Wearable Art With Laura Lee’s Handbags
By ATFDC Contributor Dorie Hightower
Laura Lee handbags are a fusion of cultures, fabrics, beads and trimmings–a piece of wearable art. The intricately beaded, sparkly, colorful bags can go dressy or casual, and are popular among sophisticated trendsetters, socialites, college-aged women and even sports enthusiasts.
The company, based in Vienna, Virginia is the brainchild of Laura Lee Williams, who didn’t plan to become a handbag entrepreneur. Following graduation and degrees in economics and international studies from UCLA and Harvard, she held marketing positions with Fortune 500 companies such as Nike, Apple, American Express, and Ralph Lauren. “It was at Apple where she helped to create, improve, and distribute Apple’s “Power Book” product and developed an appreciation for strong branding and began to notice it everywhere.
What she also began to notice abroad was how the women in many of these cosmopolitan Asian and European cities dressed with a real sense of color and individual style. When Laura Lee accepted a position as VP of global business with Hong Kong’s Pacific Century CyberWorks (PCCW) in 1999, she started to express her own style and adorn her business clothes with colorful brooches and other accessories, she started thinking about a company of her own and settled on her new mission: To manufacture elegant hand-beaded handbags and sell them to a sophisticated clientele in the U.S. and abroad.
In 2003, Laura Lee was hired by Ralph Lauren’s Hong Kong office to help them with strategic initiatives. As she watched, listened and learned at a leading fashion company, she spent her time off researching and traveling to find suppliers for her own line of bags. In addition to the high-end beads she found in Tokyo, she discovered an Australia supplier for the snakeskin in Sydney, and located crystals, appliqués, and clasps to complete the look of the elegant creation.
To manufacture the pocketbooks, 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. By the fall of 2005, she was ready to start marketing her purses, and moved back to the U.S. so she could focus on getting her handbags into stylish stores in the U.S.
An initial trunk show at Henri Bendel in New York City gave her the confidence to knock on the doors of other department stores and boutiques, and today Laura Lee Designs (which retail from $250 to $700 and can take anywhere from a day and a half to three weeks to make) are sold internationally in Spain, Australia and the U.K. Nationally, they can be found at the Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons gift shops, and at upscale boutiques throughout the country. Laura Lee bags are part of the wardrobes the First Lady and other government officials, and have adorned the arms and outfits of celebs– including Allyn Rose–Miss DC 2012, Desperate Housewives’ Eva Longoria, Oscar winner Mira Sovino, and Touched by an Angel actress Roma Downey. Says one customer, “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.”
The bags are now proudly made in the USA. In addition to her passion about her designs and her business, Laura Lee Williams, the CEO and owner of the company, is extremely passionate helping others, and has been inspired to design handbags by/for Breast Cancer Research and Alzheimer’s Association.
“While my bags may not be for everyone, the women who buy them are confident, and pride themselves on being fashionable, original, and making a statement,” says Laura Lee. “I like that in a woman, and want to encourage more ladies to stand out in a crowd and be recognized. Even in jeans and a pullover, a woman can still show her fashion sense and make a statement.”
For more information, visit www.lauraleedesigns.com.
Dorie Hightower is a marketing and design consultant whose interest in fashion started at a young age–creating outfits for her dolls and progressing to making costumes for her high school’s theater productions. Dorie is also an expert knitter and has taught knitting and crochet classes at yarn shops throughout the DC area. She loves to explore craft shows, flea markets and vintage stores for unique wearables and when she’s not thinking about fashion, also enjoys cycling, singing, reading, cooking, and travel. Dorie is a partner in Weekend Boutique www.weekendboutique.org), a showcase for independent local designers. You can follow her on Twitter @Cabaretgirl.