One size fits all. That is the beauty of handbag design.
Clothing designers must take into account all the variables that make up the female body: height, weight and the size of hips, waist and bust.
“But handbags are much easier, as far as sizes go,” says Devinder Singh, who founded the K.C. Malhan line of beaded, embroidered handbags seven years ago.
The line now sells in stores as diverse as Bergdorf Goodman and Forever 21. Eye-catching and affordable, the bags also are proving popular in boutiques as far afield as the Caribbean, Bermuda, Italy and Japan.
“They're unusual. They're not like every other beaded bag,” says Bijou Rierson, who carries a selection in Bijou's, her Orlando boutique. “They work for day or evening. A little beaded clutch can take jeans and a white shirt anywhere.”
Apart from the size issue, “We design handbags using all the apparel concepts — fabric, silhouette, detailing,” says Singh, 42. “Those things are as important in a handbag as in a jacket or dress.”
He knows plenty about jacket and dress design. He sold both in Originals, a chic boutique he owned in Winter Park, Fla., in the 1990s. But selling fashion didn't satisfy his creative urges. For that, he followed a family tradition. He started designing handbags.
“My parents manufacture leather basics — wallets, bags — so the framework was already there for me,” he says.
He found no inspiration in leather, however. Fabric, color, beads and sequins are his metier. Nor was he interested in basics. The latest trends are more to his taste.
Fashion handbags, he decided, would be his forte.
“I feel like a handbag is such an important accessory. It can say so much about a person,” he says. “Also, it's an interesting challenge to work on a small canvas, but also make it functional.”
It took about 18 months “to get all my ducks in a row,” says Singh. With the help of his father and an uncle, he drew up a business plan and assembled about 150 skilled workers in his native India, and later in China, to make, bead and embroider his designs.
“It keeps me up at night,” he says. “I speak to the guys over there almost every day. With the time difference, I'm calling at about 2 a.m.”
Using pencil, paper and a computer, Singh does his designing in an Orlando warehouse, which doubles as his distribution center. He chooses his seasonal themes, patterns and colors in collaboration with Jessica Singh, his wife of four years.
“We design to coordinate and complement the clothing trends. I'm also influenced by home furnishings,” says Jessica, 35.
“But we don't follow every trend,” adds her husband. “We're trying to build a brand. Our stuff looks like our stuff, nobody else's. Often a design that sells best has nothing to do with the trends.”
His best-selling design, which he regularly reworks in different colors, has nothing to do with the latest fashions. Covered with sequins and trimmed with tiny faux pearls, “It's just very cute,” he says.
Initially, his designs had an ethnic flavor, reflecting his Indian heritage.
“But I had to let go of my safety net. I can do India in my sleep,” says Singh. “Now it's about our influences growing up in America, in Florida. There's a touch of pop, a touch of the tropics. We read a lot of art books, go to exhibitions.”
The work of French couturier Paul Poiret, which the couple recently viewed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, has infused a touch of art nouveau into their latest collection.
But two of Singh's best-selling designs have been in the line since its inception. The shapes remain constant — a rectangular clutch and a handbag shaped like a football. But the surface ornamentation changes dramatically every season.
The K.C. Malhan creations are reasonably priced: $10 for a beaded coin purse, $24 for a small sequined clutch, $48-$110 for handbags.
“Good design can be affordable,” says Singh. “It doesn't need to be an ‘it' bag with a designer label to be cute.”
What's in a name? A lot of family history, says Devinder Singh, designer of the K.C. Malhan line of handbags.
“My grandmother's name was Krishna, and my grandfather's name was Charan. Our family name is Malhan,” he says.
The line's signature shape is an angular baguette handbag with triangular closure flap.
His most successful design is the Jassa. It features an intricate, ethnic-influenced, geometric pattern of wood and glass beads in natural shades such as pewter and bronze. It is named for Jassa Singh, his 3-year-old son.