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Designer Suzan Lee Turns the Exotic into Everyday Luxury

An avid handbag collector since she was a teen, Suzan Lee has always had a special fondness for exotic leathers. She recalls saving all of her money and scouring secondhand stores to find crocodile and snakeskin vintage bags. In fact, the special bags she purchased back then still remain part of her impressive collection today.

When the stars aligned, and she decided to follow her dream of launching her own luxury handbag collection, exotic skins became her signature material. Now, this Southern California-based designer is turning the exotic into an everyday luxury item.

“Exotic leather bags used to sit on the shelf and just be brought out for special occasions,” says Lee. “I make the design of my bags functional, roomy, user-friendly and inviting for everyday use.”

The designer’s love of fashion goes back to her early years, when Lee would sit and watch her mother sew the family’s clothes. When her mother was done, Lee would take the scraps of remnant fabric and sew them together to make patchwork clothes and bags for her dolls. As she grew older and more adept with a needle and thread, she designed and made totes and bags for herself and her friends. This ignited a passion for creating her own unique pieces.

Gifted with a keen, artistic eye, Lee began her career focused on commercial interior design. “I love architecture and building something from nothing. When I see a blank space, my immediate instinct is to break it up into smaller intimate segments that are visually inviting and welcoming of inclusion,” she shares. Her overall attention to detail and discerning taste helped prepare her for turning her love of handbags into a business.

So, how did Lee make the leap from handbag collector and interior designer to starting her namesake luxury brand? About eight years ago Lee was visiting Seoul, Korea, where she happened to connect with a third-generation handbag manufacturing company that specializes in exotic leathers. Coincidence? Lee doesn’t think so. She ended up working with them to perfect a new type of design made from exotic skins—it was then that the Suzan Lee brand was born.

Lee strives to create luxurious, user-friendly bags that fit the modern woman’s lifestyle. A mother of four, she focuses on crafting statement pieces that are not only beautiful, but also durable enough to withstand daily use.

“I like to think that my bags fit both function and beauty in a way that only the person carrying the bag can explain.”

Lee works hard at anticipating what her customers need, and finds her design inspiration by observing people and how they use their bags. “I like to think that my bags fit both function and beauty in a way that only the person carrying the bag can explain,” she says. The majority of Suzan Lee customers own other designer bags and are looking for something unique, as well as functional. More recently, she has added accessories such as fancy purse straps and card cases to her collection, plus a line of men’s backpacks.

While Lee has trouble choosing her favorite handbag design, she puts the Suzan Lee Zip-Top Handbag in crocodile leather at the top of her list for everyday versatility. “It’s truly the most functional bag that anyone could ask for!” she says emphatically. And it comes in several colors, whether you prefer more classic neutrals for everyday or making a color statement.

Although she’s not a self-described adventurer, Lee’s love of traveling the world didn’t develop until later in life. She has since more than conquered her fear, and now doesn’t give a second thought to jetting off by herself to explore an unknown locale. Experiencing new countries and cultures fuels her creative process by helping her visualize the ordinary and see it through a different lens.

Not surprisingly, this seasoned globetrotter has set her sights on launching a travel collection for the discriminating traveler. “I want beauty, practicality and function to all merge together in this collection,” she says. “It’s been a work in progress for the past three years!”

RAPID-FIRE QUESTIONS

LAST BOOK YOU READ?

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

IF YOU COULD BE ANY ANIMAL?

I would be a dog. A well-loved and cared for little white dog!

FAVORITE ICE CREAM FLAVOR?

Jamoca Almond Fudge

FAVORITE RESTAURANT?

Onodera, Japanese Omasake-style sushi

WHO WOULD PLAY YOU IN A MOVIE?

The detective in a suspense thriller, like A Simple Favor

MORNING OR NIGHT PERSON?

Definitely morning

WHAT ANNOYS YOU MOST?

Indecisiveness

THREE WORDS TO DESCRIBE YOURSELF?

Go-getter, dedicated, passionate

IF YOU COULD TRADE LIVES WITH ANYONE FOR A DAY, WHO WOULD IT BE?

Margaret Thatcher

LAST MOVIE YOU SAW?

A Simple Favor

COFFEE OR TEA?

Both!

BEER OR WINE?

Champagne

SUNRISE OR SUNSET?

Sunrise

WHAT IS SOMETHING YOU CONSIDER ICONIC?

Style!

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