BY AARON SHORT | There are many ways to break into the enormously competitive U.S. fashion industry. Interning with Calvin Klein is one; taking an associate job with Bloomingdale’s is another. But as the design careers of Elizabeth Bayu C’93, Adam Konigsberg FA’83 GFA’84,
and Rochelle Behrens C’04 show, there are other, less-traveled fashion roads to follow as well.
Early in Elizabeth Bayu’s career as a designer, strangers would approach her on the street and compliment her handbag. Then they would ask where she bought it.
“That’s when I tell them, ‘This is my design!’” says Bayu. “It happens quite a bit. One of the first things they say is, ‘I’ve never seen anything like that.’ People are interested in carrying something that’s unique.”
Even at Penn, Bayu was designing and sketching gowns, shoes, and other clothing items. After several years working in the nonprofit field, she began thinking about how to start her own business.
“My natural inclination went to accessories,” Bayu says. “It’s a very specialized field. You’re not interested in ready-to-wear too much, but you are looking at ready-to-wear collections to see what will match.”
She began designing women’s clutches, shoulder bags, and totes, and has since expanded into jewelry and belts.
Bayu admits that she did not anticipate the public’s ravenous desire for handbags when she launched her business six years ago. Though some trace the birth of the must-have “It” bag, originally a Hermes Birkin design, to the early 1980s, the interest in handbags has escalated during the past decade—partly because of the ubiquitous magazine images of accessory-toting celebrities. Some celebrities have even designed their own bags or partnered with designer brands like Louis Vuitton and Prada.
“Young people identify with celebrity,” says Bayu. “When they see a celebrity carrying a certain bag, it becomes more of a desirable item. Something that’s always been important to us is quality and exclusivity from a design aspect. I think it’s more rewarding to wear a bag that 2,000 [other] people won’t be wearing.”
When she first started, Bayu was sewing and finishing each bag herself and selling them in boutiques in Philadelphia, New York, and California. After a couple of years, demand grew and she began scouring the East Coast for manufacturers who specialized in leather crafts.
“When we go into production, as many as 30 people are working on one handbag,” she explains. “Each person has a specialized skill. One person is cutting; another is stitching; another is installing hardware. It’s a complex process. In a matter of a couple of days, we can produce a few hundred bags.”
So far, she has managed to avoid outsourcing the manufacturing of her goods to China, where labor is inexpensive but the quality is, in her opinion, significantly poorer.
“For us it’s important to maintain the manufacturing locally and keep jobs here in America,” Bayu explains. “It’s a very important thing for me to have the manufacturing stay domestic. There are fewer and fewer people specializing in leatherwork.”
Despite some predictions in the mainstream media that the “It” bag would die with the recession, Bayu’s business (www.elizabethbayu.com) is thriving. Her most popular items are her clutches, those small pouches that carry a woman’s keys, wallet, lip gloss, cell phone or BlackBerry.
“I think everyone in my line of work in the fashion industry has felt the economic downturn,” Bayu says. “People don’t necessarily need handbags; it’s more a desire than a need. While I have a sense that consumers are more cautious, they are still spending money on luxury goods, which is good for us.”