Her handbags reflect her bright outlook

Updated: 2013-02-27 07:35

By Caroline Berg in New York (China Daily)

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No matter how many accolades or how much media attention Wu Mengdi receives, the up-and-coming handbag designer says she's really not all that artistically inclined.

"I'm much better with computer stuff and not good at sewing," says Wu, who is a junior at Parsons the New School for Design in New York. "My (tailoring) teacher wanted to kill me. She wanted to hunt me down each time."

During her freshman year at Parsons, Wu launched her first canvas tote bag collection for her personal lifestyle brand, mengdi3wu, in 2010. Her debut design, which she developed in the summer before starting at Parsons, was a cartoon face screen-printed onto a white canvas.

"I wanted to create a memorable, cute face," Wu says about her "Button Tote".

"I also wanted to make it simple and to be easily recognized, so I used basic shapes."

Her handbags reflect her bright outlook

Wu Mengdi (right) becomes the youngest finalist to be nominated for InStyle's Independent Handbag Designer Awards. Handbagdesigner101.com

The face that inspires her brand's logo has big round black buttons for eyes, two small horizontal red ovals for blush and a red rectangle for a mouth with a chip in the lower right-hand corner.

"That's actually an error," Wu says of the missing corner. "I did intend to produce - my non-creative mind - a full rectangle, but then the computer, I don't know why, it always printed out with this corner missing."

In the end, an aunt and a sister of Wu's convinced her that the erroneous version was better. "The other way is just symmetrical and nothing special," Wu recalls.

Since launching her brand, Wu's designs have won the 2010 Coach Design Your Own Tote Award, and she became the youngest finalist to be nominated for InStyle's Independent Handbag Designer Awards. Wu's designs have also been featured in Teen Vogue, InStyle, Cosmopolitan China and on Yahoo News and television news.

Growing up in Ningbo in Zhejiang province, the 21-year-old Wu says she never thought she would become a fashion designer. At age 14, Wu moved to the United States and attended Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in Manhattan.

Wu says about her education in China was more limiting in terms of her self-expression. "Coming to America helped me more design-wise, because I think the teacher is maybe more accepting to new ideas."

Wu didn't want to follow the typical career path her professors at Parsons outlined for her and her classmates: Study in the freshman sophomore years; find internships in the junior and senior years; work for a few years; and then finally start a company.

"I was like, 'I want to do it already,'" Wu says.

From the start, Wu wanted to create a bag for teenage girls. "I just want to do my own mass market, more toward teenagers because I think that market is still not that saturated," Wu says. "Luxury is maybe more saturated."

In creating her brand name, Mengdi3wu, Wu says she decided to use 3 because it's her lucky number.

Two years after establishing her brand, Wu now has seven bags in her collection. Beside her "Button Tote," there is the "Tie Tote", "Tape Tote", "Jail Tote", "White Afro Tote", "Red Afro Tote" and "Thick Lip Tote".

Wu recently completed a sample of a new makeup case, which she hopes will be ready to sell by May or June after she has organized manufacturing and shipping details.

"This time I wanted to do something more personal," Wu says of the makeup case. The case's exterior is striped yellow and black, like police tape, but she's keeping the inside design a secret for now.

Wu says inspiration for her designs comes from daily life.

"I think for teenagers it's the objects we see everyday that are more relatable," Wu says, in comparison to more abstract designs like those she has seen at the Museum of Modern Art.

Wu started selling her bags in China because they are made there and that's where her father runs a baby-apparel business. Wu does her own public relations, writing press releases she sends to newspaper and magazine editors.

Wu's tote bags are available exclusively at Sears.com priced from $25 to $35. She says the original "Button Tote" is the most popular, and she believes more than 1,000 of the bags have been sold.

Although her target market is teenage girls, Wu has found the majority of her buyers are in their 30s to 40s. She speculated that those women want to be "cute and quirky," like her designs.

Wu says she has never seen someone carrying one of her bags, but she says friends have reported sightings in Times Square and in the SoHo district in lower Manhattan.

"We were all very impressed by how she created her handbag line and was able on her own to get orders and so much press," says Suzanne Piazza, who taught Wu in a Parsons merchandising class last fall.

"Mengdi is a very smart and creative student who is self-motivated," the teacher says. "She was an inspiration to the entire class."

Wu includes Piazza among a long list of mentors, she says, who have helped her strengthen her brand and have encouraged her in her business.

"My mom is very excited and supportive, but my dad wants to keep me humble and not brag about myself," Wu says. "I think there's a good balance between the two."

Wu wants her designs to maintain personal connections with her target market and to create functional bags attuned to the necessities of a young woman's daily life.

Perhaps the most important part of her design, she says, is the fun factor.

As Wu writes on mengdi3wu.com, "We want our cute handbags (to) brighten up your day, and let you feel cuter than ever."

carolineberg@chinadailyusa.com

(China Daily 02/27/2013 page20)