• Evolution of IHLE - Things happen how they're suppose to.
  • Author avatar
    Nancy Ihlefeld

Evolution of IHLE - Things happen how they're suppose to.

More than I can express, I so appreciate the interest and true excitement of my supporters, but sometimes insecurities kick in and I get embarrassed when people ask “How are the Bags coming? In stores yet..? Sell any online??”... And there’s not a whole lot to update them on since the last time they asked 3-6 months ago, or last year. I’ve worked on my business everyday since the last time they asked, and a million little developments have occurred; but no, not in stores yet and no sales because they still aren’t for sale. Then there are days where I catch the cigar purse that started this whole journey out of the corner of my eye(I keep it displayed for just this reason) and all insecurities step aside, and I get really tickled at how far I’ve come. Almost like I am my own parent watching myself blossom...

This whole IHLE BAG Journey started with this cigar purse I made for myself 5 years ago (pictured below). I took a cigar box, covered it in small black and white photos, put a lining inside with a little pocket, added a cute handle... and VOILA! I made it as my own momentum. My mother had just passed away, many of the photos were of her. As I carried it around I got more compliments on that thing, and often asked if I made them for others. So I made a few here and there, and friends kept telling me - “You should sell them!” I couldn’t wrap my head around why people wouldn’t just make them on their own. They were so easy to make!
     Over time I had a few people tell me “You need to figure out how to get the photos onto actual handbags.” “You Cigar Purse & First Handbagneed to appeal to the masses, not just the eccentric - not every woman will carry around a cigar purse, but they all love a handbag!” So I thought about it, went back and forth on how I could possibly put photos on a bag... Would I learn how to make a bag or use no-brand handbags and find a way to attach photos? How would you get photos onto a handbag…? print them on fabric, glue, sew..??? Somehow the idea of keeping them on wood, but attaching them to a bag came about, and I decided to learn how to make a handbag, because I wanted the whole creation to come from me. So now it was time for me to figure out how to make a handbag.
     Having never really sewn more than a few hems, I could operate a sewing machine but that was pretty much it. After tons of googling and youtubing, I finally created my very first handbag (pictured above). Not bad for never having done one…. but oh my, how they have evolved!! I was still far from being confident in selling them, but I was getting a lot of positive feedback on the idea. My crafty nature naturally took into consideration materials and aesthetics; but at this point the design of the handbag came second to the design and structure of the wood and its placement on the bag. I was all about the photos!

It’s funny how you learn and things evolve. I had gotten the idea pretty refined. The wood was no longer sewn on, it now snapped on and off so people could change out their photos. The wood pieces had become much smaller and there weren’t as many on each bag, making it MUCH less clunky. I was now in my first consignment shop and had sold a few, but was getting a little deflated at how much time and effort went into making them, and the demand wasn’t high enough to increase the price.
     I had come across an article on this woman Gina Alexander, who was known for her photo handbag. She was pretty big in LA, and lots of celebrities had one of her bags. Our concepts were very different. Her bags had one large main photo and it was printed onto the fabric, and her bags were of a much higher quality and had the look of a Gucci or MK bag. I realized I needed to get into the design and structure of my bag more. They needed to look more commercialized and not as “hand-made.” I also realized I needed exposure. I thought exposure would increase the demand, which would increase my target market, and boom-Sales!. Little did I realize how all over the place I was with my brand, my idea, and what I was trying to create. Amazing how much we live and learn.

I got more into the design part of the bag, learning more about sewing them and creating a bag that didn’t look like it was made in my living room. I had decided on my brand name, which is IHLE, and the leather flower that was on my very first bag was now on almost every style. It was becoming kind of a signature. My Aunt was out to eat one night and noticed a girl with what she thought was one of my bags. She approached her, and when confirmed said, “I knew it because of the flower!” Haha, How great is that!? Being aware of these tiny boasts of success are what keep me plugging along and wanting more!

The hardest part on this journey has been not being able to share it with my mom. She is where I inherited all my crafty-ness. I know she’s around more than I realize and has seen every step of my way, but I would give anything to see her face and hear her thoughts and advice. I often talk to her and ask for her help when I’m in a struggle, and I occasionally visit with a medium to let her really come through.
     The next direction I took with my bags took place because my mom came through so strongly in one of these sessions. My mom came through and told me I needed to take the photos off the bag, that my designs alone were enough. She said I needed to let my creativity go with the bags and let go of the pictures. The medium said my mom was very adamant. She even had the medium take me to Brahmin, which is a well established Handbag Designer Store that was just down the road from her because “MY MOM” wanted her to show me that this is what she envisioned for me. Their location consists of a storefront with a large manufacturing warehouse attached to the back of it.
     Needless to say, I  started to play around more with the design of the bag, and creating some without photos. I had trouble at first. I couldn’t help but feel like one of the mill. Why would someone want my bag, when it’s the same as every other bag, just a different color or design? I couldn’t come up with the answer to “What makes your bag different? Why should I buy yours instead of another?” And this was the question I got from every business mentor I sat with to pick their brain. They all told me when I could answer that question, I would be set. This always created a big sigh for me.

One day I got a call from my sister. My Brother in law had a connection to Grammy nominee, Blu Cantrell. His good friend was her manager at the time. Knowing it was a dream of mine to get my bags in front of celebrities, he said a meeting could be set up where I could show her my styles and see if she wanted one. I jumped at the opportunity! Any exposure is good exposure. I flew into Rhode Island as soon as they could set up the meeting. I had my sister go with me to keep me level headed. I sat semi-trembling with excitement and nerves as Blu Cantrell looked through what I had brought. She really liked my design and styles, but preferred one without photos on it. I offered to custom design one for her so she could have it exactly how she wanted. I took notes on her preferences, we shook hands, and I was off to create my first custom designed handbag for a client.
     At this time, I wasn’t working with leather yet, so I stepped up my game to really nice vinyl imitation leather that felt really nice to the touch. I played around with some visible stitching for the design, and created the first bag I was proud of without photos on it. Blu Cantrell loved it! I got a thank you call from both her and her manager, and a few months later my brother in law ran into them and she was carrying it! The fact that a total stranger, and a celebrity at that, was carrying my bag, tickled me pink!

After this, I really started to get into how the bag was being made, and what it was made out of. I would use leather scraps for accents but still wasn’t using leather to make the whole bag. I felt it was cruel, and thought vinyl imitation leather was more environmentally safe.
     I had gotten into using vintage findings on my bags, learning about and becoming obsessed with Antique Buttons. I fell in love with Batik fabric for my lining and stepped into the realm of leather when I learned how toxic the process of creating Vinyl was to the environment. I had stood away from leather because I felt it was cruel; however, when I started researching both avenues of 

The actual Handbag and Retail/Wholesale Industry was another entire area that I knew I needed some mentoring on. Getting into stores has been my ultimate goal, but every time I’d start to research what I needed to be ready, I’d get completely overwhelmed. I found a fantastic Business Coach, who is a maker of her own product, which has successfully been in over 1000 retail spaces for over 10 years. She now also teaches other makers how the Wholesale Industry works, and how to make it work for you. Taking her summer class at LBU answered so many of my questions and gave me a really good ground on what I need to do to be prepared.

When I take all of these little aspects that have come together over time, I realize it has given me the answer to the question that use to shake me to my core - “What makes your bag different? … I can now say with confidence that when you carry IHLE you are representing a brand that stands for workmanship, quality and pride. IHLE BAGS are carefully curated and very eclectic using bits and pieces of a life well lived. From embodying a namesake to the meaningful materials, each IHLE BAG has style, character and its own unique story. No two Bags are alike, just like you. IHLE represents that we are all a collection of our experiences and passions, and each of us has an amazing story to tell. Made from meaningful materials and vintage findings from around the world, yet designed and made with love and care right here in the United States.

I still have so much to learn but it is fun to look over all the growth thus far, and get a laugh out of the moments that stressed me out because I can now look back and realize things were happening how they were suppose to. Just like they will continue to do. I try to remember this every time I have a hold up that is out of my control. I look forward to being able to read over this in a year and recap once again at how far I’ve come. I plan to enjoy every step.

  • Author avatar
    Nancy Ihlefeld