an offshoot of her business styling crystal-studded denim jackets and chaps that were popular with country and western singers and other lovers of glitter.
When the market for such glitz faded as minimalism became the mantra of the Nineties, Baumann turned to handbags.
“I have this habit of following my passion,” said Baumann, who formerly was a TV actress and first runner-up in the Miss America pageant. “I’ve always admired Judith Leiber so much, but I wanted to be unique.”
Comparisons with Leiber’s bags are nonetheless inevitable.
Baumann asserts that her concepts are more whimsical and differ in the linings, which are leather with braided trim on the seams, and in the type of glue she uses to secure the hand-set crystals. Baumann is so confident in the strength of this custom-made epoxy that she guarantees her handbags for life.
The bags are distinctive enough to have been toted along the red carpet by many movie stars, including Hilary Swank, Cate Blanchett, Kim Basinger and Minnie Driver. Baumann, who is based in Beverly Hills, Calif., gained her entree to Hollywood when stylist Jessica Pastor asked her to design custom minaudieres for the 1998 Academy Awards for Basinger, Driver and Linda Hamilton.
In 2001, 12 of her bags were carried to the ceremony, one in the hands of Marcia Gay Harden, who took Best Supporting Actress for her role in “Pollock.”
Most of Baumann’s bags retail for $800 to $2,700. They are all numbered limited editions packaged in a suede pouch with a registration card. Customers who register receive a $45 red heart key ring as a gift from Baumann.
“Fifty percent of the people who register buy two to five more bags,” Baumann pointed out, “and 25 percent collect six or more.”
Selling to high-end jewelry stores and designer boutiques, including David Orgell in Beverly Hills and Harrods of London, Baumann does more than $2 million in annual sales, she said. A top seller has been her American flag collection of bags, compacts and pen-shape eyeglass holders. Sales of the flag items benefit the New York firefighters and police affected by the Sept. 11 attacks.
Baumann’s handbags weren’t shown for several years in Dallas, but were picked up last August by SFLA, a showroom at the International Apparel Mart. SFLA also shows Baumann’s embellished suede chaps, crystal belt buckles and pave eyeglass cases . “Kathrine is like Judith Leiber, but it’s more what’s happening right now,” said Avrom Geneles, a partner in SFLA. “It’s novelty. The bestsellers are the Coke bag, Chinese takeout, Betty Boop, Mickey Mouse and the caviar bag. We’re doing great with them.”
Is Baumann worried that her whimsical styles may seem out of place amid the somber mood that fell upon the nation last fall?
“Some people may consider them frivolous,” she admitted. “But for others, they are a smile.”