Those who can't fathom the importance of a woman's purse clearly haven't seen the Disney movie Mary Poppins. Although fancifully exaggerated, this film depicts what a bag is to a woman; it contains her world. More than just a pretty accessory, a bag has a vital role in a woman's life. A bag can hold work documents, emergency care items (band-aids, tampons, lip gloss) or baby care items. Often times these items are equally as important as one's wallet or cell phone.
For one Tulsa-based company, the role of the purse has been expanded even further. With MarTique Designs, not only is the bag the lifeline for the women who carry it, but a way to support the women around the globe who make them.
MarTique Designs began as Uniquely International in 1999, but the idea had been in the works for years. Co-founders Bob and Marty Wagoner lived as missionaries for 30 years in Southeast Asia. Throughout the country, Marty became fascinated with the handmade bags and purses the women made and sold at markets. Marty had always wanted to start a fashion-focused company; and the Wagoner's saw an opportunity to sell the bags to distant consumers while also providing decent wages to their creators.
"When we first visited we found so many women trying to sell their gorgeous, handmade bags and struggling to provide for their families. Their problem was lack of exposure and we were compelled to do something," said Marty. "We decided if we imported their bags, we could provide them a better price and greater opportunity to develop their business; and it's working."
MarTique Designs' exposure has gradually grown during the past 10 years. The company first sold bags through representatives (like Avon or Mary Kay) before eventually moving into boutiques in Tulsa. Now, not only are they in The Glass Slipper (8102 S. Lewis) Bella Damaes (5958 S. Lewis), Isabella's (1311 E. 35th St.) and high-end department stores like Miss Jackson's (1974 Utica Square), the bags are sold in Indiana and Texas as well.
This past summer, the company expanded its outreach with the addition of a Web site, www.uniquemartique.com, which now works as the company's storefront. David Wagoner, the co-founder's son and MarTique Designs' promotion and media manager, said that while the company plans to have its own boutique in a few years, they are currently investing their resources into the Web site. He said there is no need for the store yet, as shopping has really become a part of the online world. The company is also discussing expanding the brand into other media as it heads into the global market.
This global expansion is part of the company's desire to help Third World countries. The bags not only assist the women of Southeast Asia to be able to support their families, but a portion of the proceeds are donated to a variety of causes throughout the world, such as building an orphanage in Vietnam and providing clean water in India.
To say that bags are being imported from Southeast Asia can sound a little sketchy. The vague term "Southeast Asia" is used instead of specific countries in order to protect the vendors who live under restrictive governments.
Recently, a MarTique Designs representative went to one of these countries and was denied entry.
But Bob and Marty still have a strong hands-on experience, visiting there for several months out of the year. Initially, vendors were found by pounding the pavement in the region, developing trust with the women who would then open the doors to other vendors. Word of mouth played a major role. The couple buys from and connects with different vendors each year from their web of original connections. And while the lines are imagined by the designers and have their own mark (including a testimonial from the designer inside of each bag), Marty gives input on the designs in order to keep the ideas fresh.
Looks Good, Feels Good
The Web site goes for two different approaches: aestheticism and functionality. There are everyday bags, eco-friendly bags, novelty and exotic bags, evening bags, travel bags and urban bags. The purses are sold in numerous styles and sizes: shoulder bags, handbags, clutches and totes. The Web site also carries scarves, shawls and bags for kids.
The materials are as varied as the designs themselves. There are suede hobos in red earth tones with silver and turquoise details as well as beige bags that work with any ensemble. The eco-friendly bags are all natural: sun-dried natural fibers of Hyacinth, tear drop shells and crystal beading on silk, and shell and horn checkered clutches. And while one might think that "eco-friendly" means only earth tone shades, these bags range from the traditional black and brown to reds, pinks, blues, purples and dark green.
The Curves of Color line features bags that reflect Southeast Asian culture. In jewel-toned colors, the bags showcase designs of flowers and satin embroidery in gold, purple, brown and red. They give the appeal of foreign or ethnic goods, but are high-end as well.
The bags are multi-purpose too; large, woven plastic totes in black and white checkered print are great for everything from daily use or for a day at the lake. On the other end of the spectrum is the Lotus Flower bag, a small wristlet shaped like a singular silk lotus flower. The extra incentive that it comes in more than half a dozen colors assists in helping you match (or not) it with evening garments.
Some of the novelty and exotic bags have to be taken as they are labeled. The Face and Hair Suede Tote, despite its unappealing description, is a beige tote with ribbon flowers in sea foam greens, pastel purple and white. The company created enough options so no target consumer is necessary. With a focus on novelty, they are bound to have just as many unique customers as they do styles.
Although UniqueMartique.com features only two shawls/scarves at the moment, they are both gorgeous. That is likely the most frustrating aspect of online shopping: while it is the most convenient option (shopping in your pajamas at home and the items coming to you), you are in the dark as to exactly what you're buying. You can't throw the bag on your shoulder to see if it will sit right under your arm; there's no way to determine if it has the right amount of pocket space or if it will hold all of your life's necessities. With the scarves and shawls, what you see is what you get, and the measurements are listed to ensure that it's long enough for your purposes. The red and black silk pashmina is just as bold as the velvet purple peacock scarf with hand-sewn bugle beading.
The company continues creating more for the Web site. There will be a weekly special where one bag will be 25 percent off and the Web site will let shoppers know of upcoming events, like the Go Red for Women event for the American Heart Association in May. Those interested in receiving updates can sign up for the company's newsletter or check the Web site. There are also plans to expand their philanthropic outreach, focusing on finding a breast cancer initiative that MarTique Designs' bags can provide proceeds. They are also working to expand the brand by incorporating locally talented artists and designers.
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