Specialist Rachel Koffsky talks to the Hollywood actress-turned-designer, whose ‘wearable art’ is inspired by everything from cheeseburgers to Campbell’s soup cans and Coca-Cola bottles. Illustrated with lots offered in Paris on 12 December
How did you get started designing handbags?
Kathrine Baumann: ‘Before I began designing handbags in 1988, I had gone to Hollywood and started working in film. After an encounter with a plate-glass door and 272 stitches in my left leg, my film career came to a halt. There wasn’t much demand for actresses in wheelchairs.
‘With time on my hands, a limited budget and a love for the sparkle of crystal, I began designing bags for myself. They turned out to be a hit with an upscale Beverly Hills clientele. Kathrine Baumann Beverly Hills was born, and I became the “Beverly Hills Bag Lady”.’
What has been the secret to your success?
KB: ‘It is important to be part of a team: no one is successful alone. I may be a motivating force, but the members of my staff are the spokes of the wheel.
‘Without each and every one of them, my designs couldn’t become reality. If everyone does their jobs well, accomplishing something on an international level takes the same effort as something on a local scale. I am also motivated by collectors of my bags, who often send letters and emails sharing their stories.
‘One collector proposed to his fiancée by placing the engagement ring in one of my Coca-Cola minaudières, accompanied by a card that read, “I finally found the real thing. Will you marry me?” Of course she said yes.’
Tell us about your design philosophy.
KB: ‘Despite my lack of formal art or design training, I have always been creative, and my minaudières are wearable art. My head artist and sculptor restored antiquities in China and worked on the restoration of the pyramids in Egypt.
‘My bags range from classic to whimsical, but each piece is one I would wear myself. Above all, they are well made: each is painstakingly created by hand. Competing in Miss America in 1970 [Baumann was first runner-up], I learned that it’s not what you do but how you do it.
‘Most importantly, I want my handbags to make people happy. My motto is: if it makes you smile, it’s my bag.’
You have been referred to as ‘the female Andy Warhol’. Do you look to his work for inspiration? What other artists, works or periods inspire you?
KB: ‘Warhol was arguably one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. Even 30 years after his death, he remains extremely influential — my minaudières in the shape of the Campbell’s soup can and Coca-Cola bottle in particular reflect the impression his work has made on me. I also appreciate the work of James Rosenquist, Roy Lichtenstein and Pablo Picasso.’
Many of your bags are limited editions and numbered. How do you determine the size of the edition?
KB: ‘Minaudières with more commercial appeal, like those inspired by Disney characters or the Coca-Cola bottles, sometimes generate larger editions — though we still limit the size of the run in order to maintain uniqueness and value. There is also a market for one-of-a-kind designs.
‘In tribute to the Oscar-winning film Saving Private Ryan, for example, a unique 24 carat gold-and-diamond heart was personally designed and auctioned by Christie’s to raise funds for the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
‘The Titanic-shaped minaudière, a limited edition of 25 introduced in 1988 on the red carpet at the Academy Awards, pre-sold in three days for $6,000. On the secondary market, one recently sailed away for $16,000. A true investment.’
Beneath the glitter and sparkle is a strong female entrepreneur. In the 30 years you have run your brand, how have you seen the industry change for female designers?
KB: ‘There is still gender inequality in the industry, but talent rises to the top. Female designers, despite being in the minority, give a necessary competitive edge.’