Handbag designer, Michelle Vale, wears many hats. While she attributes her most important role to that of mother and wife, she is also a blogger and co-founder of Make it in Manhattan, a business initiative established to support the US fashion economy. In addition, she is invested in charitable efforts as an ambassador of the not-for-profit organization Rainbows, which provides grief support for children who have lost a parent due to death or divorce. But one thing at a time...I sat down with Michelle in the lobby of the Smythe Hotel in Tribeca where she proceeded to tell me about her past and present, followed by a tour of her factory in the Garment District (where most of the pictures below were taken). Michelle grew up in between New Jersey and New York City. Her family was well versed in fashion as her father was the Senior VP of a major denim brand and her mother owned her own boutique. While her upbringing fostered many positives, the ultimate divorce of her parents would prove telling of her future life choices--the first of which was her decision to get a degree in Human Development and Family Studies, as well as a masters in counseling. "The only thing I did know at the time of pursuing an education," she said, "was that I wanted to be a mom."While motherhood was always the ultimate goal, after her education she decided to change course. In 2000, single and 26, she left New Jersey for good and moved into New York City. Upon arrival she worked odd end jobs including sales in the finance industry, until she met her husband in 2001. In 2004 she was married and shortly after she would get her dream job--that of mother. After having her first child she decided she did not want to work if she didn't have to and if she was going to work it would have to be a creative outlet she could have control over. After all, for Michelle, "Having a successful family was especially important for me coming from a divorced family."One night before going out Michelle found herself discontent with the fit of her handbag and the way it looked with her jewelry. An episode of disgruntlement followed concluding with an epiphany that a more versatile handbag was in order. Seeing she had always been into fashion, her husband suggested Michelle create her own line of handbags. Although she didn't know the first thing about design or production she decided to create her own brand. "Well.." she remembers her husband saying, "We are going to invest our money somewhere. What better investment then my wife?"After all, since the time Michelle was little she was obsessed with fashion. She would walk around her classroom in cowboy boots and kids would poke fun playfully using her maiden name, which is, ironically, Bagley. "Hey 'Bags,'" they would say to Michelle, "Where is your horse?" To this day she is every sales person's nightmare. The kind of woman who has already drawn out an image of what she wants before she even walks in a store. So, ultimately, her discontent with various product offerings, her husband's admiration, and her love of fashion birthed another child in December of 2006: Michelle Vale Inc.This Michelle Vale Inc. love child would require a different kind of nurturing. The brand had to be two things: made in New York and versatile for the woman on the go. She would create luxury bags that are classic with a modern twist. By May 2007 her samples were done. In June, she pitched her line to fashion industry insiders, and at the end of June she got a call from Lucky Magazine wanting to name her Best New Designer for fall. Michelle got into stores right away after the one page piece ran in the Fall Fashion issue. Not long after, the economy tanked.Surviving in an industry that is already over saturated at a time when luxury spending is down is tough. Everyone kept pushing her to move her manufacturing from New York to China and go more contemporary. Not only did she maintain the brand's reputation for luxury and quality by introducing fabric totes at entry level pricing but Michelle stuck to her guns and continued to stress the importance of local manufacturing for economic implications, the green movement, and quality control. "I got a lot of pushback for stressing 'Made in New York'," Michelle continued, "Fashion industry insiders told me nobody cared about that element...Now it's all about 'Made in New York' and 'Made in the US.'"In fact this movement became so important to Michelle that she approached Director, James Belzer, with an idea of creating a documentary that would give a microscopic look at what happened before, during, and after fashion week regarding the production of samples, etc. The film highlights major role players in the fashion industry. Due to similar interests he of course agreed and the documentary is halfway through filming. According to Michelle's blog, which is part of her business initiative to support the US fashion economy, production in the Garment District in New York has dropped from a near 78% of the worlds apparel in the mid 1900's to a mere 3-5% present day. Michelle and James hope to increase awareness of the threat to local production through their documentary.So as a mother of two (with no nanny), a business owner, a philanthropist, and an activist Michelle went in quite the opposite direction in terms of her original career plan. Yet she still makes family her number one priority. "My family is at the core of who I am. If my marriage and family are not fairing well then what does anything that I am doing matter?" So she continues to improve and perfect both her product and her life inside and outside of work. As of now her plan for business is to stay in specialty stores and grow her e-commerce, maybe even opening her own stand alone store one day.
After meeting with Michelle and heading to her factory I had the chance to pull some of my favorite Michelle Vale product. Below are the pictures, all courtesy of Alex Mouganis Photography. One of my favorite characteristics of her bags is the removable gargoyle. She uses little branding so this allows her consumers to easily identify her bags. She chose the gargoyle because of it's vast presence on New York buildings and their ability to stave off evil. It is Michelle's way of letting her consumers know that her bags are made in New York without explicitly stating it.Look forward to coverage of the unfolding of her documentary, Make it in Manhattan,on this site and follow her on Facebook, her blog, or Twitter. You can also shop her bags online here. And make sure to "Support the Mission" (as she signs off on every blog post). How can you do this? It's simple: buy local!