Celebs love Canadian luxury handbag designer

Purse designer Sarah Shell shows off one of her creations from her design firm, 442 McAdam, at the...

Purse designer Sarah Shell shows off one of her creations from her design firm, 442 McAdam, at the London Free Press photo studio in London, Ontario on Tuesday January 14, 2014.(CRAIG GLOVER/The London Free Press/QMI Agency)

Craig Oliver, QMI Agency
 

, Last Updated: 12:46 PM ET

 

After a chance encounter at a hotel with an international pop star, you might say Sarah Shell has it in the bag.

While staying at the same Toronto hotel as Lady Gaga, the 32-year-old founder of luxury leather bag design firm 442 McAdam and now a student at Western University’s Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry was able to get one of her custom, handmade wears on the star’s shoulder.

“It was really just about being in the right place at the right time,’ said Shell. “I knew she was going to be coming through the lobby. She was very pleasant and seemed genuinely happy to receive it. It was a very brief encounter. It’s very common for these stars to receive gifts like that.”

Along the way, other celebrities such as Taylor Swift received Shell’s handbags, although in most cases it was arranged through a publicist. In the last five years, the Toronto-born and raised Shell has sold “hundreds” of her unique bags, which range in price from $130 to $550, the style “equestrian inspired” and “has yesterday’s charm and tomorrow’s convenience,” Shell said.

Shell’s success wasn’t born overnight though. She enrolled at Western in 1999 intent on earning a medical degree. She completed pre-med studies, but said she found herself getting too attached to patients while volunteering. Shell also felt a need to scratch a creative itch. So, in 2002, she headed to Florence, Italy to study fashion design before landing a spot at New York’s elite design institute, Parsons.

“I not only fell in love with the city, but fell in love with the industry,” said Shell of her time in the Big Apple. “The more I did though, the more my interest shifted to merchandising.”

Following a stint as an assistant designer at Club Monaco and learning the ins and outs of luxury bags at Gucci, her student visa expired and the Toronto native took a job in Calgary with the Forzani Group as a purchase analyst. That’s where she fell in love with an intricate leather rifle strap in a hunting store, which was the inspiration for her first bag, a gift for her mom. The second bag would be for her, but the next ones would be for a keen shop owner who fell in love with her work.

That’s where the ball got rolling for Shell who in 2009 would grow her inspiration into a Toronto-based design firm with a staff of five to keep up with demand, the company’s name a tribute to her grandparents. 442 McAdam’s client list includes Swift, Katy Perry, Jeanne Bekker and Vincent Gallo, who Shell’s cousin spotted sporting his bag in Los Angeles years later.

However, the pull of medicine proved too strong. Shell scaled back 442 McAdam to online sales (442mcadam.com) and she’s back at Western studying dentistry, focusing on her studies during the week and designing on weekends.

“I felt like I needed solid grounding, not something I couldn’t depend on financially,” explained Shell, daughter of Arnold, an insurance industry executive, and Barbara, an optician. “I also love biology and the idea of having a positive impact on somebody’s health. I was having success (as a designer) but it wasn’t the kind of success I was interested in. I didn’t want it to be my life’s story. I wanted something more fulfilling -- doing something good for people.”

— with files from Joe Belanger, The London Free Press

 


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