Sweet and Low

2. Accessory Design

Anita Ko was 22 and jobless the day she walked into a Los Angeles fabric store and found herself smitten with a bolt of '70s vintage upholstery fabric-the kind once used to line the interiors of RVs. "I thought it would make a cute handbag," recalls Ko, whose house had just been robbed, leaving her purseless. Determined not to let a limited budget stand in the way of her overwhelming need to accessorize, Ko bought the retro upholstery fabric for a little less than $100 and whipped up a few handbags for herself and her eager friends.

When Ko realized she might be on to something, she made a few designs and took them to a sample-maker. A friend who was a clothing rep showed the samples to local boutique owners, who liked the funky, retro designs and fabrics. Almost before she realized it, Ko, who has no formal design experience, was in business with Los Angeles-based Trash Bags.

This is not the usual course of events for young designers, acknowledges Barbara Bundy, vice president of education at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles. Most of them have some formal training and have worked for established designers, at least for a while. But, in the end, most entrepreneurs need a unique idea and an endless supply of emotional fortitude to make it as an independent designer. For Ko, launching Trash Bags was remarkably easy. "I got a lot of immediate orders so soon," she says, "I thought getting business came naturally to everyone."

The relative ease of that first year, in 1997, in which Ko and her team of contract workers turned out 1,000 handbags a month from a warehouse and earned $200,000, made the second-year growing pains a bit harder to bear, Ko admits. Moving out of the warehouse and into her own downtown Los Angeles studio, juggling new expenses, and continuing to expand the business took a toll on her nerves. "I busted my butt. I cried. I bled," recalls Ko, now older and wiser at 25. "I wanted to quit a million times."

Those who buy her $65 to $165 handbags-great retailers like Macy's and Bloomingdale's and celebrities like Claudia Schiffer and Cameron Diaz-are glad she didn't. Now that the business is earning more than $300,000 and Ko is experienced, she's proud she toughed it out. Says Ko, "My life has changed because of this business."

The basics: fabric, a pattern, a sewing machine and other related sewing tools, a business phone line, a standard PC, a printer, basic software, and Internet access. Marketing expenses will cost about $2,000.

Total cost: $5,000

What she spent: Ko initially spent $2,500 for fabric, the production of her first samples, showroom fees and travel expenses. She did most of her early marketing by word-of-mouth and visiting local boutiques.

For details: Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, (213) 624-1200, www.fidm.com

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This article was originally published in the August 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Sweet and Low.

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