Art Deco enthusiast, murder mystery addict, avid traveller and cat lover, Ella McHugh launched her namesake handbag collection in 2011. After years of pouring over contracts, briefs, and depositions as a lawyer, she decided the time was right to pursue her love of design. Honing her skills at the Fashion Institute of Technology and interning at Mark Cross perfectly prepared her for the handbag designer’s world of exotic skins, architectural shapes, Italian craftsmanship and more.
What is it that fascinates you about handbags?
All my life, I’ve been captivated by accessories, and handbags. My grandmother, a renowned opera singer and surgeon, changed her handbag every time she went out. Growing up and watching her get ready, I was always most fascinated with what handbag she would select to make her outfit complete. To this day, I believe that handbags are statement pieces that transcend time – a functional window into a woman’s world.
You were a lawyer before becoming a fashion designer. Are there any similarities in the two careers?
My experience as a contract lawyer has proven to be a huge asset in my design career – a pleasant surprise. Both jobs require examining every little detail. While the details are different (and I’m sure you can guess which is more exciting), the end result is making sure everything is perfect. On a day-to-day basis, the handbag designer’s life is very different from that of a lawyer, which I am glad about.
Your leathers and exotic skins are stunning and tell a story. How do you select them each season?
Materials and fabric choice are my favorite parts of the design process. You can take the same silhouette, change the material and presto – you have a completely different style! So, I spend a great deal of time finding interesting materials I’ve never seen before and using them in a different way.
Has your approach to design evolved since you launched your collection?
Since I launched my collection, I’ve learned so much about the women who buy my handbags. I design with them in mind. I feel as though this has helped my refine my approach and create a cohesive collection.
Your handbags are named after influential women in your life. How does each shape relate to its namesake?
The handbags represent a range of people and personalities of the women who have supported me throughout my life, particularly in my career. Most of the designs really reminded me of a particular woman. A few of the women were shown designs and asked to choose the one they wanted as a namesake. My mother, Elizabeth, chose her handbag, and she got first dibs. She is an antiques dealer with impeccable taste. The doctor’s bag is named after Paula who is, not surprisingly, a doctor. The Lauren reminds me of my friend Lauren because I felt it was she something she would carry. She just earned her PhD in psychology. Then there’s my lawyer friend Monika, the sleek, clean lines of the silhouette remind me of her style.
Your designs seem to transcend occasions. In other words, they can easily be worn with jeans or black tie. How do you accomplish this in your designs?
The magic formula I constantly try to achieve in my collections is for the designs to be rooted in a classic Art Deco style and updated with luxurious materials. If I’ve done my job then this results in streamlined and sophisticated designs that lend themselves to a broad range of styles and occasions.
Is this a reflection of your lifestyle and how your handbags play into it?
As I already mentioned, I love handbags and accessories. I tend to have an every day bag that I carry all the time. When I go out for an occasion, the handbag is my statement piece and number one accessory.
Has the fashion business been what you expected?
Yes and no. Generally speaking people have been kind, and supportive which was a bit unexpected. For example, the legendary designer Kasper is an old family friend. He was a huge supporter and once he saw my handbag sketches, he encouraged me to launch my business. I knew he cared enough to tell me the truth, as he is not someone to just give out praise. Kasper has been incredibly kind supportive as have the people at Mark Cross, where I interned before launching my brand.
What do you always carry in your handbag?
Cards, keys, phone, and always, gold eye shadow!