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The Handbag Hopefuls - The New York Times

Category: Business,Finance

There was no red carpet at the Independent Handbag Designer Awards, held at the SVA Theater in Manhattan in June, but if there had been, nobody would have recognized any of the labels. Forty-five eager finalists from around the world were there, drinking room-temperature rosé and mingling with the buyers, merchandisers and journalists who might anoint them the next Rebecca Minkoff.

Emily Blumenthal, a former designer who started the awards, flitted through the crowd in a black and gold cocktail number, which she was calling “ice-skater chic.” The garment was composed of two vintage dresses, which she had deconstructed and reassembled for the occasion.

“I ‘Pretty in Pink’-ed it,” she said, referring to the John Hughes movie in which Molly Ringwald, short of money, makes her own prom dress.

That Ms. Blumenthal, 45, is still making her own clothes from thrift-store finds epitomizes her scrappy, entrepreneurial ethos. She began making and selling bags with no design training. “I bootstrapped my line,” she said. “This is a hard journey and a lonely one.”

Her mission with I.H.D.A., which she started 12 years ago, is to help fledging designers form industry connections and plan for long careers. An “It” bag can help, but it does not guarantee long-term success.

Ms. Blumenthal was much inspired by Kate Spade, the designer who recently died and who also lacked formal training. “She did her first samples out of construction paper, so that’s what I did,” Ms. Blumenthal said.

In 2000, while attending the Gabelli School of Business at Fordham University, she created Yasmena, a beaded evening bag with a wrist strap and loop for the middle finger, intended to let one carry with unobtrusive ease. “I was 26 and thought I was splitting the atom,” she said. She convinced a handful of professors to make her company a case study for their classes. “It basically built my business,” she said.

In 2001, after spotting Rebecca Weinberg, a costume designer for “Sex and the City,” at a party, Ms. Blumenthal began waving her Yasmena around, trying to catch attention.

“She might think I’m crazy, but I have a business and a solution product,” Ms. Blumenthal said. “I knew if she saw it, she’d get it.”

Four months later, Ms. Blumenthal received a call: Yasmena samples were wanted on set. She was working her first trade show at the time and had her mother swoop up almost everything on display and cart it over to Silvercup Studios in Queens. Of course, there was no guarantee that the bag would make it on air.

“I watched every episode,” Ms. Blumenthal said. “And then I saw it for a millisecond and it was gone. All I needed was that freeze frame.”

What Sarah Jessica Parker is holding in Season 4, Episode 15 of “Sex and the City” is more blur than bag, but it didn’t matter. Ms. Blumenthal sent the shot to every media outlet she could think of.

When the show was syndicated to basic cable, she would wait for the episode to reair and then send a new round of emails. She secured a patent for her finger loop and sold the license for Yasmena to a small leather-goods manufacturer who could make a cheaper version, the Yazzy Bag.

“I knocked off my own bag,” Ms. Blumenthal said. “I needed to do it before somebody else did.”

But knockoffs were the least of her problems. “I had a lot of retail anxiety,” she said. “In every store, I’d be looking around: ‘Did they have my bag? Did they not have my bag? Who’s the buyer? Who’s the floor manager?’”

Exhausted, Ms. Blumenthal decided to give up her company for a role as educator and mentor in the industry she loves. “I guess the old adage holds true,” she said. “‘For those who can’t do, teach.’”

Along with overseeing the awards, she teaches entrepreneurship at the Fashion Institute of Technology and has written a book, “Handbag Design 101: Everything You Need to Know About Designing, Making, and Marketing Handbags.”

“Emily is like the mother hen, she nurtures careers,” said Lauren Parker, editor in chief of Accessories magazine, which sponsored the Audience Fan Favorite award at I.H.D.A. It was won by Joy Egbejimba-Nuciano of Nigeria for a marigold-colored box bag with a turn lock, called the Aurene.

The winner of the Best Retail Handbag category, Sugandh Agrawal-Gunas of India, won a coveted spot in the Workshop at Macy’s, which Erin Wilson, the director of multicultural business development at Macy’s, described as a “pipeline” for companies owned by minorities and women.

“People think you ship that first order and you’re golden,” Ms. Wilson said. “But it requires more to sustain a business.”

The awards get about 1,500 applicants each year from 200 design schools around the world. About 20 of these schools include the awards application in their curriculum, and 10 make it mandatory. This year, 11 finalists came from the Savannah College of Art and Design alone.

Aimee Kestenberg, a designer who sponsored one of the award categories this year, was majoring in accessory design at Parsons when she applied to I.H.D.A. in 2010. She entered a category sponsored by Swarovski, in which the challenge was to submit the sketch of a crystal-embellished bag. Her intricate design resembled an octopus.

“I didn’t think I’d make the cut,” Ms. Kestenberg said. Then she received an email; she had three weeks to make the bag. “And I thought, ‘you can’t make this bag,’” Ms. Kestenberg said. She spent the next 21 days applying 3,000 Swarovski crystals by hand.

She won, and the bag was showcased on the global page of Swarovski.com. “Buyers are used to coming to see globally renowned brands,” Ms. Kestenberg said. “But the buyers who I cold-called for my first collection were actually interested.” By the end of 2018, Ms. Kestenberg estimates, her company will have $60 million in sales.

Gizem Yucelen, a Turkish designer who won this year’s UBM Best Handbag in Overall Style and Design, was nearly in tears when her name was announced at the end of the evening. Her submission was a circus tent-inspired red and white handbag that resembled a large peppermint candy with a handle.

Winning meant a booth at a major accessories show with full marketing and promotion, financial mentorship and a brand consultancy with the Accessory Think Tank. Ms. Yucelen had never been to the United States before. “Coming to New York and taking the attention of someone like Emily — it’s happening,” she said. “It’s real”

This year, the awards’ 12th, wasn’t a typical milestone, but Ms. Blumenthal decided to make it one. “I’m calling it the bag mitzvah,” she said. Next on the agenda: a television show and two children’s books about entrepreneurship, one of which is a picture book about a little girl who starts her own handbag line.

“How do you encourage kids to start a business without doing it for them?” said Ms. Blumenthal, who has three children. Well, in her home, you make “Shark Tank” household viewing. And you start them young. Her 10-year-old daughter, Zoey, has worked at the awards since she was 8, and each year she sends her mother an invoice for services rendered.

“How much do you charge an hour?” Ms. Blumenthal asked, as Zoey shadowed her during the awards cocktail hour.

Zoey said $4.50.

“You gave yourself a raise?” Ms. Blumenthal said, and then beamed. “I guess I’m setting an example,” she said, adding, “It’s important for them to see their mother at work.”


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