Born just outside of New York City, handbag designer Jen Mascali has fashion in her blood—her mother and grandfather are both artists and her great-grandfather was a shoemaker for stars like Grace Kelly, whose wedding shoes he crafted (sticking a penny under the sole, Mascali says, for good luck).
Between jobs after college, Mascali made a life-changing decision: to drop everything and jet to Florence for three months, only to fall in love with the city and return permanently, eventually landing a job with a luxury handbag designer In 2010, she took things into her own hands, launching a leather handbag line that earned her recognition by Pitti as a designer to watch. I sat down with Mascali to talk about her family, her inspiration and the beauty of her adopted city.
Maggie Ryan: So your family was definitely into art and fashion… When did you realize you really had an affinity for it?
Jen Mascali: I think I was in the 6th grade, and I had a subscription to Vogue. I just really enjoyed the beauty of the clothes and the accessories, and was drawn to the art element of it all. I was also a little quirky and having to wear a Catholic schoolgirl uniform, my accessories became my form of expression. It was funny because I remember my English teacher used to say, ‘Ok, we need Jen Mascali’s fashion advice for the day!’ I was 12!
MR: People always think of the ‘fashion capitals’ being Milan or Paris. Did you ever feel any pull to go there?
JM: No, but I like Paris; it’s a beautiful city. I go there often for work, but I don’t see myself living there. And Milan to me—again, it’s beautiful and it’s a fashion capital, but it’s so similar to New York and I will always love the energy I get from NY. Here, for me, there’s aesthetically so much more, and it’s forever inspiring. I can look around on a Wednesday and find inspiration in something in Florence. There is a warmth and romance that never stops amazing me, and that’s what I love about this city.
MR: And of course the leather, being in Tuscany…
JM: Yes, that helps!
MR: What is the creative process like for you? You said you got some of your inspiration from Florence?
JM: Florence constantly inspires me and it’s always in the feel of my bags. For me, that’s the root of it. But it’s also travel. I love to travel and discover the beauty of a new culture; I also really love Native American art. Often I’m inspired by that in my collections, but it could just be a place that I go that I’m inspired by the color… It could be something as simple as the color of a stone. I can’t take every element because it would be too overwhelming. Certain inspiration works for a certain style of bag.
MR: What are some of the defining characteristics of your handbags that make them different?
JM: For one thing, they’re not structured. There are a lot of structured bags out there today but it’s not me. And I have to keep myself in my brand—you have to follow trends to a certain extent, but I like my bags to move with the body, a direct extension from the soul.. I use a lot of soft leathers, naturally tanned leathers, so with time they get softer. They age with your experience and I think that contributes to the beauty of the bag. There is an overall hippie vibe in the collections, with a focus on hardware. You can wear an all-black simple outfit, and just put this bag on and it becomes your jewelry. I’m very into accessorizing with jewelry and I wanted my bags to reflect that. If you have great accessories, you don’t need to go crazy with everything else. There are certain bags that are like jewelry, like an evening accessory.
MR: Do you have a favorite bag? What can you tell us about the story behind it?
JM: I do—the CJ is my favorite bag. I took a raw skin and played around with it, so this bag really shows the elements of a natural piece of leather. With the strap, you can open it up and you can tie it super short, like a shoulder bag or do a cross-body like a messenger—you can have fun with it. And it’s eye-catching. It’s the bag I get stopped most for. Plus, it’s light and comfortable. I named it after my brother, because he’s been my partner in my business since I started.
MR: What’s next for you and your brand?
JM: I do have plans—there are some things going on right now that I can’t really speak about because there are contracts that need to be signed, but there are plans for expansion, which I’m excited about. Recently I’ve been leading artisan experiences here in Florence. Focusing on Made in Italy and helping clients to understand why Made in Italy is expensive and what sets it apart from the rest of the world. People come to Florence for leather and they end buying things in the market that have been made in China… So I’m doing these experiences where I take people to the few artisans that are left in the city, teaching them about leather, what to look for in a bag, what to look for in a jacket, and how you can tell if the leather is good quality. I share a behind-the-scenes look at the bag-making process and discuss the elements of luxury leather goods. I also take them to other artisans around the city, for jewelry, for perfume, for shoes. It’s nice because I get to educate people about the history and tradition of Made in Italy, and it comes full circle with my brand. Helping people to understand why they should want Made in Italy products and the innate beauty of them is rewarding for me.