At the end of 2019, people and businesses alike were sitting down to review the year prior and make 2020 goals. Businesses are always up against many problems, not only at the start but throughout their entire existence, and while many plan for issues to arise, no one saw what was coming for 2020. In the past 6 months, we’ve seen some of our favorite restaurants and stores shutter, watched friends and family lose their jobs, seen companies that were just taking off come to a full halt, and probably all felt some form of financial stress over what has transpired. Small businesses have been impacted at a greater amount, with less of a safety net to fall back on, and many brands that were trying to get off the ground and had dreams of becoming the next handbag brand loved by many have struggled during this time.
Susanna Chow reached out to me on Instagram during the the pandemic, sharing a bit of her story and asking if there was any way we could feature their bags to raise more awareness. Her words touched me as she shared that the pandemic was impacting them but they were still “working as hard as we can each day to continue bringing light and positivity with our handcrafted bags”. Since the first message, Susanna and her mother have actually experienced great growth in their business, with more opting to shop small businesses and support minority owned companies. While that remains true, it wouldn’t happen with great designs, and Susanna Chow offers just that.
Bags are meant to bring us joy. Of course the first goal of a bag (typically) is practicality, but a bag is an extension of our personality while also holding our most prized essential items. I find the beaded bags from Susanna Chow to bring exactly what she and her mother hope: happiness and positivity. A bag made by hand showcases a different level of love and skill, with an actual person behind it who works to bring this ware to life.
A couple weeks ago, our team in NYC met up with Susanna and her mother Sai to not only see their bags in person but also witness the strong bond between mother and daughter sharing a passion and business together. The deep love and respect they have for one another was evident as was their passion for the business they run together out of Chinatown in NYC.
I followed up by email with Susanna and her mother, Sai, to learn more about their business. If you’re looking for a novelty bag, for any event from a wedding to evening bag to daily carry, be sure to check out and support Susanna Chow.
PurseBlog: Tell us about how you got started:
We are three-generations of self-taught Chinese female artisans. My mom learned how to bead at age 10 when she lived in Hong Kong but didn’t pick it up again until after she retired from a successful career in finance at Citigroup. It was only after retirement in 2013, after both her parents died in a tragic car accident that she started volunteering at a senior citizen home in Chinatown where she fell in love with beading again, teaching elderly people how to bead. It was a very emotional time, but it was through beading that she was able to turn her pain and grief into passion and purpose. Her friends in Chinatown all called her the ‘Beadstress’ because she’d make all sorts of beaded objects. Then one day in 2016, while I was still working my full-time job in corporate cosmetics marketing, I walked in and saw a pencil box she had made and had an idea to turn the pencil box into a handbag by adding a strap. And fast forward to today, here we are!
PB: Tell us a bit about each of you:
Sai: I grew up in Hong Kong. My mom taught me how to bead at 10 years old in our tiny living room to make ends meet. I studied graphic design at the Hong Kong University so I’ve always had an artistic talent. I wanted to be an art teacher. However, I immigrated to NY at age 21 with my family, so I did not get to pursue my ambition. As an immigrant in a new country, I had to support my family. I worked at Citigroup for more than thirty years until I retired.
Susanna: I’ve always loved fashion for as long as I can remember. My grandmother and mother were both seamstresses. One of my most vivid memories of my grandmother was her at the garment factory in Chinatown where she worked. I would spend hours there, trying to collect all the buttons and pretend to make a dress. I went to the school at University of Michigan where I studied English and Communications. After graduation, I worked at Harper’s Bazaar magazine before I landed a gig at IBM overseeing global digital advertising. I was then recruited by MAC Cosmetics to lead and build their global advertising business which was one of the most exciting times of my career. I was then quickly promoted to Director of International Consumer and Product Marketing. I led product innovation and development for the brand, which I think contributes a lot to how we design our accessories today. I then went on to work at NARS Cosmetics to oversee brand marketing for the Americas business. It was during this time that I started to help my mom build our fashion brand, which at the time, I thought to myself was going to just be a side project with a purpose in mind – for every bag sold, a portion of proceeds supports disabled orphans. I knew, though, I had a calling to help my mom share her creations and talent with the world. So I made a promise to my mom as soon as she landed her first retail wholesale order, I would leave my job to help her. And that happened. And now here we are today!
PB: How is it working as a mother-daughter team?
Working together is amazing. It’s like working with your best friend. Except it’s someone who actually birthed you! I don’t think either one of us ever thought we would start our own business together, especially after mom hit retirement. But then we joke that who would have ever thought Mom would find a second life after retirement at the age of 66?! There are days where we go back and forth for hours debating on what length a handle should be on a bag. But those are the best discussions because we end up making detachable straps to give our customers options! It’s always about finding the silver lining!
PB: Explain the technique you use to make the bags.
We use a traditional Chinese crafting technique to bead the bags. The craft was passed on to my mom by her mom when she lived in Hong Kong. At the time, they were very poor so she taught my mom how to bead when she was only 10 years old to make ends meet.
PB: How long does it take to create each bag?
Each bag can take more than 10 hours to make, depending on the style. Each piece is lovingly beaded together one by one. We have a deep appreciation for excellence in detail and luxury craftsmanship — something that you just don’t see a lot anymore these days. It makes each one of our pieces that more rare and treasured.
PB: How large is your team?
Right now, we have a team of 8 female artisans that work with us in the Chinatown area. Having the opportunity to work with these talented women is truly such an amazing experience because we see how it provides them with a sustainable income to support their families while creating works of art.
PB: Where do you get inspiration for new designs?
Susanna: A lot of our inspiration comes from our childhood. Nature and flowers have always been a huge inspiration from us from the very beginning. My grandmother, Yuk (my mother’s mom) lived with us and raised us growing up while my parents were both working full-time jobs. She loved to garden in our backyard. She would always be outside tending to the garden. We had roses, cherry blossoms, magnolias, and hydrangeas. All kinds of flowers. Our beaded bags is just like my grandmother’s garden. It’s a garden of love, a labor of love. That’s what beauty means to us. From the beginning, it’s always been about the intertwining of modern femininity with a sophisticated edge. You see this in some of the first bags we launched in 2018, like the ‘Rosie,’ ‘Daisy,’ and ‘Poppy’ flower bags.
PB: How has NYC inspired your business?
Both my mom and I have lived in NYC for most of our adult lives so it’s a huge inspiration for our brand. We design things that we would want to wear ourselves. We design for the girl always on the go. When I worked in corporate cosmetics, I was always running around the city going from business meetings to after-work cocktails to dinner dates/events. So we know firsthand how important style is without having to compromise functionality. And also at an accessible price point. We wanted to create investment pieces that will take you from weekday to weekend, from city to beach – all year long, no matter the occasion.
PB: What’s your work studio like?
Susanna: Believe it or not, we use the tiny living room of my mom’s apartment in Chinatown as our “work studio” right now. It’s where our business was born and where our creative juices flow. We meet to go over new patterns and new designs. Mom doesn’t sketch anything out. Every single design you see on our online boutique is so unique because they are created in my mom’s head. There are beads everywhere, so it’s a very colorful and lively space. It’s also where we do a ton of photoshoots for our product content!
PB: How has COVID impacted your business and day to day life?
Susanna: As crazy as it sounds, our business has never done better than it has in these last 6 months! We are so grateful because during our time in quarantine, we were able to pivot our business more to online and have a direct to consumer experience with our customers. It gave us the chance to listen more to our community in terms of what they wanted to see next from us. We’ve been so busy each day between making and packing customer orders along with fulfilling wholesale orders. We do everything ourselves, even down to the shipping and labeling. We are so excited because we just hired two more people to help us as we grow our business!
PB: Sai, what have you learned from your daughter in this business?
Susanna has taught me to look at design as a form of functionality. Sometimes, we will go back and forth on the length of a handle strap. We like to converse and share our thoughts because we both have different ideas and a lot of the times, if not most, that’s when we come up with the best designs – something that works universally for women. We put a lot of thought and attention to the details in each bag. They are made to be versatile, so you can wear as a short handle purse or you can tuck in the strap to convert into a clutch for a date night. We also have bags, like our ‘Mini Sylvie’ clutch that come with a detachable crossbody strap for when you want to go hands-free, which our customers LOVE!
PB: Susanna, what has your mom taught you when it comes to business?
I think my mom has taught me that to have fun and play with different patterns and bold colors! My style is more on the minimalist side and my mom’s style is more on the eclectic side so I think our accessories truly are a translation of both of our aesthetics combined. As an example, we have our signature ‘Riley’ bag that we launched last year. It’s a gingham print but we added pearls to give a modern and sophisticated twist to the classic pattern. I think that’s why our pieces resonate with so many people of different ages across the globe. Whether you’re a young girl or a mom, our pieces are so timeless. There’s something for everyone.
PB: What’s the best advice you ever received?
Susanna: My grandmother used to always say to me as a little girl, “You always see better with your heart.” There will always be people that will try to discourage you or tell you that you can’t do something. But I think everything I’ve done in life, I’ve always followed my heart and intuition. Even when it is hard. I think anything you do in life, you have to find purpose or meaning in it. I started my career in digital advertising, working for IBM in computer software. It was there that I was then recruited by MAC Cosmetics to build out their global advertising business from the ground up. I was the first person ever in that role. I remember people looked at me when I first arrived and just laughed because they didn’t think digital advertising was necessary. But over time, I proved myself and was quickly promoted to Director of International Marketing within two and half years. I was always the first in my role which was great, because there was no rule book, so in a sense, I was always able to create my own vision.
PB: What’s next for your brand?
Susanna: We are launching our first ever bridal collection soon that we are so excited about. This collection is very special to us because it was inspired by my sister, Joanna who planned to have her wedding this year. Then the pandemic hit, and like most of the world, everything was suddenly put on a standstill. We designed a three-piece capsule collection that features our brand new ‘Davinia’ pearl bucket bag. We wanted to create something that was timeless; something that would also make brides smile and give them something to look forward to.
We are also expanding into jewelry with earrings, necklaces, and bracelets. Mom is obsessed with jewelry so it happened very organically for us and it’s what our customers really wanted to see next for us. We also just launched our first ever 4-in-1 mask chains that people are loving. They are so practical yet so chic — they can also be worn as sunglass chains, bracelets, or necklace!
PB: Your favorite meal?
Susanna: I’ve been a vegetarian for the last ten years. I love going to Terra in Tribeca and sitting by the bar. I always order their lobster risotto with a glass of white wine.
Sai: My favorite go to meal is grilled salmon marinated with mango salsa. I love making it at home because it’s so easy to make and the kids always come home for it!
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