Che Che, C’est Chi Chi!
Bag Ladies Rule Uptown
Throughout Asia, there’s a waiting list for Che Che handbags: hand-painted canvas totes featuring the iconic “Che Che” girl perching in a pink-beaded dress with legs crossed at a wrought-iron table, say, patting her greyhound and sipping lemonade with Audrey Hepburn insouciance, or striding long-legged down a Parisian street in blue jeans and a pink tank top, with a bouquet of flowers in one arm and the latest Che Che bag on the other (stuffed with baguettes; the Che Che girl is indifferent to carbs). In New York, the bags are more of a cult favorite. The bright colors sometimes draw customers into the Lexington Avenue shop, where the signature poche sells for $230. And they might even go home and look in their closet to figure out the best color. But at the end of the day? “They come back and get a black bag,” said Marilyn Ko, who runs Che Che’s Lexington Avenue outpost. “I’m just being honest.”
Ms. Ko is the oldest of three sisters who own Che Che (indeed, one might almost call the company Che Chekovian); the other two, Eliza Ong and Helen Cheung, both in their 30’s, live near company headquarters in Hong Kong, where they grew up. “I stay up late, and they get up early and stay up late,” Ms. Ko said. “I was calling them at 1 in the afternoon today, and it was 2 o’clock in the morning and they were still having a meeting!” The name of the multimillion-dollar business derives from their maiden name, Cheung, and honors their father. Helen Cheung, the youngest daughter, said she is the primary source of inspiration for the “uncrackable, unshrinkable” Che Che girl. “I don’t need to consult anyone else’s opinion. I love to make decisions by myself,” she said over the phone.
Eliza Ong, the middle sister, is the imaginative, artistic one-an introvert who communicates through her design. “I can’t draw,” Ms. Ko admitted frankly. (Over the phone, Ms. Ong said that her older sister does consult on small design details, as well as sharing advice about the tastes of American consumers.) After the designs are painstakingly drawn and painted by art-school graduate students, each bag is sent to one factory for beading and another for assembly by white-gloved workers. If the Che Che girl isn’t captured to management’s satisfaction, the bag will never make it to stage two.
Che Che’s transformation from a small shop in Hong Kong to an international success happened in 2000, overnight-literally!-after a Japanese buyer slept on two pieces of fabric that Ms. Ong had given him. Recently, the trio opened a factory of their own in China where all three steps in the production process can be performed in one place. They do tons more wholesale than retail. There’s a store in Tokyo and in Singapore in addition to the one on Lexington, which employs two people full-time (there are about 100 employees worldwide). Ms. Ko described herself as a lenient manager. “I don’t look over their shoulder,” she said. “I was an employee for over 10 years, and I know how it feels to be told what to do and be reprimanded for what you didn’t do.” She used to teach at Polytechnic University in Hong Kong and also owns KoKo, an antique store on 66th Street, with her husband.
But Che Che is her special baby. Inside the shop, a large silk-and-organza chandelier hangs from the high ceiling, over a round orange-covered table. Hand-blown colored tiles border the white tile floor, with floor-to-ceiling mirrors. It’s a small place, but bright and cheerful. “In Asia, people like a very, very feminine color scheme,” Ms. Ko said.
Her sister, Ms. Ong, hopes the line could eventually expand to accessories (presently they’re selling a small selection of $10 rhinestone wire hair clips and $5 enamel flower hair clips), shoes and evening wear. “That’s what I love!” she said.
But for now, Ms. Ko is busy trying to help New York women collapse those rigid categories, “casual daytime bag” and “formal evening bag.” The Che Che girl, with her long legs, straddles both.
1034A Lexington Avenue between 73rd and 74th streets, New York, N.Y. 10021 (212-249-0819); Monday to Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.