After attending law school and working at Citibank, Ella McHugh realized she was destined for a more creative and entrepreneurial career. So with the encouragement of her friends and family and knowledge gained at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, McHugh launched her own handbag collection.
Inspired by the glamorous Silver Screen Era, each of McHugh's designs feature a semi-precious stone and streamlined hardware. Made from quality leathers and exotic skins — ostrich, python and more — McHugh's designs are both glamorous and versatile.
We recently sat down with the lawyer-turned-designer to talk about her brand, her spring 2015 collection, her go-to handbag style and more. Keep reading to see our full interview and learn more about this emerging handbag brand.
1. How did you transition from lawyer to fashion designer? Why did you make the switch?
"Before law school, I worked at Citibank, and it was actually my boss there who suggested I go to law school. Then I came back and worked at Citi again, which was really good training for this business, but I didn't want to be a contract lawyer. I wanted to do something more entrepreneurial and creative. I've always loved handbags — my whole family has. My grandma always said you can tell a lot about a woman by the handbag she carries. She had tons and my mother had tons. Some people have a thing for shoes, I have a thing for handbags. I decided to give [a design career] a try and took some classes at FIT, and then I showed the designs to some people I knew in the fashion industry who I thought cared enough about me to tell me the truth. They thought [the designs] were great. Then I interned with Mark Cross, and I told them I was interested in starting my own brand, and they were happy to teach me. Then I went to Italy and found a factory and launched ahead. So far so good."
2. How has your legal/banking background helped you in your new career?
"I think all the contracts because it's helpful to be able to do that myself. From a practical perspective, a lot of that [business] stuff that I might have had to hire out, I do myself. On a broader level, the work was extremely detail oriented. That's been really helpful to orchestrate everything and keep everything together."
3. How would you describe the aesthetic of your brand? What type of girl do you see carrying your designs?
"Real simple shapes and sleek hardware and then modernize it with interesting materials and a mix of materials and also the stones. The handfeel I think a lot about. Art Deco and Hollywood glamour — I try to keep a little bit of that feeling and make it modern so it's not vintage per se. As far as what type of women, I really try to put enough of me into it, but also, I think that they're very adaptable to various situations, and people I would hope with the different styles and aesthetics would be able to incorporate them into their wardrobes."
4. Tell us about your spring 2015 collection and how it's different from the rest of your offering.
"I was really looking to do more color. And I used some new materials. The cork is a material I hadn't used before. With the shapes, I sort of took inspiration from some shapes that were already there and changed them up a little bit."
5. Each design in your collection is named after a strong woman who encouraged your design career — why did you decide to highlight them in this way?
"My whole experience in this industry so far has been really positive. The people around me have been really supportive of the whole idea of me changing my career and wanting to go off and do this. The people I've chosen to name the bags after have really supported me in various parts of my career, and I wanted to say thank you."
6. If you could see any celebrity carry one of your bags on the red carpet, who would it be and why?
"I'm really thrilled to see all sorts of people carry my bags. It's really rewarding to have this idea in your head and then open up this box and see it turned out right and then see someone buy it and carry it and make it part of their lives, that's really cool for me. From that perspective, I'm happy people in general are carrying them. For celebrities, Charlize Theron would be amazing, Reese Witherspoon, Robin Wright. But just seeing them out there is really fun."
7. What has been your proudest career moment so far?
"I think [seeing one of my bags on] the cover [of WWD] was really cool, but every couple weeks I have a proud moment where something happens — I get a new store that I was really excited about or an interview. All throughout the process I really try to step back and look at the pieces of it. There's obviously a larger plan, but starting a business is hard and one of the ways I decided to enjoy the process is to celebrate the small victories. Small victories build on each other. But the WWD cover was definitely really cool."
8. What has been the most challenging part of launching your brand?
"It's very different than what I'm used to. I'm used to working with a really large group of people on a large team. Here, I do a lot [of the work]. Juggling all the different roles and keeping the production on track and keeping everything together is challenging."
9. What's one handbag style you think every girl should have in her collection and why?
"I think a good clutch. There's so many different ways to style it. That's my number one."
10. What items do you carry in your handbag at all times?
"I carry a lot of stuff in my day bag. If I'm going out, obviously I have my cell phone, my cards, keys, and I almost always have gold eyeshadow. A little touch up never hurts."