By Cathy Rose A. Garcia
Korean fans still remember her as a pop star from the 90s, but in New York City, Sang A Im-Propp is a rising designer of highly coveted, luxurious handbags made of exotic skins.
Sang A Im-Propp, a former singer in Korea, has reinvented herself as a handbag designer in New York City. / All Photos Courtesy of Sang
The buzz about Sang A's handbags has been growing stronger, thanks to Hollywood celebrities and favorable reviews from influential fashion magazines like Vogue and Elle.
Young and beautiful stars like Rihanna, Keira Knightley, Nicky Hilton, Jessica and Ashlee Simpson and Blake Lively are fans of her glamorous clutches and totes that can go from $1,000 to nearly $10,000. .
Even in the ultra-hip TV show ``Gossip Girl,'' actress Leighton Meester, who plays the always fashionable Blair Waldorf, is spotted
holding one of Sang A's trademark designs, the black River Tote, which retails for $9,440.
The Sang A River Tote bag in zebra black alligator is one of the most luxurious handbags from the collection, and also the priciest at $9,440. The same bag was featured on the hip TV show "Gossip Girl."
From Pop Music to Handbags
In Korea, she is still referred to as Im Sang-a. As an actress and singer, she appeared in TV dramas and released three albums, which included the catchy dance song ``Musical.''
Now, she is simply Sang A, the handbag designer.
In an email interview with The Korea Times, Sang A shares that she was always interested in fashion, creating costumes and styling her own outfits, even while working as an entertainer.
In 1998, while visiting New York City, she was drawn to the world of fashion, and decided to stay. She left her pop music career to study fashion and design at the Parsons School of Design.
``I have always been more of a clothing person, but as I studied fashion design, I became more interested in accessories as the starting point for my designs. ….
``I have always had a strong interest in the fashion industry, and as I explored different areas of the industry, accessories attracted me. I saw handbag design as the perfect way to create the strong beginnings of the Sang A signature,'' Sang A said.
She worked as a stylist for a year and a half, before deciding she wanted to design accessories.
As a Korean designer starting her own business in the United States, Sang A experienced difficulties at first, especially with the language barrier and cultural differences.
She may have been a celebrity in Seoul, but in New York, she was just one of countless designers hoping to get noticed in the fashion industry. Sang A married in 2001, established her own company in 2003, and launched the handbag collection in 2006.
As an entertainer, Sang A was used to being managed by other people, but as a businesswoman, she had to learn to manage other people.
``Starting your own company is a major challenge, especially coming from an entertainment career where you have an entire team who manages you. Now I have the team that I must manage. At the same time, the principal elements and experiences from my previous life have stayed with me to help create my New York life and career,'' she said.
Her talent did not go unrecognized. Sang A won the emerging talent award from the Samsung Fashion and Design Fund, which included a $100,000 grant.
Designing Luxury Handbags
Sang A quickly learned the ropes of the business. She has taken a hands-on approach to designing the bags, which ``exude the essence of modern classic with a dose of avant garde.'' Her own personal style is translated into the handbag designs.
``I observe everyone around me, and I am inspired by these observations of individual's lives. The qualities that make each person unique and create their worlds are my main inspiration,'' she said.
With its striking color combinations, strong geometric shapes and exotic skins, Sang A bags are for women who want to stand out anywhere, anytime. The tote bags and clutches, made of animal skins like alligator, python, lizard and ostrich, are not for everyone.
``The Sang A woman is a wife, mother and professional. She lives a sophisticated uptown lifestyle, but explores downtown for her laidback edge. She shops at Bergdorf Goodman, then heads downtown to discover avant-garde and cutting edge pieces to add that extra pop to her wardrobe. She travels widely and must have a style that is effortless and standout signature,'' Sang A said.
For this season's collection, Sang A said she was inspired by the vintage details on exquisite late 19th century luggage and handbags she discovered in Italy. Her favorite bag from the collection is the Pane bag.
``This bag is inspired by a military-style `bread bag.' It mixes luxe skins and beautiful Italian linen, classic maturity with a youthful edge,'' she said.
It's no wonder why socialites and Hollywood celebrities love using her clutches, especially at red carpet events and parties. ``I love to see how my designs mix with the different celebrities' styles and personalities,'' she said.
The Sang A brand is also getting a boost from fashion blogs, especially those dedicated to designer handbags. Blogs, like the Purse Blog and Bag Snob, have been giving generally favorable reviews for her bags.
``These blogs are a very powerful voice in the industry right now. The writers behind these sites are intelligent, wonderful people and great fans of my collection. These sites have huge circulation and are a great vehicle for young designers to establish their name. The feedback that the readers post on these blogs is pure and honest and is so valuable to the designers,'' Sang A said.
Sang A is one of several Korean and Korean-American designers making waves in New York City, including Doori Chung, Richard Chai and Andy & Debb. Backed with years of experience, she offers valuable advice for aspiring designers who want to make it in New York.
``I would encourage them to use every opportunity effectively and create their dreams. Immediate action and instinct is key,'' she said.
There seems to be no stopping Sang A from pushing forward. In the future, she hopes to launch a clothing line, as well as open retail flagship shops in New York and Seoul (her handbags are currently only available at 10 Corso Como in Seoul or www.sanga.com).
``As (the brand) Sang A continues to grow, I plan to create a complete lifestyle brand. For example, I am already working on my apparel collection to launch soon, stunningly chic dresses and perfectly tailored plaid coats. I will definitely be opening retail flagships in New York and Seoul," she said. ``I design what I truly believe my customer will love and I am excited to see the Sang A brand grow,'' she added.
Even though she's been busy with her business in the U.S., Sang A has not forgotten her roots in Korea. She usually visits Korea once a year, but still constantly misses Korean food that she grew up with.
Fans might even see the return of Sang A, the pop star. ``I am currently planning to work on a new digital album project for the upcoming year, I will keep you posted,'' she said.