Handbag Accents

Handbag Designer Gris Paris Fashionables
By Cecilie Rohweder, WSJ 10/13/05

Few of the spectators who will be lining the catwalk at the Celine fashion show here today have heard of Guido Boragno. He wonít take a runway bow or post with the models, but Mr. Boragno is one of the hottest items in the business today-a handbag designer.

Celine "doctor's style" brown handbag with metal ornaments.

The 36-year-oldís previous jobs include stints at Romeo Gigli and Prada Group NV, where he designed leather goods for both the Prada Sport and Jil Sander brands. As the new leather-goods designer at Celine, a unit of LVMH MoŽt Henessy Louis Vuitton SA, Mr. Boragno is in charge of sustaining the chic of the brandís bags, which account for 60% of total sales, sell for up to $11,000 apiece and have adorned the arms of Madonna and Sarah Jessica Parker.

"I feel the weight of the responsibility," the German-Italian designer said one morning last week, as he cradled in his lap his first stab at a hit handbag for Celine: a large, slouchy, rectangular purse resembling a doctorís bag. 

"New jobs are always a challenge, and this one is definitely a challenge for me."

Accessoreis creators like Mr. Boragno are playing an increasingly crucial role in the luxury-goods industry. As discount chains sell more-fashionable and high-quality garments, designer clothes are losing part of their distinction, but a luxury handbag still stands out. Many women who canít afford expensive designer apparel will still shell out for a purse. And bags fit women of every size and age.

"A bag is one of the few premium products where women will pay over-the-top prices, because there are fewer comparable products and because having the right bag is such a fashion statement," says Maureen Hinton, senior research analyst with retail consultants Verdict Research in London.

With profit margins well above those of apparel, accessories provide the lionís share of sales and profit for fashion heavyweights like LVMH and Gucci Group NV. Some houses, like Chanel and Hugo Boss, are opening stores that sell only accessories and are launching new items more frequently. Prada underscored the accessories trend at its fashion show in Milan last week, when several models pull roll-on suitcases down the runway.

But to meet this increasing appetite, industry executives say, fashion houses need more specialized designers. Salaries vary widely. Smaller houses with limited budgets sometimes pay only $60,000 while a star accessories designer at a top-notch fashion house can make up to $1.8 million.

"If I had to give advice to a young designer, I would tell them to get into accessories," says Floriane de Saint Pierre, a Paris headhunter who specializes in the luxury-goods industry. The fashon housesí demand for talented accessories makers is so strong that she declines to do searches for new clients, to give existing clients first crack at talent.

Mr. Boragnoís career offers a glilmpse of this little-known crowd of professional accessories designers. They toil in relatively unglamorous corner of large fashion firms, move more freely between companies than the more-famous clothing designers and sometimes work as consultants for several labels at once. Celineís accessories operation also shows how designers and marketers are working ever more closely toghether in the quest to churn out hit bags.

Celine has a lot riding on its new handbag man. The 60-year-old brand is in the middle of a turnaround after it "completely missed the 1990s," says its president and chief executive officer, Jean-Marc Loubier. It recently parted with two design chiefs: American Michael Kors, who resigned in 2004, and his successor, Italyís Roberto Menichetti, who left this summer. Under Mr. Kors, Celine had a handbag hit, the Boogie bag, which still sells at its stores. Along with Mr. Boragno, Celine hired a new creative director, Ivana Omazic, who will be his boss. Mr. Boragno and Celine declined to say how much the bag designer is earning.

A soft-spoken man with rectangular horn-rim glasses, Mr. Boragno says he fell for fashon as a teenager in Oldenburg, a town in northern Germany where he grew up with his German mother and Italian father. His mother subscribed to Vogue; Mr. Boragno devoured each issue and eventually left to study clothing design in Italy. But it wasnít until he joined Prada in 2000 that he found his calling as a bag creator. "I suddenly realized that doing bags came a lot more easily to me" than clothing, he says. "Some people are good at languages, others like math. For me, itís bags."

For the spring of 2003, Mr. Boragno created a half-moon-shaped bag covered with small pockets that the companyís Jil Sander brand used in its fall advertising campaign and reissued for several seasons afterward. "It was one of the best-selling handbags Jil Sander ever made," says Petra Radimersky, responsible for Jil Sanderís accessories business.

But Mr. Boragno found it tough to work for two bosses-Ms. Sander, who has since left the company that bears her name, and Prada itself. In November 2004, after a headhunter called, Mr. Boragno met with Celineís Mr. Loubier.

The Celine CEO says he liked that Mr. Boragno had read up on Celineís history and brought sketches. Most importantly, the designer convinced Mr. Loubier that he liked making bags rather than clothes-even including the mundane, technical and marketing parts of the process.

In the three months it takes to make a bag from the first sketch to the finished product, Mr. Boragno meets about four times with Mr. Loubier, who takes an interest in every bag made. Whatís more, Sophie Brocart, the director of leather goods and accessories, and several product managers are involved in every step of a bagís development.

In his small office, Mr. Boragno shows off what he considers to be his best shot at a hit-the doctorís bag. On a large pin board, rough sketches, fine pencil drawings, technical representations and colorful leather scraps map its birth. Mr. Boragno drew the first sketch of the doctorís bag in July, during his first week at Celine. His idea was a bag that was both soft and structured, displaying the Celine logo.

Ms. Brocart, the director of leather goods and accessories, had several concerns. The big bag would look best on tall women, which would require Mr. Boragno to create additional, smaller versions for smaller shoppers. "I told Guido, not all women have a tall modelís figure," she says.

Offering several versions would also allow Celine to offer some cheaper versions of the $1,200 bag. Ms. Borcart also felt that the logo, embossed on round metal plates, made the bag look too flashy. And she disliked a set of four rectangular leather patches stitched underneath the handles.

Mr. Boragno went back to work. When the bag hits then runway today, the plate with the logo will be covered by leather. The patches, now connected to the handles, will be thinner, with rounded corners.

Mr. Boragnoís doctorís bag is now officially called Dorine. The designer said he hasnít minded the business sideís close involvement in his creations. "Many designers expect to be treated like a prima donna," says Mr. Boragno, recalling his interview with Mr. Loubier. "The challenge is to get [a bag] to the customer. For that you need cooperation with the business side."

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