So Clutch! Nneka Saran Talks Up Her Funky Handbags; Loves Rihanna's Risky Style
The native daughter of Petersburg, Virginia saw her creative ambitions for fashion early on. As a child she became crafty with hands-on projects which quickly became thrifting and making minor alterations to her clothes throughout high school and college. She even transferred to Virginia Commonwealth University from Hampton University to take some fashion classes that sparked her desire to learn the market. In 2004, after her mother bought her a sewing machine on a whim, the Philly-resident (at the time) decided to give her designing dreams a real shot! Jump to 2011 and several celebrities are anxiously grabbing up the diverse accessory! The Rebel, The Fever, The Solo and so many other designs have the ability to turn any ensemble into a fun 'fit. The colorful, funky-designed bags give instant visual gratification and are not for the faint of fashionable heart. You've got to own it, not just by purchasing it, but it's all in how you pull it off! VIBE Vixen spotted Nneka at a trunk show and had to get the skinny on how this gorgeous, cocoa-skinned designer started such an incredible line, how she runs a one-woman show and what she thinks every girl should be toting in their handbags! -Niki McGloster
VIBE Vixen: Can you tell me the back-story of how you got started and what sparked it?
Nneka Saran: I grew up always doing projects, I claim to get my creative bug through her because we were always doing everything, I loved doing school projects, it was my favorite thing to do in school. I’ve always been into making stuff, being creative basically. My mom always fostered that in me. I started out hand sewing doing pillows and doll clothes, but I never really got into seriously. I never took any classes or used a sewing machine. In high school, I used to go to thrift stores and kinda change stuff up, and in college the same thing. In college, I started this handmade clothing line, I didn’t have a lot of items, but I did little things here and there, mostly for me and friends. I didn’t sell anything at the time, again all by hand. I did alterations, I made little clothes, I did people’s hair; I always had little businesses where I charged people to do things for them. Anything to hit that creative bug. While I was in school I ended up interning with Kraft Foods which is where I ended up working a little bit after I got out of college. I went to Hampton for two years. I transferred after my sophomore year, so my junior and senior year I went to VCU in Richmond. I graduated from VCU with a marketing degree. When I went to Hampton I wanted to do fashion marketing, but they didn’t offer it, so I just ended up majoring in marketing. So when I transferred to VCU, they had a fashion department, so I ended up trying to do a couple classes. But in order to minor in it, I would’ve had to stay in school an extra semester and at the time I was like never mind. [laughs]
[Laughs] After graduating how hard was it to start your own fashion business, Nneka Saran?
One Christmas, in 2004, my parents bought me a sewing machine out of nowhere. I didn’t ask for one or anything, my mom just knew that I used to sew. She said, 'I got you a sewing machine.' I’m thinking in my head, Why did you get this for me? I’m not going to sit here and learn how to use it. I was always intimidated with the sewing machine. Then finally a couple months passed, I was sitting in my house, I was living in Philly at the time, and I went to the thrift store, found something that was kind of cute and decided to try to figure out how this machine works. I played around with it and ended up making one bag. It came out okay. I was thinking, this was kind of a cute, maybe I could do something a little different and see if people will buy them. So I said I’m going make 10 bags and see if people will buy them. So that’s what I did. I ended up making ten bags, and the next month I ended up going home for the week and ended up selling them to family and friends for $20 [per bag]. I ended up getting a couple [placed] in a store in the mall that my friend owned. From there, that’s when I had my “a-ha” moment that this could be something. Then I just started working on it on the side. My first celebrity was Vivica Fox and that was pretty much like a friend of a friend. Now that I think back to the bags that I did in the very beginning, I can’t believe I gave that to her now that I think back. The quality... [laughs]. I didn’t meet her personally; It was a mutual friend that ended up giving that to her, but she was the first person. Literally, after the first week [of being featured on Concrete Loop in 2007], I got about 10,000 hits on my MySpace page, just from that one feature. I got 100-200 emails from people ordering. I was inundated with orders, so I would go to work, come back home stay up until like 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning, pretty much doing everything. So that’s how it really got off.
What celeb wearing a handbag has been the most memorable to you?
I think the most memorable, which I don’t have a picture of her wearing it or anything, is Jennifer Lopez. I had a friend who had a friend who was very good friends with Jennifer Lopez. It was from him telling her about my bags, and she happened to go on my MySpace page. Jennifer saw it and basically requested a bag. To my knowledge she never wore, but she requested it. That was so huge to me, because most of the time I’ve been able to be in position where I can gift the person the bag myself. But to know that someone requested it, that was a really great thing.
Where do you draw the inspiration for your handbags?
Generally, I draw inspiration from everything. But, I really get inspired when I go to an actual fabric store or some kind of creative setting. Most of the time people ask me what’s my inspiration and sometimes I’ll have specific things, but most of the time I like people watching. I like seeing eclectic people, I like seeing people mix different things together, that kinda inspires me. In general, it’s when I get in the fabric stores and I have stuff around, ideas just start coming into my head. Literally, I‘ll scope the place out and see where my eyes stop and that’s my process is. I let it come to me.
You have such a high demand, do you have other people that help you or is it just you?
It’s really just me. In the past, I have had help. Now I have a little help, but it’s really just me. That’s a part of my whole growing process and figuring out how I’m going to get things done and to continue to grow. Of course, I can’t handle everything myself going forward. I’m a one-woman show for the most part. I have to do everything from making it, to promoting, doing the social networking, Facebook, Twitter--It’s time consuming.
Is this business your main lifeline or do you have another job?
When I started initially I definitely had another job. As of last year, I stepped out on faith to pursue this full time.
Do you think you’ll branch out from the handbags to make other accessories?
I want to get into funky baby bags [Ed note. She made her first bag after the time of the interview. Look!] and different things like that, also a line of home décor; I really love home decor. A cute line of dresses, specifically, just because I know the issues I have with finding different styles in abundance. I have recently thought of a line of cute dresses.
What handbag designer are you checking out or what bags do you like to rock?
Outside of mine I absolutely love Henri Bendel. I think they’re kind of comparative to mine because they’re nice, they’re clean but they’re a little funky. They’ll use the prints inside, the hardware and they're sturdy. Just the vibe of it; I’d buy the whole store if I could.
Funky is the word that fits your perfectly. Would you say your personal style is funky?
I’m not as funky per se in my personal style; I’m not super conservative either. But I think the cool thing about my bag is that it mirrors me. I may not have a printed pair of pants and a polka dotted shirt on, and a crazy hat on, but, I think you can have a funky style with your accessories, that’s the cool thing about accessories like my bag, jewelry, and necklaces and stuff. Because, you don’t have to have this wild and crazy wardrobe but you can funk it up with different pieces. So that’s what I tend to do more so. In general, I’m probably in jeans, a cute top, or a cute dress, flip flops, I do heels, but I don’t do them that often, because in college I felt like I wore them everyday and now I’m all about comfort.
What female celeb would you love to gift with a handbag?
My dream person would be Rihanna, all day! She’s such an individual. Like the funkyness of my bags and the things I use, she takes chances. She doesn’t mind rocking this with that; I think she’s the perfect fit for where she is in her career and her personal style. I just love it! I think she would totally fit with the Nneka Saran brand and the bags.
What are some must-haves that you think every girl should have in her bag or her clutch?
Must-have is definitely lip gloss and your phone because you never know. If you don’t have your jewelry on, you need to have that in your bag. I’m all about going out the house with at least something on your ears, so if they aren’t in your ears. have your accessories in your purse ready to put on your ears. IPod. I love my iPod! You pop in some music or listen to some inspirational stuff. Also maybe a pocket bible or something motivational on your iPod, or a booklet that you have that can keep you encouraged.
Nneka Saran's handbags are must-haves too! Why, you ask? Because VIBE Vixen said so--Shop HERE!