Homegrown Handbags

For a long time, handbag shopping in Shanghai has meant a trip to a fake market to pick up a good quality or cheap (rarely are they both) rip-off designer bag. For those looking for something a little more original, Shanghai’s burgeoning independent design scene is producing a crop of innovative handbag designers, offering a range of socially aware and super stylish accessories.



Handmade in Cambodia from upcycled tarpaulin sacks, SOMOS is a socially aware enterprise supporting craftspeople in a developing country – but that’s hardly the whole story for the two-year-old, Shanghai-based brand.

Founders Alasdair Connell and Tatiana Gomez are trying to balance quality, design, moneymaking and doing the right thing with their brand, and thus far have managed to juggle these – at times conflicting – interests for their fledgling label.

“We started out very casually and we weren’t tremendously savvy business people, but we tried to observe what other people were doing well and tried to introduce something totally different here”, Connell said.

“I don’t think customers are going to buy more than one bag from us because the materials are recycled, or because it’s supporting developing business in Cambodia. It’s the cultural connection and this textural element that the bags have which makes them stand out and makes people go for them”.

After abandoning London’s dismal job market for the bright lights of Shanghai in 2010, a trip to Cambodia would lead to more than the pair had bargained for.

A chance encounter with a local woman using tarpaulin sacks – previously containing fish food and concrete, among other things – to make bags at a small tourist shop lead to the creation of SOMOS.

The pair was encouraged to take the plunge with their own brand, at least in part, because of the entrepreneurial spirit in Shanghai’s air, where it was not unusual for them to meet other expats with “Rockefeller-like” stories of starting up a new company and finding success with little in the way of capital or experience.

“In the UK, it felt like business was something or people with money. Here it felt like all you needed was an idea and something to set you apart”, Connell explained.

With a product line including wallets and iPhone covers (RMB 100), handbags and laptop bags (RMB 200 to RMB 300) and sports bags (RMB 350 and up), SOMOS is now expanding beyond its original, Southeast Asian sourced materials, to include products locally-made with recycled Chinese materials, as well as locally-sourced, patterned fabrics.

Web: www.somosdesign.net



This brand is the brainchild of Indonesian expat, and soon to be mother-oftwins, Rinnie Huang. Though Mozaik started life as a hobby, it has since grown to be a business with major ambitions. “In the beginning it was only for fun. But I really liked it, so last year I got serious and started hiring people”, Huang explained.

“My goal is to have a $10 million revenue company, but I’m still writing my business plan”.

Huang’s first collections, featuring exotic materials sourced from and made in her homeland, have certainly won the brand some fans, and now Mozaik is expanding into new materials, including woven leaves and traditional Indonesian textiles.

“I visited these small villages that make this by hand and I thought it was quite cool, you know, so we started playing around with a prototype”, she said, showing off her new designs.

Prices vary from RMB 650 for traditional fabric clutch, up to more than RMB 5000 for the large-sized snakeskin satchels.

Though the response has been positive and a steady stream of retailers in Shanghai and Beijing have started stocking the brand, part of the challenge for Mozaik, as for many local, independent brands, is to set itself apart and at the same time, make sure local consumers understand what they are trying to achieve.

“Our stuff is quite new and quite different, so we need to educate people about the products”, Huang said.

“I think of myself as a practical person, so I think a lot about people who are going to use the bags. Most of my bags are lightweight. My goal is to make something functional but lightweight”.

Web: www.themozaik.com


Designed by MaryH

Swedish-born and bred accessories designer, Mary Huynh, originally came to Shanghai to explore her Chinese ancestry, but the move also led her to follow her long-time passion for fashion and start her own brand, Designed by MaryH, in 2010.

Her first foray into the world of design was multi-use handbags that could be carried as a clutch, on the shoulder, or worn cross body, giving her customers the ability to cater one bag to different needs and occasions.

It would also set the scene for the brand, which still specialises in multiuse bags in a riot of colours.

“My Scandinavian background brings the minimal and the functional, while my Chinese background brings the colourful. I try to keep both cultures together”, Huynh explained to Talk, adding that she takes her own life and needs as inspiration when designing new products.

“I want to design things that I would like to use myself. I would like to stay with bags and shoes. If I do expand the product line, it will still be leatherrelated, I might make belts that match the bags or shoes, so people have the option to buy matching pieces if they want”.

Currently, Designed by MaryH has products that run the price spectrum from RMB 200, for small leather goods, up to RMB 2,000, for large convertible tote bags.

After four years in the business, Huynh is still focusing her operation on the Chinese market, which she has seenbrands since she first started out; in particular, responding to unique brand stories and a personal connection that’s much harder to cultivate with a largescale luxury label.

“I think [Chinese customers] are becoming more open to design in general, they want something that suits their own personal style. It’s nice for them to hear my personal, and the brand’s story, as well; I think they appreciate that kind of thing”, she said.

Though it presents its own set of unique challenges, Huynh is still excited by the opportunities on offer in Shanghai. Though success is far from guaranteed, the designer rates the energy of the city and the willingness of its people to try new things as major pluses for her local, independent brand.

“There are a lot of opportunities, people are open, but you really need to find the right partners. You need to have the right mentality and personality to succeed here. Not everyone can do it”, Huynh said.

“There are definitely enough customers here, you just have to reach them”.

Web: www.designedbymaryh.com