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The road to NOEW: Handbags designed to inspire

From March 20 - 27, New Orleans’ annual business festival, New Orleans Entrepreneur Week, returns. The week of programming, centered upon innovation and entrepreneurship, will culminate in crowd driven pitch contest The Big Idea. In partnership with The Idea Village and their blog, #IDEAinsider, NolaVie presents "The Road to NOEW," a month-long series highlighting some of the entrepreneurs who will be showcased this year.Charlotte Henry creator of New Orleans-based handbag and accessory brand Charlotte Aquarius.

Charlotte Henry creator of New Orleans-based handbag and accessory brand Charlotte Aquarius.

When it comes to American fashion, New Orleans is not exactly at the forefront of the nation’s style scene.

Nonetheless, one young entrepreneur says the Crescent City is the ideal environment for her fashion startup.

In 2013, New Orleans native Charlotte Aquarius Henry left a career working for a prison re-entry program in Washington, D.C. and returned to New Orleans to launch a small batch handbag line, Charlotte Aquarius, running out of Metairie.

“I’ve always been interested in design and used to sew my own clothes as a hobby," Henry, a former employee with the U.S. navy and fellow at VetLaunch, a local incubator for vets pursuing careers in entrepreneurship, says. "A couple of years ago, I had this intuition that I needed to return to NOLA. I didn't have a fully fleshed-out plan; I just knew I had to come back and pursue my passion."

After completing an apprenticeship designing and crafting shoes, Henry, a self-taught seamstress and pattern designer, began sketching and producing her own bags. At the end of 2013, after several stages of trial, error, and eventually mastery, Henry officially launched her brand.

"I wanted to do something to help revitalize the city," Henry says. An entirely made-in-New Orleans brand does just that by generating local job opportunities and expanding the city's fashion industry, the entrepreneur adds.

So why establish an accessory brand in New Orleans instead of a city, such as New York City or Los Angeles, that boasts a more developed fashion industry?

While New Orleans might not be a fashion Mecca, the city is not entirely without a sense of style, Henry points out. “This city has a beautiful sense of culture and creativity you can’t find anywhere else. People dress how they want."

NOLA's entrepreneurial community is another asset that convinced Henry this was the right city to head her brand out of. "It's a really supportive community. We're a city of kind people. We're also a city of go-getters."

Delia-Bucket-bag-by-Charlotte-Aquarius-480x640

The "Delia bucket bag" from Charlotte Aquarius.

In line with New Orleanians’ eclectic sensibilities when it comes to style, Henry says her products maintain a unique quality because they are produced in small, limited batches. “You won’t walk down the street and see ten other women with the same bag.”

“Too many brands tell you who you are. Women have had enough of people telling them who they should be and what they should look like,” Henry adds.

The bags and wallets ($15 - $365), which are sold in an online boutique, are all handmade (in the beginning stages of production, Henry was the sole crafter of bags), using stylish, yet durable textiles such as African wax prints and exotic animal skins. The finished products are sturdy bags built to withstand decades of use.

"I want bags that you can pass down through generations," Henry says.

One of the most defining features of the brand is the inspirational message inscribed on a leather slip or metallic plate inside of each bag or wallet. The messages -- which may range from a single word to a full sentence -- are born from the mouths of Henry and women who have personally inspired her.

Though certainly conversations pieces, the messages' chief function -- and the primary mission of Charlotte Aquarius -- is to motivate women to develop their own source of inspiration and ultimately live their best lives, the entrepreneur says.

“You're always holding your bag, so when there's positivity crafted into the design, you literally carry that message with you.”

On March 27, Henry will compete in NOEW's The Big Idea pitch contest for a $25,000 prize. 

Chelsea Lee is managing editor at NolaVie. Email comments to her at [email protected]