Interview With Purse Designer Katherine Kwei

Lauren: How would you describe your personal style?

Katherine: If you had asked me this question ten years ago my answer would have been very different.  I think now that I’m a mother, my style is a lot more casual. I definitely don’t wear heels anymore and I like to wear clothes I can actually put in the washing machine and wash myself. So I don’t have huge dry cleaning bills all the time. Having said that, my bags have definitely become more fussy and less complicated. I’m trying to make them lighter because, for sure, [women] carry a lot of stuff in our bags. 

Lauren: What type of women does your brand try to reach?

Katherine: At the beginning when I started off my company, I wanted to reach out to women like my friends–working women, who still strive to be fashion-forward. They are pretty independent in the way they dress–never trend-driven. I think as the brand has evolved and time has gone by, they have become more sophisticated in a sense and a bit more feminine. The range is still very appealing. I have friends that buy bags for their teenage daughters, because they’re small, cute and whimsical; and then I also have older customers in their 50’s who appreciate that they’re so feminine and they’re different and not a mass brand and they’re unique. It’s a hard woman to target, but in general, it’s a woman who likes to have a very special bag: a feel-good bag.           

Lauren: Which bag in your collection most embodies your brand? 

Katherine: The first one that we ever did, which is kind of our signature. I called it the “donna knot.”  It has stripes on it that look like fringe and at the bottom it’s knotted. We had originally based that on the chinese eternity knot which was my inspiration. It’s something that is really special to me, so that’s really my iconic bag. We’ve evolved into a lot of other different styles but I do always try and keep some sort of weave in all of my bags. 

Lauren: When did you decide that you were finally going to go for it and start your own brand?

Katherine: When I left college, I did a couple of jobs not related to me at all–actually because of my parents, to please them. I went to Cornell, moved back to Hong Kong, and I started working with my family friend–who is kind of my mentor–who got a job at Louis Vuitton. He brought me in at the beginning to help out and then eventually I earned a position there.  

I did PR, and back then (around ‘97), it was still bags, no clothes, since Marc Jacobs was not there yet and when I first started at Louis Vuitton, we did this huge push where we actually went to China and to seven different big cities. We brought this huge exhibition from Paris in, ten people from the Parisian office, and then our whole 250 people crew team coming around, basically building this huge exhibition–we called it the China exhibition. It was basically a travelling museum of Vuitton bags, trying to educate the Chinese public about our product, since back then the forgeries were insane.  

When I was there doing that project, I just fell in love with the bags and learned how important it was–the quality, the craftsmanship, and just the know how of how to do it. When Marc Jacobs came, it blew up the company and made it into a whole different thing, and what he did which I found so interesting is that he took the whole classic bag, took it, made it pastel and patent leather, monochromatic, shiny, and embossed. I remember when he did the graffiti bag and spray painted on the monogram–which we all thought was crazy! Everyone just loved it. I found it so exciting that you could take something that’s very traditional and make it modern and relevant for the day at the time. So that’s kind of how I just really fell in love with the bags.  

I actually decided in 2001 I would do my own line.  I wanted to make them at less of a price point and really work with the leather and try to bring back the beauty of leather and make the bags more tactile and less precious. The bags are different today than what they were then.

Lauren: Is there any question you’ve always wished someone would ask you about your brand? 

Katherine: The main question that nobody really asks me is what my everyday go-to bag is and what my daytime and evening bags are. Right now I still do my totes in the day and my box clutches in the evening–especially the Donna style.

Lauren: What is it like having your pieces be worn by so many influential celebrities? Do you ever fangirl?

Katherine: It’s still very flattering, even seeing a stranger on the street with my bag.  But back then it was even more flattering. It was especially really exciting when they were first getting picked up because they were so different. You never know if something is going to hit or miss. It was very humbling and very flattering at the same time. One of my favorite moments was when Sienna Miller was wearing one of my bags. And at the time, Olivia Palermo was wearing my bags too.   

Lauren: Any particular challenge you faced in the past?  How did you get past it?

Katherine: This is such a hard industry now, and in the beginning you’re so focused on brand image and making sure everything’s pretty-your stationary, your packaging, etc. However, at the end of the day, my biggest challenge is trying to keep up and keep close to your customers.  Taylor Swift is a great example of that. It’s a very different world today with social media where she really has a fan base that believes she’s personally talking to them when she speaks. She does a very good job of giving them love and affection and I believe that’s a really big challenge for any brand–especially as small as mine–to have that opportunity and to really connect with your customers.  

We do a lot of trunk shows and I try and do a lot of appearances. It’s a little gesture but it goes a long way at the end of the day. It’s all about your customers, and if you can make that sort of personal connection I think that’s the most important. So, aside from the regular challenges of production, quality, etc. (everyone’s nightmare!) it’s all a big challenge.  

Lauren: Any advice for aspiring designers/business men and women in the fashion industry?

Katherine: Again, I think it’s so hard today-- I really do. I have two friends who are just now starting.  I think you just have to know exactly what’s coming. You have to have a lot of money to start off–some to blow and then some to cushion on. You have to really understand who you want to be selling to and then you have to put in that legwork and meet them and go there. All this production and stuff, that’s the aches that everyone’s going through.  Especially today, when you’re competing with brands like Zara that will knock off all the bags and all the clothes and all the shoes, you have to make sure you’re marketing to the right crowd.  

I don’t know if it has to be brought more into a home or a personal setting, but i think if you’re starting a company now, you have to be really really creative, like Rebecca Minkoff. Minkoff does really well with social media.  She took all these bloggers out to the Hamptons for a weekend one summer and did a whole thing around her bags. This is similar to what we did at Vuitton: we did the same thing with the press by taking them to China, to Tokyo–everyone does it. Obviously when you’re a little brand such grand gestures are not as realistic, but I think it’s that kind of concept. You can do something like Rebecca did and make your brand experience more intimate and meaningful.

Designer: Katherine Kwei

Interviewed by: Lauren Sobel
Interviewee: Katherine Kwei
Models: Joy Donaldson x Yaine Ellen
Photographer: Sam Trance
Stylist: Ashley Bao