Web Exclusives: Alumni Spotlight

Kaufmann with one of her creations.

September 10, 2003:
In the bag
Laurie Kaufmann '99 creates trendy purses

In fashionable circles, when Daily Candy (the Website for all things chic) anoints you the next big thing, you're instantaneously huge. At least that's what Laurie Kaufmann '99 found when her handbag company, Lorelei, made the Daily Candy "It" list. That very day 67,000 hipsters clicked onto her Web site to check out the new must-have handbags.

What they discovered at www.loreleinyc.com was Kaufmann's well-designed collection of adorable purses and make-up cases, made of sumptuously touchable leathers and elegantly-patterned plastics. For Kaufmann, who opened her business last fall, it's been an incredibly busy and creatively satisfying enterprise that started with a simple passion for handbags and became a burgeoning business. According to Kaufmann family lore, Laurie's grandmother started calling her "the bag lady" when she was just three, because even then, she'd run around carrying several of them simultaneously. (We assume this was the reason, and not that Grandma thought little Laurie a no-good-ne'er-do-well.)

After graduating from Princeton, Kaufmann took some summer courses at Fashion Institute of Technology, and then landed an internship at Calvin Klein in the public relations department. At Calvin Klein, she met Sara Dennis '87 who, Kaufmann says, took her under her wing. Dennis secured her a full time job at the company, and she worked there for the next two years. But Kaufmann realized that she wanted to be designing as opposed to working in a more tangential capacity of the fashion industry.

So she left Calvin Klein and headed back to F.I.T. for its one-year accessory design degree program. Before she enrolled, she spent the summer learning how to sew and started making her first handbags. When friends and former colleagues saw the bags, they immediately began asking if they could buy them.

At the end of her year at F.I.T., Laurie's final collection of purses—inspired by Janis Joplin—won the award for "best handbag design" in the Student Design Contest sponsored by Elle magazine and the Accessories Council. Kaufmann says that winning the award gave her the confidence that this was something she "really could do," and creating a company, "was something that really could work."

But though Kaufmann said she learned how to design at FIT, she still needed to figure out elements like production, branding, and delivery before she could start her business. "Production was the biggest hurdle," Kaufmann admits, but now that she's found New York-based factories to handle her orders, has converted her bedroom into an office, and set up a Web site through which her bags can be ordered, things have started running smoothly. Now, it seems her biggest problem is trying to ship all the incoming orders from boutiques and individuals as far away as Tokyo.

In December, Kaufmann's handbags will be featured in an event run in conjunction with the National Museum of Women in the Arts, in Washington D.C., for its exhibit "Enterprising Women: 250 Years of Women in Business," featuring artists who have turned their work into a significant business. With Kaufmann's creativity, intelligence, and beautiful aesthetic sense, no doubt she'll make bags of money for years to come.

By Robin Epstein '95

Robin Epstein is a writer based in New York.