The colorful purses of Wendi McGowan-Ellis are a painting held in your hand.
While fashion is something we enjoy wearing, art is something we enjoy looking at. As a stylist and an artist, Wendi McGowan-Ellis decided to combine the two. The result is a boutique line of handbags, each one also an individual painting—not a print—an actual painting.
“One day, when I was done with a painting, I thought, ‘I wish I could cut out this canvas and fold it into a clutch bag.’ And then I thought, ‘Why can’t I?’” Wendi tells me as she spreads an array of brightly colored purses across my desk.
Just like a traditional painter, Wendi begins her work by painting onto a canvas. That canvas is then transformed into a purse. Working with a seamstress, Julie McCullough, in a workroom out of South Dallas, a zipper and suede lining is added, and a strap is created out of a slice of the painted canvas.
The result is a one-of-a-kind design: bright, bold and beautiful. Edgy and abstract. The purses of each line share the same palette of colors, but each one, painted by hand, is unique.
I’m concerned about durability. I love the concept, I love the look, but if they’re something I have to handle with white gloves and obsessively shield from the rain, I’m not buying it. “I use the same acrylic glaze used for paintings,” Wendi explains. “They’re very durable. The only thing that could be an issue is the cold, but only because they get a little stiff.”
So, despite not being the ideal accessory for the occasional arctic freeze, these artistic clutches are a hit, and not just in Texas—they even made it to New York Fashion Week.
When she launched Wendistry, she used her background in digital strategy, web design and social media consulting to get her name out there and in the process attracted the attention of fashion designer Andre Yabin, Co-founder of Binzario Couture. He loved Wendi’s designs so much that he selected them as his accessory of choice for New York Fashion Week just three months after her launch.
Wendistry became an overnight success. However, just like all overnight successes, it took years and her fair share of setbacks to get there.
In fact, her first attempt at creating purse-art—as she called it back then—was a flop. In 2010 she launched Bolarti, a combination of two Italian words: bolsa meaning purse and arti meaning art. The concept was the same, but the design was different and it simply didn’t sell. Five years later, a chance encounter at NorthPark changed all that.
“I set my bag [a Bolarti original design] on one of the displays in Anthropologie and wandered off,” she explains. “When I came back a group of ladies had found it and were passing it around, feeling it, admiring it. When they figured out it was mine they asked, ‘Do you sell these here?’ and the next thing I know I’m in the store manager’s office and on the line with Anthropologie’s VP Accessories Buyer.”
A few months later she got a meeting with the VP, and while she was nice about it, she was very critical of the design. “She loved the art, the look but she said it was too bulky, too flimsy. She then literally took a sheet of paper and designed the new bag. She added the zipper, the strap, the four snaps…she designed the whole thing. It was a priceless gift.”
The new design is not available at Anthropologie, and may never be. Wendi prides herself on being a small boutique production and only creates 10 purses per line. Future plans include experimenting with print to create new products with the same paint aesthetic: silk twilly scarves for women and pocket squares for men.
Another potential endeavor is shoes. Wendi believes patterned shoes are the ultimate style statement and she’s already investigating ways to bring her paintings to patent leather pumps. For now, though, you can buy Wendistry online at wendistry.com.