MEET SEVEN DESIGNERS WHOSE STATEMENT-MAKING HANDBAGS ARE MOVING THE INDUSTRY BEYOND THE BAGUETTE.
Byline: Rose Apodaca Jones
As with its wines, California is quickly becoming a rival to the Italians and the French in another category, handbags.
Upscale retailers from London’s Harvey Nichols to Joyce of Hong Kong are snapping up the weird and wonderful offerings that designers, mostly based in and around Los Angeles, are turning out. For some, these are an alternative to the designer house brands, whose mainstream baguettes and fringed leather styles don’t lend themselves to statement-making.
“There’s a customer here who wants something special that makes a statement,” said Jennifer Kaufman, owner of the namesake Beverly Center boutique which has taken a chance on and popularized many national accessories brands. “The L.A. customers are more willing to take a chance on an unknown [brand]. That makes the designer’s job a lot less frustrating, and they are able to experiment more.”
And many of the Californian brands boast avid collectors. There are those who buy up every new version of Isabella Fiore’s animal series or Harveys’ woven seatbelt models or Hand Maid’s Lucite-handled confections.
Of course, as is the tradition out west, every good fan list includes a smattering of celebrities. Often, the handbag lines have a roster of movie and television credits — in fact, many designers started out behind the scenes in the entertainment industry as stylists, makeup artists, designers and publicists. Certainly, having connections in “the industry” has helped designers score placement in celeb-focused magazines.
Dana Harvey, co-founder of Harveys, said that the West’s burgeoning handbag category reflects the fact that “it’s a lot easier to break into than the garment industry. The start-up costs are lower. You can make a lot of bags from 20 yards of great vintage fabric. And you can be a lot more creative because it’s a lot less of a risk for some people to carry a funky bag.”
Designer Mitzi Baker is bucking the recent heavy-ornamentation trend in favor of the less-is-more approach.
“I don’t do embellishment,” said the designer of her sophisticated, sleek handbags, weekenders and purses. “Some buyers request I stud this or that, but I believe you have to stick to what you do best.”
The tiny perforations dotting her candy-colored short shoulder bags, or the tasseled bows of her signature box tote are as far as she will go. Perhaps that’s because she worked for eighteen years as a hairstylist at the Beverly Hills Vidal Sassoon salon, where spare, geometric modernism rules.
Baker also believes in not hopping on the latest trend bandwagon. “My main focus has always been to create bags that you could still wear next year because they’re not so trendy you’re embarrassed to take them of the closet,” she quipped.
The line wholesales from $25 for a crocodile card holder with a clip to $185 for a weekender. The four-year-old line sells mostly to specialty stores, as well as Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue.
Though 90 percent of the collection is made from a smooth, scratch-resistant leather, canvas is increasingly being integrated for the warmer seasons to lower the price. Also, canvas allows more experimentation with color, she explained. ” Right now, it’s all about refining — the shapes, the business. I’m really focusing on building a leather house, with belts, luggage, desk accessories and home furnishings like leather vases.”
Baker recently added a men’s line embossed with the M. Baker brand, including a computer bag, weekender and wallets.
Baker brought sales back in-house to her Los Angeles studio after two seasons with showrooms here and in New York, though the straight-shooting Baker is clear that the decision isn’t permanent.
“I work all aspects of the business, so it’s truly hard to say what I would want to give up. I would like to focus more on the creative end. But this is a business, bottom line, and I design with that in mind.”
The Harveys have turned embroidered Chinese bathrobes, old fur coats and burlap into handbags, but it’s the woven seatbelt totes, backpacks and cosmetic envelopes that continue to attract handbag collectors — and car enthusiasts.
“We get customers who want to match the seatbelts in their new Lexus,” said Dana Harvey, who launched the brand with wife Melanie in 1997 with a shoulder bag style they call “Detroit.” Inspiration came when the pair were installing seatbelts in their 1950 Buick. They tried dropping “Detroit” after their first season, but retailers wouldn’t let them, and it’s since become one of their key items.
Although Dana found modest success with a signature clothing line, it was Melanie’s idea to focus on handbags. A longtime collector of vintage purses, she said they approach designing the line “by doing what pleases us instead of focusing on the trends hitting the mass market.”
After a stint in department stores, the Harveys refocused their distribution to the 350 specialty retailers on their regular roster. “We found that many smaller stores sold better than the larger chains,” said Dana from their Orange, Calif., office, which houses the design studio as well as a production staff of 10. “And we liked that personal contact with the shop owners and buyers.”
Some 5 percent of the company’s sales, which are estimated to be just under $1 million wholesale, comes from girlshop.com. The e-commerce site is linked from Harveys’ informational sites seatbeltsbag.com and harveysboutique.com, the latter featuring a cartoon version of Dana and Melanie, their boxer, Rocky.
“Detroit” aside, the Harveys’ line wholesales from $30 to $80, with retro-inspired leather, vinyl and fabric styles. A bag cut from vintage Levi’s with the classic V-pocket lined in rhinestones caught the attention of the denim legend, which is testing the style in their Levi’s stores in San Francisco, Chicago and South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, Calif.
It’s not that designers Jennifer Tash and Trang Huynh refuse to offer basics under the Isabella Fiore name. It’s that their faithful clientele — who send fan letters to the company’s Los Angeles headquarters and trade discontinued styles on eBay — simply won’t have it.
“We’ve tried,” said Tash. “But then we realized, ‘Why buy a plain black handbag from us? There are plenty of other companies making beautiful, plain leather handbags.’ We make handbags that make people smile.”
Tash, a former buyer and visual manager for top L.A. retailer Shauna Stein, also credits buyers for taking a chance on their sometimes wild designs. “What a bunch of loyal stores we’ve had,” she said. That “bunch” includes 300-plus better department and specialty stores in the U.S., Japan and Europe, such as Barneys New York, Harvey Nichols in London and Ice Accessories in Los Angeles. The line is available at the Parallel Lines showroom in Los Angeles’s New Mart.
Tash and Huynh, who founded the company in 1995, won this year’s CFDA Perry Ellis Award for Accessories.
An 8,500-square-foot studio, a 15,000-square-foot warehouse and added overseas production reflect the private brands’ exponential growth in the last year.
Their first handbag was velvet with hand-rolled roses (the company’s name, in fact, is a play on the Italian phrase for “beautiful flower”). Their whimsically beaded bags now feature cavorting monkeys, flowers, pugs and flamenco dancers and wholesale from $20 for a cosmetic case to $168 for a tote.
Hand Maid By Michelle Frantz
Michelle Frantz hopes you’ll understand the aesthetic driving her edgy line.
Imagine a bag that’s something of a cross between what socialite icon Babe Paley and rocker Joan Jett would carry and you’ll have an inkling of the inspirations behind Michelle Frantz’s Hand Maid line.
Hand-poured resin handles filled with glitter and hand-cast sunburst brooches are among the features that distinguish Frantz’s four-year-old collection, which will be shown at Gen Art’s Fresh Faces installment in downtown’s Los Angeles Theater, which kicks off Los Angeles Fashion Week on Nov. 1.
The painter-turned-designer has learned the art of commerce quickly, filling orders for some 60 stores internationally, including Diavolina and Fred Segal in Los Angeles, and Hedra Prue and Patricia Field in New York. The line, carried in Ben Amun’s Fabulous showroom in the California Mart, wholesales from $85 for a leather clutch slashed with zippers to $210 for the leather and suede Y-tote (it’s named for a Y-shaped cutout).
The Texas native moved to Los Angeles in the early Nineties, where she studied first at the then-billed Otis Parsons School of Design, and then at UCLA for her MFA.
After graduating in 1997, she began experimenting with bag-making, casting resin pieces like those on the vintage purses in her personal collection. “I cut up every vintage dress in my closet and made dozens of these toxic handles,” she recalled.
Within a year, “real orders” started coming in, after people saw her toting them around town. She credits celebrity stylist Arianne Phillips, who got Frantz’s handbags onto the arms of Madonna and Courtney Love, with her big break. Phillips also made calls to Fred Segal, who responded with orders, and fashion magazine editors, who gave her creations coverage.
“There are so many people who appreciate them, I’m shocked,” said Frantz, who considers the line an extension of her creative training. “It’s so much more rewarding designing than being in the bubble of the art world.”
It started as a dare. After Sarah Shaw made 400 felt bags edged with pinking shears for Christmas presents in 1997, a friend challenged her to turn it into a side business. Shaw, a film costumer for 11 years, had always been a “backpack girl.” But retailers’ response to her “pinked” tote prompted her to set up shop in downtown L.A. studio eight months after that holiday run. Within a year, she signed on to a New York showroom and saw sales jump by 400 percent within a season. She’s now with Notanonymous in New York.
“That’s when I knew I could leave the film business behind,” she said.
Well, not exactly. Stylist friends continue to place the product in films and on TV. Shaw has a lucrative sideline business called Raggs to Order, which does wardrobing for films including the upcoming remake of “Oceans 11.”
Four years later, Sarah Shaw Handbags, which wholesale from $60 to $135, is being sold at 400 doors, including Bergdorf Goodman, Bloomingdale’s and many specialty stores.
This summer, the designer inked a strategic alliance to aggressively grow the brand with Pacific Connections Inc., a $140 million accessories maker and distributor in Ontario, Calif. Pacific Connections will finance production and handle shipping and distribution, and, eventually, licensing.
Shaw maintains control of design and sales, as well as all aspects of her e-commerce site, shopsarahshaw.com, which accounts for 20 percent of sales. Before the deal, Shaw was set to ring in $1 million retail this year. Among the site’s features are custom orders from a library of fabric choices. Customers can even provide their own yardage.
The minimally named makeup-artist-cum-designer Melvone believes the surge in accessories designers has to do with “the need to design something that’s really beautiful and special, amid all the mass-produced basics.”
That means something “classic but new” for Melvone, whose long, rectangular handbags befit a modern-day Jackie O. They’re ladylike, but cool.
Melvone’s six debut styles include a Mongolian yak fur-trimmed number and a shimmery duotone blue and green purse. They wholesale from $180 to $215.
The London-bred Melvone arrived here a decade ago and continues to do makeup for music videos and for fashion magazines as she builds her self-financed line and seeks showroom representation. The line, which she produces out of her West Los Angeles home, is carried at a dozen stores, including Diavolina in Los Angeles, Fred Segal Flair in Santa Monica, Calif., and Joyce in Hong Kong.
Ex-publicist Lisa Elliot was among the first of the new of wave of Los Angeles handbag designers with her now-defunct line E:Oh, and now she’s among the latest with the launch of her eponymous collection.
“I wanted to start in a totally different vision, something that was my own,” said Elliot. That means a spare aesthetic, geometric shapes and details and all leather materials. Straps can be lengthened, or completely removed. “I think in terms of versatility,” she added.
After she and her former business partner parted ways two years ago, Elliot returned to publicity, joining p.r. fashion powerhouse People’s Revolution. (She also worked in sales at Saks Fifth Avenue, Barneys New York and Richard Tyler, and was director of publicity for shoe designer Patrick Cox.)
Miah Y, Emma Gold and Madison quickly picked up her new line this summer, and Elliot is steadily filling private orders for stylists, musicians and other fashion-obsessed women in Los Angeles and New York.
The line is wholesale priced from $45 for a makeup bag to $150 for a larger day bag. “When I took the break [after E:oh], I found the ideas just kept coming, and I couldn’t stop sketching out these purses. I’m addicted to it,” she said.