Young student's cartoon-face tote bags are a hit

Updated: 2013-02-15 14:04

By Caroline Berg in New York (China Daily)

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Young student's cartoon-face tote bags are a hit

Handbag designer Mengdi Wu, a junior student at Parsons, the New School for Design, shows her "Tie Tote". Caroline Berg / China Daily

Young student's cartoon-face tote bags are a hit

No matter how many accolades or how much media attention Wu Mengdi receives, the up-and-coming handbag designer says she's really not all that artistically inclined.

"I'm much better with computer stuff and not good at sewing," said Wu, who is a junior at Parsons the New School for Design in New York. "My (tailoring) teacher wanted to kill me. She wanted to hunt me down each time."

During her freshman year at Parsons, Wu launched her first canvas tote bag collection for her personal lifestyle brand, mengdi3wu, in 2010. Her debut design, which she developed in the summer before starting at Parsons, was a cartoon face screen-printed onto a white canvass.

"I wanted to create a memorable, cute face," Wu said about her "Button Tote". "I also wanted to make it simple and to be easily recognized, so I used basic shapes."

The face that inspired her brand's logo has big round black buttons for eyes, two small horizontal red ovals for blush and a red rectangle for a mouth with a chip in the lower right-hand corner.

"That's actually an error," Wu said of the missing corner. "I did intend to produce - my non-creative mind - a full rectangle, but then the computer, I don't know why, it always printed out with this corner missing."

In the end, an aunt and a sister of Wu's convinced her that the erroneous version was better. "The other way is just symmetrical and nothing special," Wu recalls them as saying.

Since launching her brand, Wu's designs have won the 2010 COACH Design Your Own Tote Award, and she became the youngest finalist to be nominated for InStyle's Independent Handbag Designer Awards. Wu's designs have also been featured in Teen Vogue, InStyle, Cosmopolitan China and on Yahoo News and television news.

Growing up in the city of Ningbo in Zhejiang province, China, the 21-year-old Wu said she never thought she would become a fashion designer. At age 14, Wu moved to the US and attended Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in Manhattan.

"I think they're more limiting of your expressions," Wu said about her education in China. "Coming to America helped me more design-wise because I think the teacher is maybe more accepting to new ideas."

Wu didn't want to follow the typical career path her professors at Parsons outlined for her and her classmates: Study in the freshman sophomore years; find internships in the junior and senior years; work for a few years; and then finally start a company.

"I was like, 'I want to do it already,'" Wu said.

From the start, Wu wanted to create a bag for teenage girls. "I just want to do my own mass market, more toward teenagers because I think that market is still not that saturated," Wu said. "Luxury is maybe more saturated."

In creating her brand name, mengdi3wu, Wu said she decided to use 3 because it's her lucky number.

Two years after establishing her brand, Wu now has seven bags in her collection. Beside her "Button Tote," there is the "Tie Tote," "Tape Tote," "Jail Tote," "White Afro Tote," "Red Afro Tote" and "Thick Lip Tote".

Wu recently completed a sample of a new makeup case, which she hopes will be ready to sell by May or June after she has organized manufacturing and shipping details.

"This time I wanted to do something more personal," Wu said of the makeup case. The case's exterior is striped yellow and black, like police tape, but she's keeping the inside design a secret for now.

Wu says inspiration for her designs comes from daily life.

"I think for teenagers it's the objects we see everyday that's more relatable," Wu says, in comparison to more abstract designs like those Wu says she has seen at the Museum of Modern Art.

Wu started selling her bags in China because they are made there and that's where her father runs a baby apparel business. Wu does her own public relations, writing press releases she sends to newspaper and magazine editors.

Wu's tote bags are available exclusively on at a cost of $25 to $35. She said the original "Button Tote" is the most popular, and she believes more than 1,000 of the bags have been sold.

Although her target market is teenage girls, Wu has found the majority of her buyers are in the 30 to 40 years-old. She speculated that those women want to be "cute and quirky," like her designs.

Wu said she has never seen someone carrying one of her bags, but she says friends have reported sightings in Times Square and in the SoHo district in lower Manhattan.

"We were all very impressed how she created her handbag line and was able on her own to get orders and so much press," said Suzanne Piazza, who taught Wu in a Parsons merchandising class last fall.

"Mengdi is a very smart and creative student who is self-motivated," the teacher said. "She was an inspiration to the entire class."

Wu included Piazza among a long list of mentors she says have helped her strengthen her brand and have encouraged her in her business.

"My mom is very excited and supportive, but my dad wants to keep me humble and not brag about myself," Wu said. "I think there's a good balance between the two."

Wu wants her designs to maintain personal connections with her target market and to create functional bags attuned to the necessities of a young woman's daily life.

Perhaps the most important part of her design, she says, is the fun factor.

As Wu writes on the mengdi3wu website, "We want our cute handbags (to) brighten up your day, and let you feel cuter than ever."