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Israeli bag designer wins the attention of US shoppers

Posted By Nicky Blackburn On October 21, 2007 @ 11:15 am In | No Comments

‘My bags are more primitive and basic in design. I like to emphasize the leather’ – Tali Epstein-Segal.Tali Epstein-Segal was a saleswoman when she decided it was time to try something different. At 35, the former student of art and design had been selling parquet flooring for two years and worked as a dental assistant before that, and began to wonder if this was all she would do with her life. So she went to a local leather trader, bought a piece of leather for about $11 and made seven bags.

Unsure of her designs, she took them to a shop in Tel Aviv’s trendy Shenkein street to ask for an opinion. They liked the bags and told her to leave them there to see if they might sell. Several weeks went by, and Epstein-Segal finally doubtfully returned to see if anything had happened. She was surprised to discover that her bags had caused a stir. All of them had sold, and the shop wanted more.

Five years on, Epstein-Segal’s bags, sold under the label TES, are now on sale in shops across Israel and the United States, have been featured in Marie Claire in Turkey, and were included in a special boutique collection for the popular TV series, The L Word, about gay women living in Los Angeles.

Epstein-Segal is a modest and likeable woman. Sitting in the smart new boutique she opened just a month ago in the Gan Ha’Hashmal fashion district of Tel Aviv, it’s obvious that she still can’t quite believe everything that has happened to turn her life around over the last few years.

Her bags are displayed on steel pipes on the plain white walls. They are simple, strong designs in gorgeous crumpled tan, brown and black leathers, with an occasional flash of vivid color. Though aimed at women, there’s a rougher, slightly more masculine feel to her bags that gives them a distinctive look, different from the usual fashion items.

Thirty-nine-year-old Epstein-Segal calls it ‘rough chic’, and it’s a style that she adopts personally. No fancy complicated garments for her, she dresses in simple, unpretentious clothes – black -shirt and jeans, a -colored belt and dark masculine shoes.

“I don’t like pretentious or over-styled bags,” she explains. “My bags are more primitive and basic in design. I like to emphasize the leather. It’s very important to me. The bags are feminine, but have a rougher style. It’s another sort of chic.”

The bags also tend to be large handbags and satchels, though she does make purses and wallets. “I like big bags. I like bags to be strong and dominating. Every time I try to make small bags I can’t do it, and I try again and again,” she says.

She moves from one bag to another showing off certain features – the softness of the leather, a silver buckle, a simple lining. It’s clear she’s passionate about her work. She opens one bag and runs her hand lovingly across the unlined interior. “I think it’s so beautiful when the leather has been left like this,” she says, adding that many of her bags are deliberately left unlined to reveal the rough suede interior.

Epstein-Segal often uses furniture leather in her designs. She still buys her leather from the same shop in Tel Aviv, and can spend hours there, choosing the pieces she likes most. Because of the quality of the leather, the bags age well and that’s something Epstein Segal appreciates. She works with the same tailor she used for her initial bags, though he now works exclusively for her, making up the bags to her design.

Epstein-Segal was born in Tel Aviv and studied art and design at the College of Art in Ramat Hasharon. Her mother was a housewife, and her late father was a car salesman. It was always her dream to make bags. “I could never find the bags I liked in Israel,” she says. “There just weren’t any nice bag shops.”

After selling her first seven bags, Epstein-Segal designed and made 30 more, selling them to the shop in Shenkein. As the bags continued to sell, she made more – 30 at a time. About six months later, a friend suggested she meet a buyer from Guess in the US that she knew personally. The idea appealed to Epstein-Segal who was finding hard emotionally to market herself in Israel.

“I preferred the idea of selling to the international market, because I found it hard to face rejection at home,” she tells ISRAEL21c. “I didn’t want to go from shop to shop trying to sell. I was very worried about whether people would like the bags or not, and was afraid that if someone rejected them here, I would find it hard to carry on making them. In the US, I wouldn’t know anyone so I wouldn’t feel so bad.”

The buyer was impressed by her work and suggested that she join a design show in New York to try to promote interest. At the show, an agent spotted her work and began selling the bags at shops across the US and in Istanbul in Turkey.

About a year ago, Showtime – the producers of The L Word – decided to create a special line of clothing and accessories to promote the third season of the show. L-word stylist Cynthia Summers began work with jeweler, Udi Behr, an ex-patriate Israeli who moved to the US 22 years ago and is now the chief designer for the jewelry line, Love and Pride.

Behr had met Epstein-Segal some time earlier at a party in Israel and had admired her bags. He immediately put her name forward. So did another friend of hers who was working with Showtime. The result was that Epstein-Segal began selling bags with the L-word logo and a vivid pink lining as part of the special collection in about 22 shops across the US, including New York, LA, San Francisco, North Carolina, Atlanta and Chicago.

For Epstein-Segal it was an important moment. “It was a breakthrough for myself,” she says. “This is when I really realized that perhaps I have some talent and something to give the world,” she says. “I got so many compliments for my work, and so much attention from people in Israel who were proud of my international recognition. If I didn’t believe it then, when would I believe it?”

Today, aside from her own boutique shop in Tel Aviv, Epstein-Segal sells her work in about 30 shops across Israel, and in shops in the US. She is now in negotiations to strengthen her sales and build new markets in the US and possibly France, and will be flying to the US for meetings at the end of this month. “Now I have to start making my steps as a businesswoman, rather than just a designer,” she says.

She has many plans for the future including a new collection of bags for men. “I’ve been amazed at the number of men who have come in to the shop asking if we sell bags for them,” says Epstein-Segal. “They like the strong simply designs.”

She is also considering making leather jackets and even potentially leather collections for the home. “There are many directions I can take,” she says.

So how does Epstein-Segal feel to have reached this stage? She looks around at her smart shop, with its plain black wooden floor and white walls that accentuate her work, and smiles. “I can’t imagine I’ve come so far,” she says. “I’m very happy today that I never gave up on my dream. Within all of us we have hidden some kind of talent or capability. The difference between those people who fulfill this talent and those that don’t is the ability to overcome their fear. Not trying is the worst experience in the world. If you don’t try, you can’t succeed.”