Accessory to high style With a handle on success, designer Elaine Turner proves she can create posh handbags and live in Houston too By CLIFFORD PUGH Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle August 10, 2006 When Project Runway winner Chloe Dao said she believed she could carve out a successful fashion career in Houston instead of remaining in New York, her co-stars were incredulous. But Elaine Turner empathizes completely. "Most (store owners) don't care where I'm from," she says. "They just want to sell handbags." Over the past six years Turner has developed a successful handbag line right here in the Bayou City. Her namesake collection, $195-$700, is featured nationally at Nordstrom and Bloomingdale's. She recently opened her first freestanding boutique in Dallas and plans to expand to other cities. While building her business, the 35-year-old designer has given birth to two children, now ages 6 and 2. When she became pregnant just before she launched her company in 2000, her mother remarked, "I guess we'll call it the year of creation for you." Juggling work and family has had its chaotic moments, but Turner wouldn't have done things any differently. "I never could imagine not having my business or not having my own children," she says. "I never thought it was some choice I had to make." She's had a passion for fashion since she was a child. After graduating from the University of Texas in 1992, the Sugar Land native headed to Dallas, where she became head designer for a small apparel line. Four years later, she moved to New York to work for a private-label manufacturer whose clients included Ann Taylor and Talbots. She met Jim Turner, her investment banker husband, there. After debating where to put down roots, the couple moved to Houston in 1999. She researched her options and decided to launch a handbag line because she believes it's a product that makes women happy. "It's instant gratification. You don't have to try it on. You don't feel like you're fat or worry, 'Did my size go up?' It's an instant way to refresh yourself," Turner says. She noted a gap in the market between inexpensive handbags and high-priced designer labels, so she created a mid-priced collection of contemporary handbags "with a preppy edge" that's now her trademark. She has successfully attracted both the client who occasionally splurges on a $500 bag and the well-heeled customer who buys three or four Turner bags at a time, figuring that's equal to the cost of one Prada bag. Her first big seller was a straw handbag with a top handle called the "Jackie," named for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Turner's spring/summer line of painted straw and grass cloth handbags exude the attitude of a chic woman at a Palm Beach resort. For fall, she's featuring Italian leather bags trimmed in embossed exotics, like snakeskin or ostrich, and with chain wrap detail. A crown logo decorates each bag because she wants everyone to feel like royalty, Turner says. Earlier this year, she introduced a line of stationary with the crown logo. A small leather goods collection of wallets, passport holders and key chains in ostrich, python and calf is coming in September. At first, Turner and her husband, who is the company's financial adviser, filled orders in the living room of their Houston home while their infant son sat in a bouncing chair. An order of eight bags from a small store in Arkansas was considered a large account. "We laugh now, because those were such desperate days," she says. "But that's how every business forms. Even Starbucks started somewhere." Now she wholesales more than $1 million annually, has a staff of eight, and designs and ships out of a large loft space in the Rice Village. The handbags are manufactured near Hong Kong; her head of sales and public relations are based in New York. Turner flies to New York regularly to meet with major vendors. "We're not dumb. We know that we have to have that umbilical cord to New York," Turner says. "But Neiman Marcus is not based in New York, and they're the most successful luxury retailer in the world. The world has become so global and accessible. Communication has become so much more efficient through the Internet." She has been pleasantly surprised by the success of her boutique at the Plaza at Preston Center in Dallas. She chose Dallas over Houston because she didn't want to compete against her sister, who features the line at Glo, a Rice Village accessories store. "The markets are different, but both are really good," Turner says. "Houston has a real international customer; you don't get as much of that in Dallas. Houston women are so open-minded about labels and brands. They'll never say, 'I'll only wear this.' " As the company continues to grow, Turner plans to expand to Atlanta, Palm Beach, San Antonio and other parts of Houston. She hopes one day to carve time out of her hectic schedule to mentor up-and-coming designers and encourage them to follow their dreams. Her message: Be persistent. Be tenacious. But do it your way. "It's all about what you want out of life. You're still going to be talented whether you're in New York, Houston or wherever. Who's to say a big fat salary in some big fashion company is going to make you happier than your own boutique?" She also encourages aspiring designers to be serious but not too serious about their business. "At the end of the day, fashion is all about fun and fantasy. We're not curing cancer. We're just making pretty things and making women happy."