Ellicott City native's handbags score with Oprah, other celebs

Fashion ShowsEntertainmentEllicott CityOprah WinfreyDillard's IncorporatedNeiman MarcusMacy's

Danielle DiFerdinando's resume was already packed. The Ellicott City native's handbags had been stocked by the likes of Bergdorf Goodman, sold from Fifth Avenue to Tokyo, and carried by tastemakers like Rachel Zoe and Anna Dello Russo.

But last October, DiFerdinando's handbag line, Danielle Nicole, received its biggest endorsement yet: Oprah Winfrey's seal of approval.

She chose DiFerdinando's Sydney Shopper, a cognac-and-gold reversible tote that comes with a removable wristlet, for her O! Magazine's "O You!" event in Atlanta. Winfrey purchased 5,500 of the bags as gifts for her guests. The bag was also featured in O! Magazine and on Oprah.com.

"I met her at the event, and she was amazing," said DiFerdinando, who later found out that she was chosen from 200 designers. "She loved the bag, and I was told she had it in her dressing room. I told her that I started my business when I was 18, and that I was now 25. She said: 'You go, girl!' They're really supportive of the line."

A graduate of River Hill High School and the daughter of the founder of Boardwalk Fries, DiFerdinando is a rising star in the fashion world. Since becoming one of the youngest vendors to have her merchandise sold at Bergdorf Goodman, DiFerdinando has made strategic decisions and conjured creative designs that have hastened her rise.

It all started on the elevator at the famed department store, where DiFerdinando was interning while studying at the Fashion Institute of Technology. She was riding alongside the buyer for the cosmetics department, who noticed her purse, DiFerdinando recalled. When she revealed that she designed it, the buyer asked whether DiFerdinando could make cosmetics bags.

Of course she could, she blurted out, knowing full well that she had never made a cosmetics bag.

"I was just so excited to design something," she said recently, while sitting in her showroom in the accessories holding company Artisan House, which is also home to Gwen Stefani's L.A.M.B. brand, Isabella Fiore, Foley + Corinna and Charlotte Ronson.

Within three months, DiFerdinando found a manufacturer and completed her first run of 60 leather cosmetics bags. The initial batch did well enough that Bergdorf Goodman's fifth floor — an area where products from the most contemporary designers are sold — requested an order of purses. That meant DiFerdinando spent almost every hour of her free time that semester making leather accessories by hand to fill the order.

"I'd make them in between classes when I'd have an hour break," she recalled. "I would even bring my books to the factory and study while I worked there. I didn't mind it. I loved what I did. School wasn't school to me. It was my hobby. It was about creating fashions that no one else had."

Since then, her purses have been sold at Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale's, Saks Fifth Avenue and other retailers worldwide.

Celebrities have taken notice as well. Rachel Zoe has recommended the Mia bag. Anna Dello Russo, the editor-at-large and creative consultant for Vogue Japan, has been spotted carrying one of DiFerdinando's creations. Krysten Ritter, star of ABC's "Don't Trust the B---- in Apt. 23," has been photographed with a Danielle Nicole purse. During New York Fashion Week, Alexa Ray Joel carried one of the purses. "Real Housewives of New York" cast member Ramona Singer toted one of DiFerdinando's Madison shoulder bags during Fashion's Night Out.

MTV reality star Kristin Cavallari, a recent new mother, gushed about DiFerdinando's Brooklyn tote on her Opensky.com page.

"I found something that's functional for baby and me," the "Laguna Beach" and "The Hills" alum wrote. "I really like the edgy details on the outside and most importantly, the roomy inside."

The celeb cred has increased despite DiFerdinando's decision in 2009, amid the economic downturn, to drop her prices. Instead of selling her goods at up to $900, she has since been selling most purses for less than $100.

The move paid off. Though she's no longer carried at Bergdorf, she was picked up by Nordstrom, Macy's, Dillard's and Piperlime.

It hasn't been easy. DiFerdinando, who no longer makes her bags from leather, has to comb the globe in search of low-cost, high-quality materials.

"You have to dig so deep," said DiFerdinando, who takes two "inspiration trips" each year so that she can research international trends. "You have to really reach out to as many hardware suppliers as you can. It's about bringing Paris fashion to mainstream America."

DiFerdinando also has a habit of dropping in at major department stores that carry her bags.

"I always shock them," DiFerdinando said with a laugh. "For me to approach them so casually, it always makes their day."

Besides building good will for her brand, DiFerdinando uses the interactions to talk to salespeople to gain insight. "They see all the trends," she said.

DiFerdinando's success comes as no surprise to local retailers who carried her brand early in her career.

"I thought she was very talented," said Sima Blue, owner of Trillium, a boutique in Green Spring Station that carried DiFerdinando's bags around the same time as Bergdorf Goodman. "She just presented herself very well. ... But it's not just the talent — it's the motivation behind it."

George Sakellaris, owner of Handbags in the City in Harbor East, also has fond memories of the burgeoning designer.

"She's great," he said. "She was so much fun to work with."

Sakellaris sees a lot of potential in DiFerdinando.

"She has some very fun designs," he said. "They are different from a lot that is out there. It's great for the city. ... She's pretty big. She's only going to grow."

DiFerdinando attributes much of her work ethic to her father, David DiFerdinando, founder and owner of Boardwalk Fries, a chain with locations in 40 states.

She recalls working at his eateries starting at age 6. "I had to stand on a soda box to reach the counter," she said. "My parents taught me if you wanted something, you had to work for it."

Her father remembers his fashion-curious daughter first experimenting with designing ties at 12, and then transitioning into making purses at 16 after reading about how much more profitable the handbag industry was.

"She's very ambitious and very talented," he said. "She's putting out a product that other women like. It's amazing. I hope that she will become the next Kate Spade."

That might not be too far from reality for his daughter, who already has eyes on expanding her brand. This year, she launched a line of soft goods such as wallets and iPad cases. And there's more to come.

"I want to create a lifestyle brand," she said. "I want to design shoes, home goods and go into clothing. I just want to expand."

But DiFerdinando appreciates what she's achieved. "I'm so grateful to be in this position," she said. "I'm living the dream."

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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