Hosted in New York City, the Independent Handbag Designer Awards (IHDA) celebrated its 13th year gathering 40 finalists from all over the world for an unforgettable evening. Recognized as the only design competition for handbags in the world, it has been the harbinger of designer success stories, such as Aimee Kestenberg, Danielle Nicole, Adriana Castro, and Yilana Yepez, among others.
BELLA sat down with this year’s winner, as well as the competition’s founder, to talk all things style and the journey to—and from—IHDA…
Jeff Wan, Winner of the Independent Handbag Designer Awards
Known for his intricate designs and attention to detail, Jeffrey Wan You Sew is the latest winner at the Independent Handbag Designer Awards, recognized as BELLA’s 2019 Fan Favorite. Having established his self-titled handbag brand, Jeff Wan, in 2018, he has successfully merged the NYC lifestyle with his Mauritius culture. This is a reflection of years living and working in the Big Apple, and the importance of shedding light on his East African motherland, Mauritius, which is foreign to many.
Jeff originally wanted to become an architect in middle school, but while at Pratt Institute he switched his focus to industrial design, where he would have more opportunities for designing. This led to internships, apprenticeships, and assistant and associate positions at some of the most notorious fashion houses, including Diesel, DKNY, Kenneth Cole, Michael Kors, and Coach.
Jeff achieved an all-time career high while creating products like the Apple Watch strap launch for Coach, and Rexy the Coach Dino bag charms and puzzles. During his time working for major brands, he also learned how to compile market research, develop designs and construction techniques with manufacturing partners, and evaluate designs from the perspective of the consumer. It was the cross-department knowledge that would be key to Wan’s success as a team member and eventually entrepreneur.
Through his experiences, Jeff became inspired to fulfill his longtime goal of creating a self-owned label. “Having been in New York for eight years, every time I introduced myself, no one heard of Mauritius,” he says. He yearned to design a line that merged his lifestyle and culture. Jeff Wan, the brand, was created for the urban minimalist, animated with the colors and culture of Mauritius and shaped by structures in New York.
What makes this handbag line extra special, Jeff adds, is that “on an individual level, each of our pieces work to tell a unique story in which the ordinary becomes anything but.” His handbags blend imagination and utility in colorful and unexpected ways, celebrating ultra-premium design. All products are named in Mauritian Creole, and handmade from the finest Italian leather in New York’s Garment District, Italy, and Vietnam.
While still a young brand, Jeff knew this was the perfect year to participate in IHDA, which he had been following since taking accessories classes at Pratt Institute. He submitted the Le Morne Lunch Box, a handbag structured like a Chinese take-out box adorned with vibrant design details. Jeff says he got the idea for the handbag when a friend who was visiting wanted to order Chinese food for dinner, so they could eat directly out of the cardboard take-out box with chopsticks. It was a classic image the friend had of what it was like to live in NYC, cramped in a small apartment, sitting on the floor with nothing but good friends, light shining through the window, and disposable utensils that came complementary with your meal.
It was an image Jeff identified with when he first moved to New York, away from his family, to pursue his dream. “I had a ton of fear, but I was willing to put everything I had into pursuing my dreams of being a designer,” Jeff shares. The Le Morne Lunch Box is about that moment when someone feels his dreams are beginning to become a reality.
The bag became an instant classic for the brand, embodying the brand’s values and mission with a color block representing the flag of Mauritius: red, blue, yellow, and green. The hardware keeps it glamorous, and the multifunctional top-handle and detachable cross body strap make it versatile for the fashionista who goes straight from work to play mode.
“Our loyal fans fell in love, and I thought it was time the rest of the world did too,” Jeff says.
Emily Blumenthal, Founder of the Independent Handbag Designer Awards
Emily Blumenthal, known as the “Handbag Fairy Godmother,” is founder of the Independent Handbag Designer Awards. She launched the award program in 2007. With previous knowledge of the industry from having her own successful handbag line, teaching at the university level, and consulting with handbag designers, she knew there was a need for recognition. “There is never a shortage of people trying to create a handbag, so I had a sense this would work,” she says.
While IHDA has become a global phenomenon—thousands of applications are received each year from all over the world—the goal remains to discover new talent. “We find designers who are the creators of the next ‘It bag’ or will be the next creative director of a handbag brand or their own eponymous line,” says Emily.
In the process, designers get the opportunity to build a sense of community with many traveling to NYC for the first time. The day before the award show, Emily hosts a reception for the 40 finalists as a way to build relationships and connections, and create moments together that will change their lives regardless of whether they win or not.
Success didn’t come overnight for Emily, but the idea to work in the handbag industry sure did. While getting her MBA, she fell into designing through several late-night outings with her DJ boyfriend, in which she wondered why no one had ever created a handbag to hold onto when going out. When she shared her curiosity with her boyfriend he said, “Why don’t you do it?”
Years later, it is her experience that has allowed her to have a keen eye for the next “it bag” designer. “I can look at a bag and see what works and what doesn’t because I have been through the process so many times,” she says.
As IHDA continues to grow, Emily is inspired by the talented designers to keep it going. IHDA has morphed into a platform that highlights talent from all around the world, showcasing their take on the go-to handbag. “There is so much more to come,” says Emily, “you will just have to wait and see.”
IG + T: @HandbagDesigner
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