by Karen Johnson
photograph by Lissa Gotwals
Gigi Karmous-Edwards exudes a wide-eyed innocence you might not expect from a scientist and engineer of 27 years. But in her new career as handbag designer, a sense of wonder is a vital tool.
“My bags are interesting not because I am a great designer,” she says, “but because I bring an engineering sense to design and fashion. There is innovation because I looked at the process differently.”
Karmous-Edwards, 50, immigrated with her parents to Raleigh from Alexandria, Egypt, when she was 6. Taking a cue from each parent – one a chemist, one an engineer – she earned a degree in chemical engineering from N.C. State University, followed by a master’s and work on a doctorate.
While traveling the world giving speeches, Karmous-Edwards says she was always on the hunt for the “perfect purse” that blended fine materials, beautiful aesthetics and functional design. During a birthday trip to Italy in 2002, she and her best friend bemoaned the lack of handbags with utilitarian qualities.
Seven years later, Karmous-Edwards, who is married and the mother of two girls, decided to try her hand at designing and convinced her friend, also an engineer, to join her in starting a handbag company. Now on her own, Karmous-Edwards has phased out her role in academia to run the business full-time out of a home office.
The design and creation of her first handbag, completed while still working at her day job, brought many challenges. Named Uvo, Italian for “re-birth,” it was edgy and caught the eye of many potential customers and buyers, she says. But the price – $750 – seemed prohibitive for the mass market. Karmous-Edwards knew she was going to have to learn more about her customer, so she began researching the lifestyles of the affluent market.
She went about it by collaborating. “If you bring a variety of people with different perspectives together to achieve a goal,” she says, “the environment for innovation is much richer.” With that in mind, she sought the advice and opinion of Real Housewives star Lisa Vanderpump. But after months of working on a luxurious bag with Vanderpump in mind, she didn’t ultimately land the collaborative contract she’d hoped for.
She also realized that she had strayed from her original intent: To create a functional handbag that would appeal to professional women like herself. So she re-trenched, listened to her target market, began new collaborations, and now designs handbags that sell for $300 to $750, made of high quality materials, but with function – like specific compartments for electronics and sunglasses – in mind.
“That’s what entrepreneurship is all about – tweaking, getting feedback and tweaking again.”
She is currently manufacturing in Massachusetts but hopes to move that to Raleigh. Twelve different boutiques in the Southeast have featured the Uvo line of bags, including Raleigh stores Main & Taylor, Jabat Boutique, and CT Weekends. Dianne Chinnis from Main & Taylor thinks Karmous-Edwards’ unique perspective gives her a design edge: “Gigi combined a woman’s perspective with an engineering mindset to achieve a unique design.” Features like pockets for oversized sunglasses that “our customers loved,” she says.
Part of Karmous-Edwards’ re-positioning strategy is to drive sales from her website, which might make her less visible in retail locations. She intends to boost her use of social media as a marketing tool.
She is also taking advantage of many resources available to entrepreneurs here. The state Department of Commerce supported her on a trip to the largest apparel show in the country, MAGIC, where Uvo was chosen as one of the first emerging accessories designers for 2012. She is working with both N.C. State and Meredith College to link with local designers, manufacturers and interns.
And she’s trying to grow a community of entrepreneurs as well. As a founding partner of an organization called Fashion Worx, Karmous-Edwards is working to align fashion, academic, and entrepreneurial resources that will encourage talent to stay in the Raleigh area rather than flee to New York. She is also hoping to support underserved women by donating a portion of the sales of her newest handbag line to Triangle Dress for Success.
Today, her work days are filled with a sense of creative chaos. Her roles as a designer, engineer, entrepreneur, mom and wife take her from one thing to the next. But her goal is clear. “My passion is to help professional women look and feel successful. If I can do that by designing a great handbag, sharing my story or donating a portion of my profits to a worthy organization, then I will feel I have made a difference.”