Cara Benevenia never once thought she’d have a career as a handbag designer. She had never done handbag construction, sewed on leather, or even learned how to market luxury purses.
However, a few years after graduating Marist College in 2017, she had a vision. With a textile pattern from her senior thesis and hunger for designing, Cara Benevenia, a luxury handbag line, was born.
During her time at school, Benevenia studied apparel design. Her excitement was centered on the glamorous life of becoming a fashion designer and thriving off of the creative freedoms the school provided its students. There were no worries of how much photoshoots cost and what it would take to produce certain clothing items. Although, looking back, Benevenia believes this gave a very false representation of what the design industry is really like. She explained that while at college, anything really goes. It is the only time you really can be a creative director. “When I graduated I really thought the industry jobs would be creative and they really aren’t, even at the luxury level.”
Rather than conceptualizing unique collections through detailed sketches, Benevenia was sitting at office desks. Compared to what she was doing in college, Benevenia was now putting together Excel sheets and creating computer-aided designs to send to manufacturers in China. “I just knew that mass market design wasn’t for me.”
Soon after, Benevenia set her sights on the luxury apparel world, where she worked for Zac Posen managing his atelier. Posen created everything right in New York with 30 different artisans ranging from sewers, pattern-makers and cutters.
During this time, her job consisted of making sure the notes and sketches that Posen made were adequately brought to life. While it was a much more creative environment than working in the mass market design world, it still wasn’t what Benevenia envisioned for her future. “For a very, very creative individual like myself who just had a really big vision and just really felt emotionally tied to my work, I needed to have that fulfillment.”
Eventually, Benevenia jumped onto those feelings and left her job with Zac Posen. She was left with one important question for herself, “How can I do something different in the industry?” In the fashion world, Benevenia stressed how hard it is to distinguish yourself if you do not have a name for yourself or millions of dollars. Putting this big idea and her creative passions into perspective, Benevenia got to work for the September 2019 launch of Cara Benevenia.
The handbag line centers around a singular textile she created while at Marist College. It was a handwoven textile with a few leather strips in it, something she envisioned would be at the forefront of her bags. Benevenia attended a number of leather shows and shopped around different factories looking for ways to bring her vision to life.
New York factories quickly turned away the designer, noting that she had no ‘name’ to bring to the table. Soon she found a factory in New Jersey with a rich family atmosphere, something very important to Benevenia’s New Jersey Italian roots. The factory is completely led by women , something very rare to see in the manufacturing world. “She [the manufacturer] really held my hand and taught me about sourcing, the different linings that I need to use, the different terms and the different prototypes,” she explained.
Every Cara Benevenia handbag is created with the consumer in mind. Benevenia would continually think to herself, “I want something that’s beautiful, different, that I’ve never seen before and that doesn’t cost $1,000. At the end of the day I wanted something that had a very important social give back, which is supporting local artisans.”
This social give back for local artisans is something that hits straight to home for Benevenia, and is the biggest inspiration for her brand. Benevenia’s great-grandfather emigrated from a village on the southern coast of Italy to Newark, New Jersey, where he took up the profession of a luxury men’s tailor. Each handbag she creates is meant to pay homage to Italian artisans like her grandfather, who emigrated to the United States in pursuit of the “American Dream.”
Around her sophomore to junior year of college, Benevenia was questioning exactly what she wanted for the future. That was until she received a pair of scissors, ones that her great-grandfather used to tailor with. “I started feeling like it was my destiny [to be a designer] and that I would be neglecting my family if I did not continue to pursue designing.”
After a year of developing the entire line, Cara Benevenia launched in 2019. It was just months before the pandemic started, with only two $500 styles. For eight months, Benevenia did not sell a single handbag. This started to make her feel like what she did was a mistake. “It almost felt like that year, quitting my job, taking that huge risk, was almost a waste, because people were losing their jobs, people couldn’t even afford to pay their rent…I felt lost but I knew there was a really special purpose behind the bags that I wanted people to understand.”
Benevenia navigated the pandemic by not just pushing the product but by relaying the story of her great-grandfather and the social cause behind the entire company.
Despite the many stresses that came with the pandemic, Benevenia was able to start her internship program to offer students a chance to intern while New York City was shut down. “I felt myself becoming a positive mentor…I knew that we weren’t selling bags but I knew this was an opportunity to grow in a different way.” Besides working directly with the brand, Benevenia worked on helping her interns with their interpersonal skills, their confidence, strategizing their resumes and many other things to help them when they enter the workforce.
Towards the end of 2020, Benevenia knew she had to re-strategize and begin thinking like a business woman, “People love the bags, people love the story, but they just aren’t paying $500 for what I currently have. It doesn’t mean they are not worth the money or they aren’t beautiful or they aren’t a great product, but I had to take a step further and think about costs and color offerings.”
Soon after, Benevenia’s most popular style, the Baguette, launched. The Baguette is a mini shoulder bag that comes in a matte black, espresso and mixed metals styles. These bags are all sporting the signature hand-woven textile from her senior thesis. “The day we launched we sold like 50 units in one night,” Benevenia reflected, “it was probably the only time we had so far that we had such an exciting drop.” The espresso Baguette was even seen on Gabrielle Union in August.
The Baguette’s retail price is $395 each; filled with Benevenia’s love for her Italian roots and a handwritten note. “Every single order is so important because it is not just someone giving me money so I can pay the bills, it’s someone believing in the brand, wearing the product proudly, showing it off to their friends and really getting our story out there.”
At 26-years-old, Benevenia followed her passions to create a brand with meaning; tied to her family and rooted in the love for creativity, despite the setback of the pandemic.
“I think sometimes I just really have to take a step back and be like, ‘you are doing what you wanted to do, you wanted to be a designer under your own name and you’re doing it,’” Benevenia explained. “Sometimes it is hard with all the other stresses…but I forget that I have X amount of handbags out there in the world that people are proudly carrying with my name on it, and that is what I set out to do.”