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Out Of The Ashes

In 2004, when a fire completely demolished her production facility in Pennsylvania, handbag designer Wendy Stevens saw the writing on the wall - literally.

"Everything was destroyed - equipment, inventory, paperwork," she says. "What remained were two stone walls, a floor, and twenty years of designing, building, and selling my product." In a way, the remaining walls stood as a metaphor for what she would have to do: rebuild everything from scratch. With the help of her husband, Will Stone, a designer in his own right, Stevens completely restructured the business into an "even stronger, more efficient operation," she says. And with a steady clientele base, the next new series of Wendy Stevens designs is always a welcome thing. Some of her clients, she says modestly, have several bags.

Stevens began designing handbags in 1983 "as a process of survival and experimentation" with her art. She had just moved to New York, leaving behind the West Coast and a career in bilingual elementary school education. Surrounded by friends making art in all realms, she began exploring her own artistic potential, which she found in the very substance of the city. For some people a subway car is nothing more than a fast way to get from downtown to uptown. For Stevens, it was a source of fascinating sheet metal, as were the telephone booths, elevators, and construction sites she saw everywhere.

"I hunted through endless available materials on Canal Street, in hardware stores, and in the industrial venues of the city," she explains. "Then came the hand tools: punching holes, cutting, sanding sheet metal in my apartment by day and working in a nightclub by night, where I noticed an enormous need for small, durable handbags - just big enough to fit some change, a driver's license and lipstick." That was the genesis of her first metal handbags. Henri Bendel, the epitome of uptown fashion at the time, placed an order. So did cutting edge East Village galleries.

What marks her designs, above and beyond durability, is the assortment of sizes, shapes and metals. Maintaining her integrity as a designer, she continues to make each piece by hand, with the help of a small staff. And just when you thought she had exhausted all materials, she comes up with new ones and new combinations. In fact, she now designs her own sheet metals.

She continues to produce some of the signature pieces -- like the Drop Bag and the Shoulder Bag -- though she may change details in hardware and leather. Out of the scraps generated by the handbags, she began producing belts, picture frames, lamps, and office pieces.

The originality of her designs has garnered attention in top fashion and design magazines around the world. And if the fire did set her back, her flourishing business is a clear indication of what it means to rise from the ashes.