A morning with University alum Emily Blumenthal, fashion’s handbag authority

Sunday, April 15, 2018 - 10:11pm

Emily Blumenthal

Emily Blumenthal Buy this photo
Courtesy of the Artist

It’s been just four days since my encounter with Emily Blumenthal, and I’ve already ordered new business cards.

“You should always have a business card, regardless,” she advised me from our table in Espresso Royale last Friday. A gold nameplate necklace reading “Handbag Designer” dangled from her neck. “No matter what.”

That’s just a mere glimpse into the tenacity and altruism that comprise Blumenthal’s character. Perhaps better known by her alter ego (and book title), Handbag Designer 101, the University alum is the founder of New York City’s Independent Handbag Designer Awards, a one-of-a-kind event dedicated to providing opportunities to upcoming handbag designers from around the globe.

“I had my handbag line, I had a licensing deal that was going south, but I had written a template for the book, ‘Handbag Designer 101,’ and I said to my agent: ‘When’s this book deal gonna happen?’” she said of the IHDA’s origins. “She said: ‘You don’t get a book deal just because you started a template for a book,’ and I said: ‘But I have all this time!’ So I said: OK, what about an awards show for handbag designers? Because people have tried to put handbags in a bucket of accessories, and anybody who knows anything about fashion or even retail, handbags are very much their own category ... I went around to the people who I had worked with in the past and started saying: ‘Would you be a part of this? We’d create a category around a specific qualification within handbags.’ And everyone said yes. It was funny.”

In conversation, Blumenthal referred to herself as “garmento offspring,” meaning her family hails from the garment center. According to her, growing up in that environment shaped her future in fashion.

It’s funny because I don’t think, necessarily, when you fall into something, it may not actually be your passion, but it seems to be your path,” she said. “I think once you fall upon that path you realize: ‘I think this is what I’m supposed to be doing because this might be what I’m good at.’ Now, are handbags, per say, what I’m good at? No. I wouldn’t say so. I never had formal training, but I can look at a handbag, I can identify its strengths, its weaknesses, I can see why it worked, why it won’t work, and then from there, after time, you really learn how to reverse engineer a process to see where the success will lie in the item itself. And I think that, and then in terms of teaching, entrepreneurship, that has become my passion.”

Blumenthal made it clear that the IHDA is grounded in high moral standards. It is not her intent to swindle young designers out of what little they have. She explained: “I, myself, was an independent designer for seven years, and after that is when I started the Awards. I had applied to different competitions, any way to get known, and it always bothered me that you had to pay to apply because I thought, first of all, then the authenticity comes up to be challenged. And then it comes down to, do I really have an opportunity to be discovered? There’s no pay for play. If we’re able to have someone be able to create a livelihood or have a passion or create a reason to be happy about this, and to do it smart so they feel that they have no regrets, then that’s a complete (return on investment) for us.”

Outside of her handbag-oriented work, Blumenthal has an extensive teacher’s résumé. She has taught at the Laboratory Institute of Merchandising, Parsons School of Design and the Fashion Institute of Technology, where she currently leads a class on entrepreneurship.

“Teaching, to me, considering how much I do already, is a lot like working out,” she said.

“You never really like it, much like as a student you don’t really feel like going. You know, whatever homework I give, I have to grade. But then at the end of class you feel so good that you’ve been able to have a dialogue with other people and really, at the end of the day, have an impact to try and, in my personal case, make sure if anybody is going to start a brand or business, that they have the opportunity to do it in a smart way. You have to look at everything you do in terms of giving back, even on a small scale, so if you’ve helped one student be able to look at things in a more analytical and strategic sense, then it was absolutely worth it. It’s totally a workout,” she laughed.

New York fashion schools are all well and good, but how can University students, who don’t have the luxury of attending class in America’s fashion mecca, break into the industry?

“Reach out to Michigan alum, first and foremost, and keep your communication as short as possible,” Blumenthal offered. “And do your homework. And whatever communication you have, don’t make it about yourself. Make it about what you can contribute.”

With a sly smile, she added: “Keep to yourself that you went to the best school that ever existed.”

Now would be a good time to mention that Blumenthal was once a staff member at The Daily, working within the advertising department. When I asked about her tenure, her eyes lit up.

“Working at The Daily was kind of the entire framework of my career,” she said. “I think learning to go door to door at such a young age and having to manage people’s businesses, and that people’s sales were tied to an ad that I was responsible for selling to them, I think that taught me early on that this is business, this is what it’s about. And it showed me I was good at it. I think you’re always trying to find something that you’re good at, and I realized, I can sell. There was something about working there that made you feel adult. And it made you feel grown up, and it made you feel like you were empowered and that you could make a difference, that you could really do something and that you had value. It was the first real validating experience I had as an adult, and for that I am eternally grateful.”

I am grateful to you, Emily, for being the reason I finally got off my butt and ordered those business cards.

For more information about the 2018 Independent Handbag Designer Awards, visit their website. Applications close April 28.