Designer Spotlight: Handbag Guru Vanesa Wittenberg

From designing hobos to speaking multiple languages, Vanesa Wittenberg does it all. This brilliant Latina graduated from business school at the University of Southern California, where she got the idea to launch Almas, her own line of rich, handcrafted leather handbags from her native Argentina (for more info, visit sat down with Wittenberg to hear how she got her own fashion company up and running, and what the hottest trends will be this fall, and why Argentineans make the best handbags. Hands down.

Tell us about your experience growing up in Argentina.

I was born in 1971 in Rosario, which is about two hours from Buenos Aires. My mom was a teacher who eventually decided to be a full-time
mother, and my father works in the metal industry. I worked in human resources at General Motors in Argentina for about five years and then applied for an MBA at the USC's Marshall School of Business. I left Argentina to go to school there, and graduated in 2002.

Wow, that's an impressive background. So how did you transition from business school to designing handbags?

I wanted a business that would connect me to Argentina and my family. Argentina is very well known for its high-quality leather, so I saw a good opportunity to produce leather handbags there and then bring them to the U.S. I finished my business plan in my last year of school and started having conversations with suppliers. Once I graduated, I went back to Argentina and produced my first samples. At first, my office was just my apartment in West Hollywood, and my business was basically me with a suitcase full of bags, going from boutique to boutique and offering them to the owners.

What makes Argentinian leather so beautiful?

It's the weather! It's not humid and hot, so the cows don't get mosquito bites or damage to their hides. The Argentine Pampas--that's where cows are the happiest.

When you first moved to the U.S. to get your MBA, didn’t you have a hard time with the language?

No, because I've been studying English since I was eight years old. I've always liked learning languages. I even studied Russian for five

How would you describe your personal style?

Well as far as my accessories are concerned, I'm all about utility because I have two girls: one three year-old and one seven month-old. So I always wear bags that I can easily turn into diaper bags.

Love the multi-tasking. So, which one of your bags can double as a diaper bag?

One of my favorites as a diaper bag is the Mendoza Duffel. It comes in a bunch of olors, so I use a different one according to the season. Usually I wear a lot of black, so red is always a good one for me. This spring, I definitely fell in love with the yellow.

Any colors that you predict will be big this fall?

We always do browns and blacks and some reds, but we've also added some colors this fall. We're working with different shades of blue and a dark wine-purple that we think will sell well.

So let’s say you have a blue wristlet--what color outfit can you match that with?

Well it goes perfectly with brown, but it can also go with black. We are not too worried about matching outfits because in the past couple of years, people have been looking to do that less. Sometimes they just want to have a handbag or clutch that creates contrast and attracts the attention of other people.

What kind of handbags will be in fashion next season?

We're still seeing a preference for clutches that can transition into evening, as well as a lot of large hobo bags. But some of our best sellers are our small leather goods, so we're trying to improve the styling and add details to those pieces. They're great because a woman can throw one into her big bag during the day, and then in the evening, she can just take it out and use it as a wristlet--put her cell phone, ID and change, get ready to go out and be stylish!

You describe yourself in business terms, yet you do incredibly creative work. When did you start tapping into that part of your personality?

When I was 15 years old, my grandmother would help me make clutches out of cotton fabric. I sold 100 of them to my classmates! Even though I studied and worked in business, that creative and artsy side was always in me, too. With Almas, I can bring both sides together.

Serena Kim