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Fashion

From Rihanna to Sarah Jessica Parker – the New York-based handbag label that’s proudly ‘Made in China’

  • Since launching in 2013, handbag label Kara has established itself as an edgy brand with a strong tie to China
  • Founder Sarah Law left Hong Kong to pursue her American dream
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 December, 2018, 6:01am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 December, 2018, 8:28pm

Like many aspiring designers, Sarah Law left Hong Kong with high hopes to find success in New York City.

In 2013, the Parsons School of Design graduate launched her own brand, Kara, out of her tiny New York flat. She was hoping to fill a gap in the market for functional bags that were still cool, edgy and affordable.

Wicker Wings sustainable handbags celebrate founders’ Chinese heritage

Fast forward five years and Kara is a commercial success. The line is stocked by an ever-growing list of dream retailers like Lane Crawford, Shopbop, Opening Ceremony and Net-a-Porter.

Celebrities like Rihanna and Sarah Jessica Parker have been spotted carrying her bestselling backpack “We don’t do gifting – they just went out and bought them,” she says proudly. Even Law herself has enjoyed a new-found fame and was featured on Forbes’ “30 under 30” list in 2016.

“Kara speaks to people who feel they are in between, who don’t fall under a specific label. In fact it’s a handbag for girls who don’t wear handbags,” says Law, who calls Hong Kong and New York City home. “The name is taken from the word karaoke. With karaoke someone else writes the music and you sing the song in your own style. Similarly, we design the bags, and you wear them your own way.”

Law started with styles that were simple and easy to use – think urban shapes such as bum bags, backpacks and wristlets – made from good quality leather and with minimal hardware and branding.

While products such as the aforementioned backpack were her bread and butter – “I designed it for transitioning from the gym to an evening event,” Law says – she decided it was time to create a stronger identity for the brand about two years ago.

“In the beginning, it was about being functional; if you only had one bag, this was it. Now it’s about filling the wardrobe with other ideas. I’m also older and my life has changed. I’m attending more events where you want to dress up a bit more. I thought it would be fun to have novelty items that still have an urban edge,” she says.

So along came statement styles such as a top-handle bag covered in layers of fringing, the puffer tote and the structured lantern bag, which is collapsible, so you can store it easily. More recently she created the Money Shred series which is made from pre-shredded, demonetised bills from the United States Mint that have been pressed between layers of PVC.

Launching over the next few months is a collection that is based on one of her favourite wardrobe items – the leather shirt. The messenger and waist bags will feature long leather sleeves that can be tied around the waist.

While her creativity shows no signs of slowing down, there have been bumps along the way. Like many fashion brands, the news of higher tariffs being imposed on Chinese-made goods has led her to rethink her manufacturing. As such, she has diversified and started to collaborate with smaller factories, but she is still adamant that all her products will still be made in China.

“This has been a positive and interesting development. We discovered a group of mid-tier factories started by Hong Kong families about 40 years ago, that are now being run by second or third generation members who are keen to work with smaller brands. It’s been exciting to talk to people with real expertise,” she says.

“People really underestimate how incredible China manufacturing is. If you think about the handbag industry at my price point, it’s existed in China for over 50 years. You can’t discount the time gone into training people and their technical skill. For that reason, the Made in China [tag] will always be a core part of our branding.”

In a bid to highlight the brand’s core values, she started the Instagram campaign #KarayouBEyou with the help of a group of artists that have photographed themselves with her bags. It has resulted in a series of thought-provoking photos by the likes of Chicago-based Aleia, who is known for her miniature sets, and Taiwanese artist John Yuyi, who affixes digital symbols to the human body as temporary tattoos.

“I really want to explore this … idea of identity, while continuing to build our wholesale distribution. China is high up on the list, as 70 per cent of our customers now are Chinese living around the world. My ultimate dream is to have a bricks and mortar store,” she says.