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Laura Lee Williams: The art of the design [elan magazine]

By Hope Katz Gibbs
elan magazine
August 2009

Beautiful beads from Tokyo—more than 30,000 of them—grace the most elaborate offering by Laura Lee Designs, a handbag firm founded in 2005 by California native Laura Lee Williams.

Other designs—such as her trademark M bag—feature fewer beads, but the focus here is on the three-inch wrap of Australian snakeskin in the middle.

“The white version is perfect for weddings, and pink version is a personal favorite because we contribute a portion of the proceeds from each purchase to Breast Cancer Research,” says the soft-spoken brunette, who shares the tale of how she got started in the handbag business as she sips chamomile tea at a café not far from her current base of operations in Vienna, VA.

As it turns out, the California native never planned to become an entrepreneur. She didn’t plan to go into the family business either—her father and siblings all work in the TV and movie industry. Instead, Laura Lee graduated with a degree in economics from UCLA, a master’s degree in international studies from Harvard University, and spent most of her career working on strategic initiatives and marketing programs for Fortune 500 firms such as Nike, American Express, and Apple Computer.

But when she accepted a job as VP of global business with Hong Kong’s Pacific Century CyberWorks (PCCW) in 1999, her time spent in China inspired her to look at the world in a new way.

“I helped PCCW transform itself from an old guard telecom company into an organization that provided Wi-Fi in airports, developed call centers and established broadband services,” she explains. “In doing so, I worked closely with Chinese executives and watched as they planned strategies that took a long-term view of business. It was a very different approach from what I experienced earlier in my career when I worked for U.S. executives. Too often, we Americans focus only on short-term profits and as a result, some very good ideas never got the chance to take root.”

However, Laura Lee says American firms also tend to be more entrepreneurial and innovative than many Chinese organizations. So in early 2003, she decided to meld the best of both cultures into a company of her own. Her mission: To manufacture elegant hand-beaded handbags and sell them to a sophisticated clientele in the U.S. and abroad.

Laura Lee’s timing was good. Although sales of pocketbooks dropped by an average of 4 percent a year in 1996, the total value of imports of women’s handbags or purses recently hit $1 billion, according to the Gale Encyclopedia of American Industries.

“This growth in handbag sales is put down to women regarding handbags as essential, having more than one, coordinating them with outfits as fashion accessories and choosing different sizes or styles to suit the occasion,” says Glyn Barlow, director of the online store Fashion Shop UK.

Growth may also be attributed to an increase in supply, for more handbag manufacturers are outsourcing large portions of the production cycle to factories in developing countries such as China. Not only is labor dramatically less expensive abroad—but also Asian workers pride themselves on paying attention to detail and turning out high-quality products.

Laura Lee witnessed this firsthand when, in 2003, execs at Polo Ralph Lauren’s Hong Kong office hired her away from PCCW to help them with strategic initiatives. She watched, listened and learned—and on her off time amass traveled far and wide to find suppliers for her own line of pocketbooks.

In addition to the high-end beads she found in Tokyo, she discovered an Australia supplier for the snakeskin in Sydney. In her travels, she also located crystals, appliqués, and clasps to complete the look of the elegant creation.

Laura Lee’s connections at Ralph Lauren, as well as a family friend, led her to Timbacc International—a seven-factory operation based in Xien-Du, which
produces a variety of beaded products including evening gowns for Yves
St. Laurent.

“It was harder than I thought it would be to find a factory that would produce my bags,” she admits. “Although the Chinese are trying to be more modern, it is still a very traditional, male-dominated society. At the factories owned by men, no one would even return my calls. But a husband and wife team owns Timbacc, and the wife really runs the show.

Laura Lee had seamstresses there make enough bags to fill orders for about a year. By the fall of 2005, she was ready to peddle her purses. That December, she moved back to the U.S. so she could focus on getting her handbags into tony U.S. stores. Her first stop: Henri Bendel’s in New York City. As luck would have it the buyer was Foster Chang, a man of Asian decent. “He not only liked the quality and design of my bags, but appreciated that they were manufactured in China,” Laura Lee explains.

Chang set up a trunk show for her the week before Christmas, and Laura Lee sold two-dozen bags. It gave her the confidence to knock on more department store doors and today Laura Lee Designs—which range from $250 to $700—are sold internationally in Spain, Australia and the U.K. Nationally, they can be found at Bloomingdale’s, Fred Segal, the Ritz-Carlton gift shops, and tony boutiques from Los Angeles to Miami including Terri & Kate Clothier in Great Falls.

“I constantly have people telling me I need to meet someone who creates something special,” says Terri Parent, owner of Terri & Kate Clothier. “The work doesn’t always hold up to the praise—but that wasn’t the case with Laura Lee’s handbags. They are works of art. It’s the perfect accessory for a black suit or elegant evening down. You carry it, walk into a room—and you just stand out.”

That’s exactly what designers in Hollywood thought when they saw a sample of the bags. In fact, in a 2006 episode of Desperate Housewives, actress Eva Longoria’s character Gabrielle Solis carried a Laura Lee handbag—and the show’s costume designers made an outfit to match.

Soon after, organizers of the March 2007 Oscar Wilde pre-Oscar party called Laura Lee to order six of her purses to auction off to celebrities, and invited Williams to the gala.

“Now that was amazing,” admits Laura Lee. “I realize my bags aren’t for everyone, but the women who buy them are confident, and pride themselves on being fashionable, original, and making a statement. I like that in a woman, and want to encourage more ladies to stand out in a crowd and be recognized.”

For more information,visit www.lauraleedesigns.com.

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"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.

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