“I’m terrible at interviews, so try and make me sound good, okay?” Nada Sawaya says, laughing as she opens the door to her apartment. As she pushes her fluffy white Persian cat Silver aside, he disappears into a pile of her python handbags, leaving a trail of white fur behind him.
Walking into her living room, Sawaya looks stylish, at ease, and fur-free. She wears a denim shift mini dress, and paired with her camo Toms and short brown hair, you can’t tell whether the designer is fifteen or fifty. It is this same timelessness that is characteristic of the handbags and accessories that she creates for her namesake brand, Nada Sawaya: New York.
Her bags, which come in a wide range of colors, materials, and sizes, are unadorned and unstructured. “I prefer to focus on the materials rather than the shape,” says Sawaya, holding up a soft flap bag in a supple brown python. The snakeskin is soft and the bag is simple, with a single chain that allows it to transform from clutch to cross body.
Sitting at her desk with a crooked smile on her face, surrounded by random bits and pieces—a handbag here, a python sample there—and with the New York skyline behind her, Sawaya is the poster child for the stylish working girl. You’d think her a native New Yorker, with her go-getter attitude and reserved yet startlingly honest demeanor. But Sawaya hails from somewhere entirely different: Beirut, Lebanon.
Before starting her own line, she owned a series of accessories boutiques in Beirut named Chiktok, which sold everything from high-end costume jewelry to beach bags. “I loved what I did, but when the war happened in 2006, I decided it was time to say goodbye to Beirut, and hello to America.” She looks off to the side when talking about the war in Lebanon, as if she’s trying to picture what she left behind.
“At first I wanted to bring some Lebanese designers to New York and try to rep them here, but when I realized that it’s a totally different market, I got rid of that idea and started thinking of something else.” She happened upon some beautiful skins while shopping one day, and Nada Sawaya: New York was born.
When asked about the future of her company, she expresses a desire to expand, but not too much. “I like the feeling of being an artisan company”, Sawaya says. “I’d like to take this to the next level, but then stop there.” Sawaya is currently a one-woman show. She has no PR team, no salesperson, and doesn’t even have buying available on her website yet. “I’ve relied a lot on word of mouth, but I’m at the point where I want to get into some higher end boutiques, and I need help to do that.”
Her bags, which come in a variety of materials from python to leather, are a purse lover’s dream. Named after her friends and places she’s traveled, each piece is handmade in Italy from materials that Sawaya spends countless hours looking for and picking out from leather factories across the globe. “I’m really attracted to high quality materials,” says Sawaya. “I have to be able to enjoy the touch and feel of a skin before I decide to use it for one of my products.”
Grabbing an intricate laser cut lace leather clutch sitting on the side table, she explains that this is a sample from her new collection. “The laser cutting is unbelievable.” She says, “I won’t mix skins together, so whenever I want to try out a new pattern or trend, it all has to be done on one piece of leather with the laser machine. The Italian’s craftsmanship is actually impeccable; this isn’t even the final product!” She points to a mini cross body in a faded charcoal color that’s sitting on her armoire, with a beautifully complicated camouflage pattern cut into the leather.
While their final product is usually flawless, Sawaya isn’t as keen on the Italian work ethic. “I had no idea what I was getting into when I started my handbag business,” Sawaya says, “I had to learn the hard way how to deal with Italians… They’re worse than the Lebanese!” She laughs at her own reference to her home country. “They’re unreliable, and very lazy. They’re not like New Yorkers with the “go-go-go” attitude. Italians are like ‘Ohhh it could get done, maybe tomorrow? In two weeks, it’s fine…’ and I’m like ‘No I have deliveries!’”
Sawaya may lack the manpower of your average company, but she remains undeterred. For someone who essentially works alone, the Lebanese designer has come remarkably far, and shows no signs of stopping. So keep an eye out handbag lovers, because I have a good feeling about this one.
– Lauren Daccache