Custom-made handbags break into Pittsburgh

It started in a one-bedroom apartment in Boston; now it is on the racks in three cities and numerous homes beyond. It is Ray-Min Shoulderware — not simply handbags, but handcrafted ones made with vintage fabric, and embroidered with care.

Minette Vaccariello and her boyfriend Raymond Morin have transformed their craft in the past few years from churning out some basic bags for an art gallery (the Olive, in Lawrence, Kan. — the location of their first sale) to having a fan base of customers and a line of custom-made bags. Their website, ray-minshoulderware.com, lacks a lot of verbiage, merely saying that Ray-Min Shoulderware was created in 2003 to “create unique handbags that reflected our [Ray and Minette’s] personal styles and interests.”

Yet, chatting with Vaccariello, you get a fuller picture of how Ray-Min Shoulderware came to be. After getting a request for some artwork from a friend in Kansas, Vaccariello and Morin left the project to the last minute and had to produce bags rather than their original ideas. “That’s what we did [made bags] and that’s how it started,” she said. “Raymond didn’t know how to sew. I gave him a quick lesson and left him alone with a sewing machine all day.” Of her early bag-making process, Vaccariello said, “I sew two pieces of fabric together, turn it inside out, put a strap on it — it’s a bag.”

After a great reception at the Olive Gallery, the venue that got their first works and still carries shoulderware on stock, Vaccariello and Morin began making bags for friends. They eventually moved from Boston, where Vaccariello was studying, to Pittsburgh. What Vaccariello studied then and studies now may be a bit of a shock —- in Boston she was a mechanical engineering student. Now she is a graduate in product development at Carnegie Mellon.

Engineering and bag-building may seem unrelated, but Vaccariello disagreed. “When I approach the designs, creating a bag is almost like building. I see it in a three-dimensional way. [I think of] what kind of structure I need to show.” She laughed and added, “I definitely don’t do stress analysis tests on bags.”

Morin and Vaccariello stumbled into starting their own business in the same way they began bag-making. “For a while it was just this thing that we did in our apartment,” said Vaccariello. “When we sold a lot of our bags for the first time, people would write us checks to our business name, but we couldn’t deposit them until we were a business.” One of her close friends started a design firm, and that became an inspiration to Vaccariello as she drove forth on her business venture.

Designing and crafting bags is not all that fills Vaccariello’s day. She must also perform her role as a student at Carnegie Mellon. Still, most of the handiwork has come from her as of late since Morin was busy starting his own record label.

Each bag is made by hand, and takes a long while to make. But if you are dying to find a piece of Ray-Min Shoulderware, you don’t have to look far, thanks to the Mattress Factory. A woman working at the Mattress Factory, a contemporary art museum in the North Side, contacted Vaccariello through a MySpace site, and once again serendipity struck. Soon, Ray-Min bags graced the walls of the Mattress Factory gift shop.

For those that don’t live in Boston, Lawrence, or Pittsburgh, there is the option to custom order a Ray-Min bag. Custom ordering is more popular than buying retail. Most requests are not very demanding — just requests for color changes and size differences, Vaccariello said. However, a few have pushed the limits of customization. Vaccariello calls the biggest bag she ever made “a monstrosity.” She described the customer’s tall order: “She wanted like a laptop bag but a tote bag.... It had a laptop pocket and a hidden zipper pocket; she wanted a matching coin purse with all these pockets. It was huge.”

Big or small, the most striking thing about a piece of Ray-Min Shoulderware is the uniqueness of the design. The bags look different than anything else on the shelves, but they are not particularly intricate at a glance. The fabrics are sturdy and the designs classic, with thin lines of embroidery in patterns such as starbursts or zig-zags. Part of the bags’ individuality comes from their little secrets, the pockets that Vaccariello loves to add to bags. She said they have added chapstick pockets, lipstick pockets, bus pass pockets, and more to their bags.

Though Vaccariello has already scored a job for when she graduates from her masters program this spring, she hopes to keep making bags. The business, she said, already pays for itself, but the money is hardly the motivator. Though each bag is handmade, they are reasonably priced, with the retail bags generally going for less than $100. Custom bag prices depend on the extensiveness of the request.

“I just enjoy doing it,” said Vaccariello, “It makes me so happy knowing people are wearing my product.”