Launching a new product category is a risky thing for a brand to do in the thick of a pandemic—particularly if those products are handbags. After all, who would buy a gorgeous new leather tote or clutch while sheltering in place, with nowhere to go? But Maria Gangemi, founder of direct-to-consumer footwear startup M.Gemi, couldn’t help herself.
Gangemi launched the company in 2015 to make shoes expertly crafted by Italian craftsmen without the markups of luxury brands. Since her job involves working closely with small, family-owned leather workshops throughout Italy, she’s been able to see firsthand how craftspeople have been impacted by the pandemic, which devastated the country in March. Shoemakers were hit hard, but handbag makers were even more profoundly affected, since demand for luxurious purses was all but wiped out. In her conversations with her suppliers, she came across a third-generation handbag maker based in the hills of Abruzzo. “Angelo’s work had dried up entirely when the pandemic hit and he was on the verge of shutting down his business,” Gangemi says. “I wanted to do something to help him because I think his knowledge and craftsmanship need to be preserved.”
Gangemi knew a new line of handbags would not sell particularly well, but she decided to partner with this Abruzzo workshop to create one anyway. They began designing in May, but since M.Gemi’s designers couldn’t travel to Italy from the United States because of the travel ban, they worked over Zoom, sharing sketches and holding pieces of leather up to the computer camera. The result is a four-piece collection that consists of a work tote, a clutch, a crossbody, and a hobo that cost between $198 and $398. They’re all made from top grade Italian leather.
M.Gemi’s design team had our new pandemic lifestyles in mind when they created the silhouettes for these bags. The crossbody, for instance, is lightweight and compact, perfect for carrying your phone, hand sanitizer, extra mask, and credit card when you’re out for a walk. Gangemi imagined the clutch to be an evening bag to carry to dinner or a party, but since we’re not likely to be doing this for a while, they’ve included a crossbody strap on it, so it can serve as a handbag for work or everyday errands until the pandemic is over. “We’re being extra careful about what we touch now, so this allows you to carry what you need while keeping your hands free,” Gangemi says.
The roomy work tote is carefully designed for our current state of limbo, where many of us are primarily working from home, but perhaps occasionally heading to the office or an outdoor space, for a change of scenery. “It’s large enough for you to put your laptop and all your files,” she says. “It’s kind of like a portable office.”