Since so many media mavens and talking heads have headed to the West Coast for Oscar week, my lunch today with designer Michelle Vale was particularly timely. Just a few days ago, Michelle sent off several of her handbags to LaLa land in hopes that a certain Best Actress nominee will walk down the red carpet carrying one of her creations come Sunday night. If the actress, whose name for the moment is top secret (“But she’s a big Oscar person!”) utters Michelle’s name when she is asked the million dollar question of the night — “Who are you wearing?” — by E!’s Giuliana Rancic, that could mean very big things for the designer. “You never know what’s going to happen,” Michelle told me. “An actress can pick a dress and change her mind at the last minute. She can look in her suitcase and pick up something else. I won’t know until I see her on television.”
No stranger to the celebrity scene, Michelle’s collection of sophisticated, versatile designs that allow women to customize their bags by selecting a variety of different hardware and straps — all made right her in New York City — have been worn by Sarah Jessica Parker, Cameron Diaz, Kate Bosworth and Kate Beckinsale. Michelle also managed to score valuable television exposure on Gossip Girl, a favorite of fashionistas everywhere where posh Upper East Siders played by Blake Lively and Leighton Meester toted around the Amex Black cards in Michelle Vale handbags.
While fashion was part of Michelle’s DNA — dad was a senior vice president of Sasson Jeans, favored by aspiring disco divas everywhere in the 80s, and mom once owned a boutique, she never planned on going into the business as a career. “I used to go to Studio 54 with my father,” Michelle told me. “It was such a big part of my childhood that I wanted to something completely different, so I got a master’s in counseling children which, as it turns out, has come in handy in this business.” It was when the accidental designer got pregnant quickly after getting married that she decided she wanted to do something that allowed her to stay at home with her newborn son. “I literally started the business with my son in my lap,” she said.
With a “small amount of seed money” from her husband, Trevor Vale (whose father was one of the original Dave Clark Five), Michelle launched her business in the fall of 2007. Before she even had orders from retailers (she later sold at Nordstrom and Intermix), she pitched the fashion magazines as a “preemptive” move (“I wanted to make sure I got out there first with my idea”) and scored a huge PR hit when shopping bible Lucky magazine named her the Best New Designer for the fall season. Since then, a steady stream of accolades have followed. In 2010, she received the Independent Handbag Designer Award. Last month, she was a finalist at The Fashion Group International’s Rising Star Awards in the accessory category for her luxurious bags (which range from $195 for a small pouch to $1,000 and up for bags in exotic real skins).
These days it’s her signature tote, the Balancé (SJP is a fan), that is getting plenty of attention thanks to a clever idea that came to Michelle when she noticed an Audi that featured the same color leather she used on the tote. After a visit to her local dealer where she inquired about getting in touch with the car manufacturer’s marketing department, she picked up the phone and pitched the idea of designing bags for the company to coordinate with the cars. “What could be chicer than getting out of a car with a bag that is coordinated to the car’s leather interior?” Evidently, the execs at Audi, who happened to be looking for new ways in which to reach out to women, agreed and now Michelle Vale bags are sold on Audi’s website starting this month and featured in a story in the latest issue of their in-house magazine.
While the bags are currently being sold on Michelle’s website and specialty boutiques, she is currently in talks with investors so that Michelle Vale will have its own concept store — “some place for women to go and experience the brand.” Michelle envisions the store as something akin to a candy store where women can select all the different design elements they want to have in their own perfect handbag. “When a brand is asking a woman to spend a lot of money on a bag, I think she should get exactly what she wants — not have to think, I love this but I wish the chain was gold instead of silver or the strap was removable,” she explained. My customer is a very sophisticated woman with a sophisticated, versatile life. I want her to be able to come to my store and build the exact bag she wants.”
Michelle’s passion for fashion extends beyond her collection. She is the co-producer of the upcoming documentary Make It In Manhattan & the USA (with my good friend Mitria Di Giacomo), which will chronicle the story behind designers manufacturing their collections in New York, Miami and other locales. Loews Hotels is an executive producer and The Fashion Group International is a partner in the project scheduled to debut in September. Michelle also is a tireless blogger who posts about everything from food to music on her Tumblr blog, makeitinmanhattan. “I write about what inspires me no matter where a find it. Style is everywhere, you don’t have to look too far in this city to find something that really moves you.”
Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:
1. A collegiate-looking Jared Kushner with his dad and some ‘suits”
2. New York Jets owner Woody Johnson
3. Laurie Tisch
4. PR scion Steve Rubenstein
5. Stan Shuman
6. Dr. Gerald Imber, Jerry Della Femina, Andy Bergman and Michael Kramer
7. Author Pamela Keogh — long time no see! — with Adam Pincus, executive VP at Group M Entertainment and his wife writer Suzanne Myers
8. Agent Lynn Goldberg with, so we’re told some “famous authors”
9. Cathie Black (Loved the fab necklace!)
11. Producer Jane Rosenthal
12. Geraldine Laybourne
14. A bearded Dave Price and Rick Kaplan who greeted one another with bear hugs
15. IMG Artists’ Jerry Inzerillo
16. Maureen Reidy
17. Judy Price
18. PR maven Lisa Linden and Jeffrey Stewart
20. CNN’s Felicia Taylor and Ali Velshi
21. Quest‘s Chris Meigher
24. Digital Place Based Advertising Association CEO Barry Frey
25. Tom Goodman with Reader’s Digest EIC Liz Vaccariello, Susan Russ, VP Global Communications and Sabrina Strauss of Goodman Media
26. Andrew Blauner
27. Michelle Vale, Lisa Wells and yours truly
28. Scalamandre’s president Steven Stolman and Gillian Miniter
29. Bloomingdale’s former CEO Michael Gould with ex-Victoria’s Secret exec Robin Burns-McNeill
Diane Clehane is a contributor to FishbowlNY. Follow her on Twitter @DianeClehane. Please send comments and corrections on this column to LUNCH at MEDIABISTRO dot COM.