It’s not hard to discern Natalia Konovalova’s role models. On her desk in her Manhattan studio, tucked into a frame usually reserved for pictures of a mother, best friend or favorite pet, instead rest images of Coco Chanel and Miuccia Prada.
“I like what they did for fashion,” says Konovalova. “I like what they did for art.”
Konovalova is making her own contributions to fashion and art these days with her handbag line, Bulga. The two-and-a-half-year-old line took flight in fall 2003 with the release of its butterfly silhouette, a leather hobo that abstractly rendered the winged insect on its sides through a mix of patterning, stitching and studding and became sought after by celebrities and other in-the-know shoppers. Today, Bulga continues to sell the butterfly, along with a full range of looks, beside competitors like Botkier, Be&D, Kooba and Gustto in 200 doors, such as Barneys New York, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Henri Bendel.
Fall may continue to build the line’s reputation, with a collection of 14 styles, such as the bucket tote, designed from a signature printed canvas and with zippered compartments at the top, or the half-moon-shaped shoulder bag with three graduating arcs, one detailed with trapunto stitching and another featuring pintucked leather. Colors for the line include custom-developed hues like pudding, foam and deep rose, as well as white and black. Retail prices range from $450 to $800.
“I knew I liked the butterfly bag when I created it,” says Konovalova. “Then Jessica Simpson bought the bag and everybody began talking about it. It happened so quickly that I didn’t have time to be surprised about it. For small design companies, it’s a challenge to make the next best bag. And when you create that bag, you don’t want to be just about an ‘It’ bag. Each bag has to be as good as the last, and recognizable as by the brand, or it’s a step back. So I constantly have my notepad with me, and I’m constantly sketching and thinking and working.”
Konovalova says she draws her inspirations for her bags from a range of sources, including European magazines from the Sixties and dresses fresh off the New York catwalks. However, it’s her background that serves as the most important basis for her line.
Konovalova was born and raised in the former Soviet Union, and she likely would have remained there had it not been for a beauty pageant that the willowy, fair brunette won at the age of 19. As part of the prize, she was offered the opportunity to travel.
“New York was one of my last choices,” says Konovalova, who is now 31. “But that’s where the pageant ended up sending me. I thought at the time I’d go and spend my seven days here and then leave. It turns out I didn’t see my family for another three years.”
Konovalova, with only a beginner’s knowledge of English, enrolled in New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology and began studying women’s design, with an emphasis on tailoring.
“I think my bags incorporate Russian touches, but they are not Russian-inspired,” says Konovalova. “New Yorkers come from all over and have to be very special to make it here, and I want to speak to that by creating bags that are as special. The background in tailoring ends up becoming the basis for many of the details in the bags, and many of the shapes come up through draping. It’s like creating a puzzle for me. One of my bags can use up to 20 square feet of leather, and some contain around 20 pattern pieces. And when I’m creating samples, no matter if it’s the first version, or many versions later, if I’m not 100 percent in love with it, it doesn’t make it into the line.”
Konovalova says she hopes to continue to raise the bar for the brand, which she says has potential to grow. Small leather goods and shoes might be next up, an imminent development that encouraged her to move to a new showroom, Item.
“It was a business decision to start the line with handbags,” says Konovalova. “I wanted to start with something small.”
Originally Konovalova called the line after herself, morphing her last name into the moniker Kono Valova. But she says she wanted something more recognizable and less about herself.
“I was looking at an old globe one day, and I came across this area called Bulga,” says Konovalova. “I liked the sound of it, so I Googled it. It turns out that Bulga is an old word and translates into English as ‘leather bag.’ I couldn’t believe it. It seemed special, the way it came up. Now when I look at the brand, I don’t think of it just in terms of myself. I think more of myself as a designer working for Bulga. And I look at it this way because I see a bigger future for the company. It’s like Chanel or Prada. These are women who are not afraid to take chances and be a little different. For a young company like this one, it’s hard to take chances. But I’m up for the challenge.”
This article appeared in WWD Accessories Supplement, a special publication to WWD.