Senreve CEO Coral Chung on How an Instagram-Famous Handbag Redefined Luxury

Coral Chung, co-founder and CEO of Senreve. Senreve

What prompts a woman to splurge $1,000 on a handbag she probably doesn’t need? Aside from the obvious answer that she just has money, it often takes a history-rich brand story and endless lavish marketing campaigns (in addition to impeccable design and quality, of course) to justify slapping on a four-digit price tag. That is, until a two-year-old Silicon Valley startup called Senreve proved that it’s totally possible to sell a luxury bag without an established brand name or an extravagant storefront.

In November 2016, two Stanford-educated fashion veterans, Coral Chung and Wendy Wen, founded Senreve with a simple goal to make a stylish laptop bag for working women. (Believe it or not, one simply didn’t exist.) The miraculous thing was, before the startup was able to raise enough funding for advertising and marketing, its flagship design, the Maestra bag, quickly began appearing on the arms of celebrities and fashionistas like Priyanka Chopra and Selma Blair and on Wendy’s Lookbook on Instagram.

Subscribe to Observer’s Business Newsletter

Riding on its social media wave, Senreve graduated to cultivate a powerful network of influencers and brand ambassadors (which co-founder and CEO Chung said was “mostly organic”) and break into department stores including Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Farfetch.

Earlier this month, Observer sat down with Chung in New York to chat about the design story behind Senreve’s iconic Maestra bag, how the brand fills a market void left by traditional luxury houses, and its carefully crafted social media and pricing strategies.

Observer: Among Senreve’s many offerings, I think most people would agree that the Maestra bag is your most iconic model. It has a very distinctive look of its own that’s unlike any established brand. Who designed that bag?
Chung: It was my design vision. But it was quite a big collaboration between myself and the designers we worked with who had previously designed for Gucci, Givenchy and Chloé.

The Maestra bag has a unique look that’s sort of a combination of a professional satchel and a casual backpack—all under a very minimalistic finish. Clearly a lot of thought went into it. What are the top things you considered when designing this bag?
It’s really an art-meets-science process. “Senreve” means “sense and dream” in French. It’s this whole idea that you can have a luxurious fantasy bag with the versatility of everyday use. So, all of our products have that design language in mind. Our design approach is less about what established brands have made and more about architecture, art and functionality. We wanted to understand how women wanted to use their bags. And what we found is that, to most women, a functional bag means it can be used throughout the day on different occasions. So we decided on a classic and minimalistic look, season-less and neutral colors, feet on the bottom and very stain- and water-resistant leather.

Senreve places a strong emphasis on meeting the needs of millennial working women. Can you talk a bit about the disconnect between this group of buyers and existing luxury brands?
Well, take me as an example. What I found as a young professional was that I could never find that perfect work bag. And I didn’t feel that luxury brands were creating products for someone like me. Traditional luxury brands make handbags that are pure accessories—it’s something beautiful but very fragile. And I also find the way they speak about their brands and market their products feels very detached from the real world. Certainly, we all need an aspirational fashion piece of some sort. But we want to connect more directly with women and how they live in the real world today.

Coral Chung wearing a Senreve clutch at the 2019 Met Gala in New York. Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

But price tag–wise, Senreve sits pretty close to the luxury range of handbags. The Maestra bag retails from $698 to $895. Is it strategic to keep the price below $1,000?
Yes. It’s really important for us to make the price point accessible to a degree and yet disruptive to traditional luxury brands. Most of our customers are in their mid-30s. But we don’t want to exclude younger women who are just entering the workforce. To someone who’s 23 or 24, this is often one of their first major luxury purchases. If you think about the price point, it’s a lot more palatable than, say, a $3,000 bag by a traditional luxury brand. On the flip side, the way we are able achieve this price point is through our high-quality, made-in-Italy manufacturing process and a direct-to-consumer model, which saves a lot of “middle man” costs.

It’s quite rare for a fashion startup to achieve the level of popularity Senreve has. And I feel that social media played such a big part in the brand’s rapid rise. What role does social media play in your marketing strategy? For instance, do you spend a lot of money in working with influencers?
In the beginning, a lot of social media buzz was just word of mouth. I’d say the vast majority of our influencer partnerships are organic. We are very selective about which influencers and celebrities we work with. It’s not just about whether they have 10 million followers; it’s more important that they have a taste level and sophistication that can represent our brand, and also that the demographics of their followership are aligned with who are customers are.

We’ve worked with many different pockets of women, whether they are executives on Wall Street, creative and tech people, or young professionals in legal and accounting fields. I think one of the biggest differentiators for us is a very authentic brand story. It’s a company founded by two female entrepreneurs with genuine experience and understanding that we’re creating products to serve this modern woman and her multifaceted lifestyle. That point of view is very important. And that story translates very well to other women.

An off-topic question: What handbags did you use before Senreve existed?
Well, I had worked at Prada, so I had a lot of Prada handbags. But I’m definitely a handbag collector if you will, so I have my share of Hermès and Chanel.

Do you still buy new bags from other brands?
I don’t. And I don’t use any other bags, because I really feel that all of my wants and needs are fulfilled by Senreve. And, as a founder of a company, it’s really important to represent your brand. Actually everyone in our company uses Senreve products. And for the male members on our team, they’ve purchased it for their moms or their sisters or their girlfriends.

Both you and Wendy have worked in the fashion industry for a long time. What are your observations about the ups and downs of handbag trends? Are digital-native brands like yours particularly vulnerable to the disposable nature of fast fashion?
Iconic bags are really hard to create and establish. I think bags that have reached that type of status will stay around for a while. They are not exactly “trendy bags,” if you will. I think even though there’s a lot going on in the fashion world in terms of fast fashion and things like that, handbags is actually a category where people tend to value timelessness and classic looks. I’d say the overall trend in handbags is moving away from logos and toward more minimalistic looks. It’s all about distinctive shapes and colors, interesting materials and a subtle representation of luxury instead of a big logo that symbolizes a certain level of status.

Senreve CEO Coral Chung on How an Instagram-Famous Handbag Redefined Luxury