Meet the Fairy Godmother of Handbag Designers

Former handbag designer Emily Blumenthal runs an annual awards show to spotlight up-and-coming handbag designers. From launching her own successful handbag line to writing a book, to launching a reality TV show, Blumenthal embodies the independent spirit she awards in others.
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Former handbag designer Emily Blumenthal runs an annual awards show to spotlight up-and-coming handbag designers. From launching her own successful handbag line to writing a book, to launching a reality TV show, Blumenthal embodies the independent spirit she awards in others.
Emily Blumenthal. Photo: Courtesy

Emily Blumenthal. Photo: Courtesy

The CFDA Awards may get all the attention, with its celebrity guests and big-name designers, but there's another fashion awards event in town, with quite a bit of influence given that there's literally just one person behind it.

Emily Blumenthal launched the Independent Handbag Designer Awards in New York eight years ago all by herself -- and while you may not have heard of it (we honestly hadn't until recently), its longevity and growth since then has proven that it's the real deal. Its winners, many of them fresh out of fashion school, have gone on to work at some of the most commercially successful accessories brands around, and some of them have even managed to jumpstart their own lines much more quickly than they would have been able to otherwise. Monica Botkier, Deborah Lloyd, Kenneth Cole and Judith Leiber have been among its panelists and "Iconoclast Award" recipients.

Running an awards show is a full-time job -- Blumenthal spends her days recruiting applicants (it's free to apply) and connecting with potential sponsors, partners, bloggers and industry judges.

She's a hustler to say the least. But almost more interesting than her current gig is how she ended up in it -- and why she has such an interest in seeing independent handbag designers succeed:  She was once one herself.

It all began after the New York native spent a few years doing television ad sales in Moscow and London. She eventually moved home and began working for a nightlife magazine, a profession that involved, well, a lot of nightlife. "I kept saying, I don't understand why no one's come up with this little handbag to hold onto when you go out, because girls do this ceremonial dance around their bags," she explained. So she created the Yasmena: A foldable bag that contains slots for everything you need for a night out (credit cards, cell phone) and that can be held in one hand with little elastic straps to keep it secure in one's palm.

Carrie Bradshaw holding the Yasmena in her right hand.

Carrie Bradshaw holding the Yasmena in her right hand.

She got into Henri Bendel, Bloomingdale's and Bergdorfs by herself, all while getting her MBA at Fordham Business School, which worked out to her advantage. "The great thing about business school was that everything is all case studies, so I had every class to work on my business: I did market research, I did my first accounting statement with my accounting professor, literally everything, I took full advantage of it. That's what business school is for."

She also did her own sales and PR, even snagging a placement on "Sex and the City." Blumenthal ran into Rebecca Weinberg (who was one of the show's costume designers alongside Patricia Field) at an event -- Weinberg saw her dancing with the Yasmena and asked her about it, and it ended up right in Carrie Bradshaw's hand in season four (see left).

After six years of still having to bootstrap, she struck a licensing deal to finance the line that "turned into a catastrophe." She explained, "It's kind of like when you're so desperate to get married, you'll take any person that comes and you're like, well he's a little abusive, he's really mean to me, he doesn't want to take me out, but at least I get to say I've got a boyfriend." She went through a long ordeal of fighting for the rights to her product back and "crying every day."

After that experience, she didn't want to go back to designing. "Especially," she says, "because I still had this stigma in my mind that I wasn't a real designer, because I just did an item. I never designed." So instead she taught (at the Learning Annex and LIM), consulted and wrote a book. "Handbag Designer 101" is incredible in its detail. It covers every aspect of what it takes to become a handbag designer. (If you have any interest in becoming one, you should get it.) She used her existing contacts from her trade show days as sources for the book, and to create content for a b2b handbag website that launched along with it. That's when she got the idea for an awards show for handbag designers.

"I came up with categories and then thought I could get a sponsor for each one, and figured we could do a collaboration at the end and everyone would be happy." She felt branding opportunities (like collaborations) were more valuable than cash prizes. "So, I went around and started selling it and making cold calls and it was so bizarre that people were actually buying into it." It sounds easy, but after spending more than an hour with Blumenthal, we see why she, specifically, was able to get it done. Girl can talk.

2013's Best Overall Winner, Maria Lamanna

2013's Best Overall Winner, Maria Lamanna

Now, the event is in its eighth year and the finalists will be announced Monday through InStyle, its official media sponsor. The awards will take place June 18. Winners are voted on by an "Esteemed Panel," as she calls it, which includes Carlos Falchi, Deborah Lloyd, Kenneth Cole and Lauren Bush Lauren, among others.  "Throughout these past eight years, I kind of became known as this handbag fairy godmother, taking these unknowns and putting them on this platform of discovery"

Indeed, through the event's official retailer partner, Bloomingdale's, the winner of "Best Overall" gets their bag picked up by the national department store. While some designers have wound up grabbing the attention of already-established handbag companies like Foley & Corinna and Devi Kroell, who attend the event to recruit, others, Blumenthal says, have been approached by retailers like Saks and Barneys and smaller boutiques interested in picking up their lines. For instance, 2007 winner Katherine Kwei is currently stocked in boutiques all over the world. Blumenthal adds that buyers from Bloomingdale's, Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy's, Lord and Taylor and Neiman Marcus are regularly in attendance at the awards.

But it won't end there for the entrepreneur, who likes to keep a lot of balls in the air. She's currently casting for a reality competition show -- a "Project Runway" for handbags if you will. (She was actually involved in spin-off "Project Accessory," which aired for a season in 2011, but says she was trying to get her idea off the ground long before that debuted). She also has plans to launch an e-commerce site for handbags in the next few months, and has a second book in the works.

"I'm grateful for the people I work with and the designers we've promoted are grateful too -- and those kinds of people, I think, will move us forward -- because we're moving them forward. I think it has to be that way."