“All my bags must be super functional,” says Canadian designer Ela Kowalewska, of her self-titled handbag collection, Ela. Luckily, the majority of those on the other side of the 31-year-old designer’s business would agree. Purses, the necessary evil of female accessories, are best served practical and pretty than too-small, hard-shelled, awkward, or complicatedly-zippered. You don’t need to decode the star of Ela’s collection, the acronymed M.I.L.C.K. clutch (money/ID/lipstick/cell/keys), to consider its functionality, either. At the reasonable price of $295 a pop, the clutch is an easy investment.
In such a colorful and crowded industry, it takes some serious ambition and talent to get noticed. Yet since her collection’s launch in 2010, the Ela bag has turned some important heads, including that of Jimmy Choo, who, after seeing her initial sketches and designs, gave her the final push she needed to begin her career. But it’s not just Ela’s keen aesthetic eye and minimalist designs that have propelled her success. There is a conscience behind the collection, too. Paying particular attention to upmarket, soft leather, and suede materials derived from Spain, the resulting clutches and totes are discernibly well-crafted.
While the clutches, hobo and weekend bags, have permeated Canadian hotspots like Holt Renfrew, the Narwhal Boutique, and TNT, the collection is currently only available stateside in Manhattan’s Annelore boutique, giving their online shop lots of exercise. Popping up on street style blogs, Instagram shots, and red carpets, the Ela bag has quickly become a favorite of fashionable women who appreciate that basic concepts and smashing colors can, as Ela suggests, “showcase rather than upstage the wearer.” From their home in Toronto, Ela and soon-to-be husband and business partner Martin Aldorsson gush about their burgeoning business and 2012 fall collection, with compliments to Sweden.
In the past you’ve worked with Hermes and Burberry, so when was it that you realized you wanted to channel your talents into bag design?
Ela: I worked at Hermes doing PR mostly, and then Burberry was when I started doing wholesale in handbags. I think the love affair started with Hermes and evolved from there. Working at a place like Hermes, where they really take quality and craftsmanship seriously was very inspiring. I’ve been involved with accessories for the past decade, but I think it was 3 years ago that I woke up and thought, I’m really ready to do this on my own.
Have you ever done pattern-making or design classes before, or did the design element just come naturally to you?
Ela: It has come quite naturally to me, and I actually self-taught myself how to pattern draw when it came to the Ela bag designs. I did have a bit of training in university. I went to Ryerson for fashion communication, and during the first year we had a fashion event where we learned pattern-drafting, so that helped a bit. But with Ela, it has all basically been self-taught. The way the bags are designed start with an idea in my head of how I want it to look. I’ll skip the whole drawing process and go directly to the paper because, you know, sometimes when you draw something and it looks beautiful and cool you can’t always recreate that.
So Ela bags always begin with a concept rather than a draft design.
Ela: Exactly. I also always have to try the bag out myself to make sure it is functional; all my bags have to be super functional. Also, you have to think of really innovative and creative ways to do a beautiful bag that won’t cost too much money to make individually, either.
Do you find that to be the most challenging part of the process—the cost effectiveness?
Ela: I think it is planning and cash flow. You always have to think very far in advance, how you project things and what production will look like, for instance. Cash flow is a big thing because without it, you really can’t move forward.
Martin: Everything that Ela does is pretty demanding. From drafting a pattern, to coming to a silhouette, to finding the right materials, to bringing stuff from Europe in a self sufficient and safe way. Everything she does will always be challenging. From an operations point of view, we spend the most time trying to figure out how to be really innovative and to do it in a way where we can have the best quality materials, and to figure out how to logistically and cost efficiently get it from the factory to Canada. From a marketing and sales perspective, it’s an ongoing battle to come up with creative and interesting angles on a weekly basis. We do a lot of celebrity sighting and we’re trying to break into that whole arena in the US; we’re currently working on doing shoots with the stores and doing trunk shows.
Aside from being engaged and happy, what is your business ethos like? Do you two seamlessly agree on everything?
Martin: We both work hard. Ela works really hard, I work, well, hard, I guess. But overall I think we are on the same page and we are working towards the same goals. But I think that from a work point of view, we agree on production and design ideas because we both have integrity.
Ela, you met Jimmy Choo in 2008. Has he thus far been your biggest source of motivation?
Ela: Yeah, well I think my main source of motivation and inspiration has been women like you and me. But, when I was living in London and moving back to Toronto, I was constantly thinking about doing my own design. A friend one day introduced me to Jimmy, and we had a discussion about my drawings and my passions. We went out for lunch and he saw my sketches and that was the last little push I needed. He thought I had good ideas and that’s sort of how this all came to be.
What is your favorite bag for this summer? Or do you find your bag taste changes from day to day?
Ela: I mean, I wear the M.I.L.C.K. clutch pretty consistently, but lately my favorite bag is the Lardy for nighttime and going out. It is a medium sized bag, good for a beach night or a dinner out. It’s double duty; it has a good handle but a strap as well, it can carry a larger load, and it’s still light. And my favorite color would be the black studded one.
Martin, what’s your favorite bag?
Martin: Sometimes , especially when I’m in Sweden and Europe I use the big weekend bag which most North Americans might see as too feminine for a guy, but it wears so well and it’s so comfortable and it’s unisex!
Tell me about your upcoming fall collection. How would you describe the color palette?
Ela: The fall collection is still quite fresh, even though the bags are fall and winter colors. We went back to the drawing board and added some bright colors, but still worked with leathers and older colors as well. We added some lizard, pop-up, lipstick, and graphite colors. And then we’re also coming out with this new texture for fall that we’ve been testing out. It’s a softer leather, and we’re doing it in mirror leather and in brighter colors, too. The cool factor is that there’s a bit of an edge to the bag but the materials are still good quality.
Do you find that Toronto is where you do your best creative thinking, or is it Sweden, or where your leather comes from in Spain?
Ela: We are so lucky that we are able to travel so often. It’s so nice to see what women are wearing in different cities and use that as a source of inspiration. Sometimes, no matter where I am, I’ll wake up in the morning and I will have had a dream of a bag I thought up and write it down right away. To be honest, the bag and the ideas are constantly coming to me. It’s all a humbling process. For leather, we go to a trade show twice a year, which is where we get a lot of our leather inspiration from Italy. They have beautiful shows there and so we tend to find most of our leather and hardware there. My inspiration comes from wherever I find myself when the dream strikes.
With you guys back and forth between Sweden so often, where do you think fashion and design is going right now in Sweden compared to, say, New York?
Martin: Sweden definitely has a signature aesthetic, it’s a very Nordic thing. Nothing over the top or outrageous. Southern Europeans will call it boring, but it’s very functional, and not in a Canadian, comfortable, way of being functional, but in a well-designed and well-made kind of way.
Aside from Annelore boutique, is there anywhere else we can find your bags in NY? Are you looking to branch out?
Ela: Yes, we are looking to branch out, very much. As of now, besides Annelore’s two locations in the Meatpacking District and Tribeca, we are looking to find other places that fit the Ela brand and where Ela girls would go to shop. What we were successful in doing in Toronto early on was to find stores like the Narwhal Boutique and TNT that women can shop at and appreciate Ela’s design, and we want to do something similar in New York. We really just entered the market in New York a few months ago, we’re still so fresh there, but the response has been really great so we’re going to just see where that leads us.
As such a young company you’ve been very successful. What is the 5 or 10 year plan for you two? Will you be looking to design other accessories, clothing, other kinds of bags?
Ela: It’s all a bit overwhelming, but we’re actually working on two new programs for Ela right now, one of them being based around smaller leather goods. We get a lot of requests for wallets, and other small leather accessories from women so we want to build on that demand. The other program is a line of silk scarves. We’ve been working on that a lot and we are putting our final touches on it right now so it should be launching quite shortly.
Martin: There is so much opportunity in North America and the U.S. for us right now. In terms of a 5 year plan, the way things have been going so far, that is, growing from a grassroots level and slowly making our mark in the US, the goal is to always stay true to the Ela brand and grow it in a healthy way and see ourselves in the US more. We’ve been successful, but we have to remember to walk before we run. We’re doing our first trade show in the US in September, and we’ll go from there.