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Style And Substance

Success is in the bag.

Launching a handbag venture can be hard to handle, but it's probably easier today than it's ever been before. Just look at the statistics: Industry estimates indicate that the growth of handbag sales nationwide now exceeds 7 percent a year--a rate higher than any other category in the accessories business.

And if you ask entrepreneurs--both fledgling and established--they'll tell you the same. Giants like Coach, Liz Claiborne and Ralph Lauren can't possibly meet every market demand, leaving the door wide open for self-starters.

Fashion-editor-turned handbag-millionaire Kate Spade comes to mind. She left Mademoiselle in 1993 to launch her own venture, making a name for herself as the industry's ultra-chic, trendsetting forerunner. She's proven entrepreneurial creativity really can win out: Today her classic yet original designs (in silk shantung, patent leather and everything in between) are sold in upscale stores like Neiman Marcus and Saks. Her hip handbags have even attained strong followings in Japan, Italy and London--not too shabby when you consider she started out with no business experience in a New York City loft apartment.

Spade is not alone. Her unique creations stand out from the crowd--and smaller designers seeking to retain their hold in this highly competitive industry know their products must also be distinctive. "There aren't too many people making [handbags] like mine," says 31-year-old Ken Fosh, owner of Zippi Leather in Houston.

Although he emigrated from Israel just 10 years ago and arrived in the United States penniless and unable to speak English, Fosh began teaching himself handbag design and manufacturing. Today, Zippi Leather, which also makes leather accessories, regularly earns more than $1 million in annual sales. Fosh distinguishes his business in two ways: Customers not only get the option to customize their orders, but they can also choose from his collection of rare, exotic leathers.

Or consider Caroline Ferenczi, 48, a case in point. She's taken her products to the Net in an effort to reach a worldwide customer base. And although C & C Ventures Ltd. is only in its second year of importing bags from Italy, Ferenczi expects the budding consumer interest she's already witnessed to transform her Queens, New York-based mail order business into a more lucrative investment.

Seymour Mondshein, 47, is keeping his business all in the family. He and his wife, Lisa Martin, 41, expect to hit $500,000 in sales this year with their Rosemont, New Jersey, mail order business, Maple Leather Co. Mondshein first learned the handbag trade from his father, and as a child, he used scraps from the family fur business to sew marble pouches. Today, he designs handbags made of tapestries, nylon, leather and colorful fabrics with an impressionistic flair. "I take something to the market that isn't already there," Mondshein says.

It's a busy market, but for those willing to shoulder the expectations of cutting-edge fashion, success is practically in the bag.

Contact Sources

C&C Ventures Ltd., (888) 245-1637, http://www.ccventures.com

Maple Leather Co., (609) 397-1199, http://www.mapleleather.com

Zippi Leather, (713) 977-4184, fax: (713) 977-6312

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This article was originally published in the September 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Style And Substance.

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