With little more than a decade of design experience behind her, 30-year-old Washingtonian Yolanda Lang sits at the helm of Inde Inc., her own international handbag company.
The designer, who has showrooms in Milan and New York and corporate headquarters in the District of Columbia, recalls the ironic story of how she had to set up a business halfway around the world to gain the attention of major department stores just miles away from her home in Northwest.
“It was hard work,” Ms. Lang says of her meager beginnings abroad. “It’s a different industry with certain time constraints. Italian businesses operate one season in advance.” Besides anticipating what her customers want almost a year ahead of time, she also had to master the Italian language. Those obstacles proved surmountable.
In addition to a recent contract with Neiman Marcus department stores, Inde Inc. also received a great deal of attention when actress Julia Roberts was showcased in the September edition of Marie Claire magazine with an Inde bag. “I was excited because we’re both originally from Georgia, and she’s only two years older than me,” Ms. Lang says.
“When Julia Roberts was spotted carrying one of the smaller bags, it certainly sent off a buzz,” says Mary-Frances Wain, Neiman Marcus public relations agent. “But most customers can appreciate the whole line because they are such sleek and elegant bags,” she says.
Ms. Lang sought to fill a niche in the fashion market by combining the worlds of form and function. She initially moved to Italy to study design management and interior architecture at the Domus Academy in Milan. But when she could not find a handbag that was both pragmatic and stylish enough to meet her everyday needs, she decided to design one of her own.
Ms. Lange, who graduated from Drexel University as an interior design major-architecture minor in 1992, drafted blueprints to create her ideal handbag. She then took the plans to a Milan tailor, who made her dream handbag into a three-dimensional reality. To her delight, she received so many inquiries about the bag from envious onlookers, she founded her own business, Inde Inc., in 1996.
Ms. Lang’s father, Gerald Lang, a Prudential Insurance executive, and her mother, Barbara, a vice president at Fannie Mae, loaned their daughter $50,000 to start her company. Mr. Lang, who is retired, coordinates Inde’s public relations full time, while Mrs. Lang helps her daughter keep the books.
Ms. Lang cites strong, independent women, such as singer Tina Turner and political figure Elizabeth Dole, as the inspiration for her handbags. In fact, the name Inde is short for independent.
Her company’s target market is comprised of career women with discerning taste. It’s the practical style and quality of the bags that have allowed the young designer to turn over a profit from her parents’ initial investment.
In addition to making her handbags user-friendly, Ms. Lang also designed the length of the handles to fit securely under a woman’s arm, where her valuables are most safe. Ms. Lang realized she was reaching her target demographic when a client shook her hand and said “thank you for making a handbag that’s different.”
The young designer also knew she was on the right track when she took her first bags to Italian fashion markets and trade shows to promote them. Suddenly, the bag that she was not able to find for years started to appear under other designers’ labels.
“They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” Ms. Lang says of the experience.
With a host of flagship stores just miles from her Northwest neighborhood in the District, the question begs to be asked: Why did the designer have to set up shop in Italy first?
“Basically, Americans like things that are made in Europe when it comes to high-end quality merchandise,” Ms. Lang says. “When buyers purchase domestically, they look for cheaper goods that can be easily massed produced.”
The solid reputation she built for her company abroad, eventually garnered the attention of local buyers.
However, Ms. Lang continues to manufacture her bags in Milan. The few American manufacturers who produce handbags in the United States often require designers to sign on to large volume accounts.
Ms. Lang’s bags require a hands-on level of quality control. Therefore, she says, mass production is out of the question at this time. The hand-crafted, limited edition handbags prices range from $256 to $500.
Neiman Marcus asked the young designer to make some adjustments to her bags to better suit the store’s professional clientele after Ms. Lang made a guest appearance at the store last year promoting her product.
“They wanted leather that was not scratchable, and waterproof, high quality zippers and raw silk linings,” she says. Even the sound the zipper pulls made was a factor. Due to the company’s ability to manufacture handbags on a smaller scale, all of the corrections were made.
“Yolanda is off to a good start and we are definitely satisfied with her,” says Ms. Wain, who adds that the Inde line has found a permanent home at the store. Ms. Lang plans to extend the Inde line to include shoes and wallets in the spring.