As I waited to interview handbag designer Dee Ocleppo at Saks Fifth Avenue in Houston, I did a double take as Tommy Hilfiger walked by. He's one of America's most famous designers, but on this day, the business of fashion was not on his mind, although he did admire the red Zara jeans I was wearing.
"I'm just shopping," he said.
When Hilfiger and Ocleppo married in 2008, they vowed to travel together at all times. "If we didn't we probably wouldn't see each other," she said with a laugh.
"It's fun for me because it's a major learning curve, but it also brings Tommy back to his beginning days. I benefit from all the mistakes he made along the way."
Now that commitment has taken an unexpected turn as Ocleppo touts her unique luxury handbag line and Hilfiger is along for the ride.
Until fairly recently, getting involved in the fashion business was the farthest thing from her mind. But when she came up with the idea for a "convertible" handbag with a detachable, reversible cover in a different color or skin that changes the look — it's like having three different handbags-in-one — her husband was so impressed that he encouraged her to pursue the unique idea.
The result is a collection featuring handbags in five styles, ranging from $595 to $12,000.
CultureMap: How did this handbag line come about?
Dee Ocleppo: Tommy was doing a preppy collection about three years ago, and I was describing this bag that I [carried in] high school. It was at the height of the preppy movement and there were these little cotton twill bags; you could unbutton them and they would change from pink to green. And I said, "We should do a grown-up version of these bags."
He thought it was a great concept but he said it would probably be just a one-season thing and get lost in the mix of everything going on with Tommy Hilfiger. He said, "Why don't you do it?"
CM: What did you think when he said that?
DO: I had never thought of doing it. He introduced me to Mindy Grossman from HSN and I described this concept. I had made some pretty bad prototypes but she loved the idea and I sold them on HSN, but made in China with simpler materials. Always in the back of my mind I wanted to do them beautiful and luxe, using nicer materials and have them made in a certain way.
I experimented with the concept in Italy and picked some beautiful skins and leathers and showed them to Marigay McKee at Harrods and she thought they were great and said she would take them. I literally didn't have any kind of setup. I walked out of the room and had to call the factory and say, "Can you actually make these, because Harrods wants to buy them?" And that's really how we started.
"All the bags have this beautiful pink satin lining. I've found if the linings are black I can never find anything. It's like a big bottomless pit."
CM: What has the reaction been?
DO: I've had great response. Women react first of all to the craftsmanship. They want something with great quality and they're willing to pay for it. And when they see they can wear the bag three ways, that's just an extra kicker.
CM: How hard were they to design?
DO: There were a lot of technical and engineering challenges to get the bag to actually work. But I think that we worked through everything and now we offer something that's really beautiful, really practical and different.
And all the bags have this beautiful pink satin lining. I've found if the linings are black I can never find anything. It's like a big bottomless pit. If you do them too light they get dirty. So I thought this was the perfect color, not too dark and not too light. And it's hopefully going to be seen almost like the Christian Louboutin red sole, so you open the bag and get a little look of the hot pink and it will be identified as my bag.
CM: Has it been a blessing or curse to be the wife of Tommy Hilfiger in the fashion business?
DO: It's a blessing for many reasons. I have the best free advisor money can't buy. And it's fun for me because it's a major learning curve, but it also brings Tommy back to his beginning days. I benefit from all the mistakes he made along the way. I think that perhaps having him as my husband might open some doors, but like anything else, you can open the door but if you don't deliver, the door closes very quickly.
CM: His name is so well-known. Why didn't you take his name for the bags?
DO: I legally cannot. His company is owned by PVH Phillips-Van Heusen. They own Hilfiger as a name. So I cannot use it on anything.
"As you know, in this business you can never rest on your laurels. So you just keep in motion and keep moving. Otherwise you'll get trampled."
CM: Is it something you would have considered?
DO: It might have been a blessing in disguise (not to use it) because that would just confuse the consumer. I'm hoping that they buy the bag because they love the bag and not because I'm somebody's wife.
CM: You go back and forth to Italy a lot for the handbag line.
DO: On this and on things [with] Tommy. We're always together. I travel with him. He travels with me. We've got kids all over the place. He's got not only the Tommy Hilfiger business but he's got a lot of balls in the air, so to speak. He's — we're — constantly on the go.
CM: He seems to be in a good place and you probably have something to do with it.
DO: I hope so. I'm proud of the last show he did. You have to constantly reinvent yourself in the fashion business; otherwise you get stale. And he has been around a long time. I think as far as Tommy Hilfiger goes, he's keeping the brand relevant and fresh. As you know, in this business you can never rest on your laurels. So you just keep in motion and keep moving. Otherwise you'll get trampled.
In this video, Ocleppo shows the versatility of her three-in-one handbags: