Smart looks in leather

Echo Park's Clare Vivier is having a moment.

L.A. designer Jasmin Shokrian just collaborated with her, the always-stylish Rashida Jones is a regular client and Target's Red Hot Shop website recently sold out 200 of her fold-over clutches in a matter of days. The ClareVivier handbag collection, produced entirely in L.A., is winning fans with a mix of Parisian flair and timeless design. Popular styles include La Tropézienne, an eco tanned Italian leather bag; a slouchy messenger tote made of unlined nubuck leather and soft metallic flat work totes. The best part? Everything is priced under $350.

"I have to be distinctive yet simple and without a lot of bells and whistles, producing here in L.A.," Vivier, 38, said. "I'm not going to Italy and getting that kind of hardware, so I'm using basic things and trying to make it as chic as possible." Vivier notes that local production is expensive since her manufacturers in Burbank pay their employees proper wages rather than outsourcing to a cheaper manufacturing spot, such as China, for example. Her latest offering, the thick and buttery leather Mini Sac, available in camel, red and black, features a solid brass buckle. It epitomizes the simple yet chic design aesthetic that Vivier is known for.

Vivier's home studio (shared with her one employee) is outfitted with a large drafting table, an industrial Juki sewing machine for creating prototypes and an embosser for discreetly stamping her name inside each bag. ClareVivier probably wouldn't appeal to logo lovers. "They have a mystery about them," said screenwriter Deborah Kaplan, who owns five of Vivier's creations. "There's no label or flash. They're chic and extremely smart."

The designer moved to Los Angeles eight years ago with her husband Thierry Vivier, a journalist for French television, and the couple has a 6-year-old son, Oscar. "We know all of our neighbors, who are incredibly talented people, and we go to Elysian Park a lot," she said. "When we first moved here it felt like L.A. was finally being respected for things other than film. It felt like things were happening, so the timing was perfect."

A native of St. Paul, Minn., and the youngest of six children, Vivier's love for fashion started in grade school, when she would dress up in her mother's clothing and obsess over fashion magazines. She studied English at the University of San Francisco, and by age 21, she had opened a successful hip-hop clothing store, Behind the Post Office, in Haight-Ashbury with her then-boyfriend. After a few years, the relationship ended, and Vivier moved to Paris in 1995.

"I had an attraction to Paris and managed to get a job as a waitress even though I couldn't speak French at all," she said of her one-year stay. "I also interned at a documentary film production company, which was wildly humiliating as well because they put me on phone-answering duty." Even though Vivier is of Mexican and Irish origins, she admits that she definitely has a "French connection" and it's evident in her designs and personal style.

After leaving Paris, Vivier went on to work as a print journalist and later produced a French television program on technology, which had her traveling to Silicon Valley on a regular basis. Frustrated with the lack of stylish laptop bags in the market, she sewed padded cotton canvas laptop envelopes for herself and some friends. After randomly discovering $700 on the street one day, Vivier decided to buy a Bernina sewing machine and officially started making bags.

By 2006, she was taking regular orders, and her business has grown each year since. "When I started out, people said my prices were too low, but if they were higher, then the people I know couldn't afford them, and that takes out the fun," Vivier said. Once the economic recession hit, no one was complaining about the fact that a shopper could score one of Vivier's fold-over clutches made from remnant leather for $79.

"Everyone loves her bags because they are so simple and practical, yet stylish and elegant," says Bo Carney, co-owner of Mohawk General Store in Echo Park. You can also find Vivier's designs at Community Shop in L.A., Holt Renfrew in Toronto and Steven Alan's Tribeca store and the Standard Hotel in New York. They are online at

And though retail accounts are key in growing a business and adding fashion cred, Vivier's online presence at her personal blog has also been responsible for her success. She shares vacation photos, her adventures in boot cutting and more. "I was shocked by how nice the comments were and how the blog translated to sales," she said. "And my readers and customers get to know a part of me this way."

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