Nichole MacDonald models her stylish and cleverly designed Sash Bag. (Natalia Robert/Full Circle Images)
It’s a common concern which countless women across the ages have shared.
“Does this fanny pack make my ass look big?”
San Diego-based designer Nichole MacDonald wasn’t thinking sizes or shapes when she first envisioned the Sash Bag. But for women seeking a stylish and secure alternative to bulky hand bags and fanny packs, the Sash Bag is quickly becoming a must-have accessory.
“I was with my son at LEGOLAND in Carlsbad to do a one-mile fund-raiser run. Of course, there was no way I could carry a purse for something like that. I thought ‘what are my options?’ Women’s clothes don’t usually have pockets and, if they do, they fit maybe a stick of gum. A back pack would be too heavy so that was out too. I couldn’t figure out any practical way to carry my basic necessities other than a fanny pack. I was tempted to buy one, but I resisted.”
“The following day, I went to breakfast with a girlfriend and was about to tell her my dilemma when the idea for the Sash suddenly came to me. I said, ‘What if there was fanny pack sorta thing, but instead of going around your waist you could put it around your torso? You could have pockets here and here and here.’ I just talked it out with her. That afternoon I had a seamstress friend help me make one. I wore it out that night for a wine tasting and then went dancing. Three people stopped me to ask where I got it.”
Had MacDonald really designed a conversation-starting purse?
“When women go out dancing, there is always that issue of what do I do with a purse? Do you carry one yourself or put your stuff in a friend’s purse? If everyone puts their stuff in one purse, then do you put it on the floor and try to watch it while you’re dancing? It’s funny, because my original idea was to have something practical when I was with my kid at a theme park. That’s when I realized the numerous applications of this design. I knew when strangers were stopping to ask me about the Sash, that I had found my next product.”
MacDonald said she had tried making handbags once before but that business floundered. Still, the lessons she learned only paved the way for the success of her present endeavor.
“I have a background in design, though I went to college to study broadcast journalism. Somewhere along the line it clicked that my career would be in the design field. Along the way, I did design for print and media – every kind of design job you can imagine. Later, I had a job working for a kitchen electronics company and learned everything you needed to know about getting a product to market. This was all invaluable experience.”
Pairing her work in design and product development with her previous attempt at running a cottage business, MacDonald set out to make the Sash Bag a reality.
“The early models were made of fabric, so I did those at home on a small scale. But the early models were a bit different; they didn’t have the exterior pockets or the adjustable strap. As the business grew, and people started asking for them in leather, I knew I would have to find a manufacturer.”
“Manufacturing has been our biggest hurdle. I have worked with five different manufacturers – both here and abroad. The product looks very simple but it’s extremely difficult to sew.”
“The first maker was based in Los Angeles, and they did amazing work, but I soon realized the product was just too expensive and started looking at handbag manufacturers overseas. After running into one problem on top of another, I met up with a leather jacket manufacturer. That worked out well, because not only do they work with fashion leather, the kind of stitching which is involved is different from what is usually used in handbags. We’ve been with them for a year, though it was a long and stressful journey. But with that company, both the relationship and the product are solid. That’s how we’ve been able to grow this business. Besides, the product is absolutely gorgeous.”
“It’s lambskin, which is much softer than cow leather. Our manufacturer makes jackets for Nordstrum and Nasty Gal. Sash is the only other product they make! The factory is filled with skilled leather technicians who all have degrees. We recently came out with new designs which incorporate Ikat – an intricately made fabric. I think this product will move us into the fashion spotlight.”
MacDonald said her product has a patent pending, though she is hoping the process can be expedited. Already, she is starting to see knock-off bags, but without a patent, there is not too much she can do. For the moment, she can take solace in the fact that her sales are good. The cheapest bag (a fabric model) sells for $59. Leather bags range from $129 – $179.”
“You can get a bag for $29 at Target or $5,000 from a designer. We’re mid-range for most of our buyers.”
“In our first year, we did $130,000; last year we did $370,000, and this year we’re projecting about $900,000. I think that’s good. We’re a very small company – there are just three of us here – and most of our sales come from dealing with people face-to-face. Just doing festivals and events, we’ve sold 8,000 bags in less than two years.”
With sales projected to hit close to one million dollars, we wondered what makes the Sash so popular?
“People flip out when they see this bag. We call those buyers a Sash Mob. Carrying a purse around may not seem like that big a deal, but it really is. You accept it, because that is what everyone does, but it’s really kind of silly when you think about it. Then one day, your realize you hate it. For women who have reached that point, they flip out when they see a Sash Bag because they have been looking for a solution.”
“A fanny pack is not a solution. It’s handy, I’ll give you that, but most say they think they are ugly. The other problem with a fanny pack is they are really not practical. What happens when you want to sit down or fasten a seat belt? Then it becomes just like a purse and it’s something you have to worry about. With the Sash Bag, you never have to worry about it. You don’t have to take it off. You can wear it in the car, you can sit with it on, you can go to the bathroom or dance or walk your dog. You can pick your kids up or do jumping jacks. It doesn’t matter – you just don’t even notice it. It’s kind of like getting hand-cuffs removed is one way I like to describe it.”
“One customer has bought 13 bags. She buys one every time a new model comes out.”
“Another type of customer is someone who travels, and sees the practical applications. We also get people who will see them on our display and take a card, then call us a few days later, and say, “I was at the zoo or a club and wished I had one of your bags.’”
“The beauty of our bags is they distribute everything you carry in such a way that people start wearing it; it’s kind of life changing. We’ve had people who, because of physical limitations, experience pain when they carry a regular bag. With a Sash, that problem is often solved.”
MacDonald maintains that the Sash Bag also addresses the problem of making a utilitarian item flattering.
“This bag does the opposite of what every other bag does. Other bags, whether one on your shoulder or the kind you carry, store everything in one big lump on your hip or right on your side, which is the last place a woman wants to add bulk. What I’ve done is designed just the opposite. There is nothing in the middle, so the pockets stack up the front of the bag and up the back. It’s super sleek and it looks like there is nothing inside of it. That’s why we do so many of our sales face-to-face. Most people cannot believe everything you can fit in to one of these bags.”
Couture aside, we wondered if the practical aspects of the Sash Bag might appeal to men; especially guys who travel?
“We have a lot of men who have bought this product for travel. We also have the wheel chair market; men who have a disability like the bag for its functionality. Because of this interest, we are coming out with a man bag. It’s a similar concept with a slightly different design – less curvy and more linear. We’re calling that line The Stash. Hopefully it will be out sometime this summer.”
“When I first started the business, I hired an assistant to help me with everything that was going on, and she had just had her purse stolen at a club. She saw my Sash and said, ‘OMG! I need one of these!’ So she started wearing a Sash Bag. She used it all the time; then one night some months later, she went out without it. She set her phone on a bar, turned around for a moment, and in a second the phone was gone.”
“Never go out without your Sash Bag.”
Anthony C. Hayes is an actor, author, raconteur, rapscallion and bon vivant. A former reporter at The Washington Herald and an occasional contributor to the Voice of Baltimore, Tony’s poetry, humor and prose have also been featured in Smile, Hon, You’re in Baltimore; Magic Octopus Magazine; Destination Maryland, and Tales of Blood and Roses.