When I ask Emily Blumenthal to tell me how the germ of her idea for an annual awards event for handbag designers came about, she laughs.
“Germ, that’s a good name for it,” she says in our recent interview. “It has taken over.”
In a good way, of course.
The Fifth Annual Independent Handbag Designer Awards will be happening in New York next month and for the second year in a row the event is sponsored by InStyle magazine. Quite a coup, yes?
“Yes!” Blumenthal says. “I knew I had to get a media sponsor. I started talking to InStyle when I started the awards.”
In fact, it took three years of persistence before she got the approval e-mail that made her whoop for joy.
"Every meeting we have with them, I’m grateful," she says. "I don’t take it for granted. They’ve taken this on with such passion."
You might say this one little piece of Blumenthal’s story is a microcosm for how her career has gone thanks to education, determination and boundless energy that comes across the moment you meet her. One story leads to another and then an offshoot story and then another. There is an undergraduate degree in Russian and Spanish at the University of Michigan, an MBA from Fordham, and a whole lot of work and hustle in between.
You get the idea. This is a woman with business acumen who is not afraid to knock on doors.
This handbag event, her brainchild, keeps growing. There are nine categories, including "Audience Favorite" where anyone can vote (starting May 16), and the winner gets to sell nationally and be in the September issue of InStyle. Last year more than 200,000 people voted for the winner. This year there are 1,200-plus applicants from around the globe, astounding considering this is a completely organic process; it simply went viral.
"We're taking small somebodies and giving them opportunities," Blumenthal says. "[What's gratifying are] the success stories we’ve got to show. Because of this event, there's a designer now in Saks. Another won for her senior thesis project. The list goes on and on."
The first handbag awards in 2007 drew approximately 300 applicants and 500 attendees. Blumenthal knew enough to hold it at a New York landmark, the Museum of the City of New York, and to have a Lifetime Achievement Award presented to Carlos Falchi.
"We had a whole retrospective," she said. "It all came together."
But the looming question is, how did Blumenthal get so hooked into the handbag designer community?
"Rebecca Weinberg put me on the map," she says of the stylist for "Sex and the City."
That's because Blumenthal designed the Yasmena, what she calls a wallet/wristlet fusion that you can hold on to. She not only created it, but packed, shipped and marketed it as well. Her due diligence resulted in, among other things, exposure on QVC, publicity in YM magazineand, yes, placement in Carrie Bradshaw's hand. For "Sex and the City" aficionados, it makes an appearance in the episode where Carrie and Aidan break up the second time.
Blumenthal got so entrenched in that world that the marketing of other people's work seemed like a natural.
"I would always ask, how is this going to lead to sales?" Blumenthal says. "A lot of people don’t know to design into a price point. They say, 'I don’t want to be the one who sells it.'"
Even now this seems to mystify Blumenthal, but I just laugh as she says it. She is describing artists, the kind who channel their creativity and don't have an ounce of marketing or business know how. Their art comes from a place that isn't about whether or not it will sell. They were born to create and they want to leave the rest to someone else with that kind of mind.
That is where Blumenthal comes in. She has found a niche that combines her sales expertise and her soup-to-nuts experience bringing the Yasmena to fruition. Blumenthal shines at the practical, the numbers on the page, the black and white. There is no 'aha moment' so much as an idea that is then studied and run through her analytical sales mind to gauge its viability in the market.
Her Web site, created to complement her forthcoming book called The Handbag Bible, has mass appeal because it not only showcases some of the designers submitting for the awards, but she features 'on the street' photos of women sporting the latest looks and a celebrity section showing some of the hot trends.
A mother of two, ages 3-1/2 and 1-1/2, Blumenthal also teaches Fashion Marketing at Parsons. She took at a turn at designing traditional handbags, but it "ate up" all her money and became more of a setback, if a learning experience. I ask her if she misses designing.
"Yes, but I’m much better off [doing what I'm doing]," she says. "My energies are better suited to this. Organically it's what it’s supposed to be. I knew I was meant to have my own business since age 17. It came down to, do I want to be a handbag designer or do I want to make money?"
In a market where it's difficult to stand out, Blumenthal is giving designers a chance. Her hunger to learn has sustained her and continues to do so.
"I plowed my way through and never got scared," she says.
And five years from now, this event she has created?
"It will be the Independent Spirit Awards of handbags," she says.
The germ continues to spread.
Nancy Colasurdo is a practicing life coach and freelance writer. Her Web site is www.nancola.com and you can follow her on Twitter @nancola. Please direct all questions/comments to FOXGamePlan@gmail.com.