The interlocking "L" and "V" imprinted on the leather of Louis Vuitton bags are instantly recognizable both to those who can afford to spend thousands of dollars on a handbag and to those who wish they could. For many, that recognition is the reason a Louis Vuitton handbag — or a Fendi or a Gucci or a Henri Bendel — is desirable. For years, it has been an assertion of status, achievement and wealth.
With their bespoke handbag start-up 1 Atelier, two fashion industry veterans, Stephanie Sarka and Frank Zambrelli, are betting that the definition of luxury is evolving, especially for the younger generation.
"When you walk into a room and seven women are wearing your $3,000 handbag, what's rare about that? What's luxurious about something that everyone has? It's not luxurious anymore," says co-founder and creative director Zambrelli.
"[The bag] might be beautifully made and expensive, but it's no longer luxurious. You've ruined it. And I think we've ruined it, as an industry."
Zambrelli has reason to know: He has spent his entire career in luxury accessories. His first job out of the Fashion Institute of Technology was with Chanel under Karl Lagerfeld. He went on to work at Cole Haan under John Varvatos and then he launched Coach's footwear line.
It was at Coach that he met Sarka, a co-founder and the CEO of 1 Atelier.
Sarka started her professional life at Goldman Sachs and got her MBA at Harvard. She worked at Coach for seven years and launched GoTo, an early Internet start-up which grew to $1 billion in revenue in four years and went public in 1999. Since then, she has been an advisor and investor in numerous start-ups.
She's also become the kind of customer targeted by 1 Atelier.
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"At a point in your life, you get confident enough that you want your items to be a personal statement, not the statement of someone else's view of a lifestyle. Clearly, in the beginning, your first job or your first major paycheck, you are jumping onto borrowed interest. You want to be like those people in the Gucci ad," says Sarka.
"It just gives you a feeling of being someone else's billboard, and that's an uncomfortable feeling."
To appeal to this new, confident customer, Sarka and Zambrelli raised $1.5 million in seed funding and launched 1 Atelier in October 2016. They've drawn on Sarka's technological background and Zambrelli's industry expertise.
Customers design their own handbags from a selection of cuts and materials and the bags, which cost anywhere from $295 to $8,500 a piece, are handmade in 1 Atelier's one-room factory, studio, showroom and office in midtown Manhattan.
A bag takes a master craftsman between six and 12 hours of labor to make. Along the way, 1 Atelier sends the customer personal messages with updates and photos of the bag in process.
21 days after placing an order, the customer receives her bag.
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Handbag makers like Mon Purse and Laudi Vidni also offer design-your-own handbag services but Zambrelli maintains that his decades of experience in luxury accessories and his direct, personal relationships with premium leather tanneries, primarily in Italy, give his products an edge.
Since October, 1 Atelier has sold thousands of bags, and more than a quarter of customers came back to buy a second bag, the company reports. Although the founders declined to share specific revenue numbers, they say that they've been growing steadily and their goal is to continue to grow.
They also say that they should be able to scale their business in much the same way as luxury cars.
"Growing one-offs is really what the car industry does, so we already have a precedent for us. Cars that go down the line of a factory are not all black or not all white or not all red. Every single car has an order. Somebody has picked out all of those materials and really this works the same way," says Zambrelli. "Lots of people working across silhouette, or material or series of elements that naturally go together in a manufacturing sense.
"So there is really an infinite possibility in terms of scaling."
Even as 1 Atelier scales, though, there are plenty of designs for customers to discover. The fashionistas are impressed with the creativity of their customers.
Sarka and Zambrelli say they've figured there are a "quadrillion" different purses customers could design on the platform, mathematically speaking. "It means you will never walk into a room and see your bag," says Zambrelli. "Which is the whole point."