By Anna Patrick
The Charleston Gazette-Mail, W.Va.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Instead of opting for the bright lights of the big city, Morgan Richards has launched her own handbag and accessory brand — Morgan Rhea in her hometown of Charleston, West Virginia. “Morgan Rhea” has become known for its personalized products. On every bag, clutch or leather bracelet, customers can choose to have their story, a phrase or Bible verse inscribed on the leather.
The Charleston Gazette-Mail, W.Va.
When it comes to her work, Morgan Richards likes to be slow.
For the 25-year-old Charleston designer, making luxury, leather handbags is a process to handle carefully, slowly. She gets to know her buyers. She pulls in her fiance when she needs a second opinion. She measures and then measures again before cutting a piece of leather.
Richards worries over the little details. She knows that progress isn’t a test of how many bags she can pump out in a race against the ever-changing fashion clock. And she understands that every hour spent with the handbag or accessory is an important part of the craft.
“We are creating a luxury, high-end item for the customer. We are taking the time to make it perfect, so they can pass it down for generations,” Richards said.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Richards bends over her studio work table. She’s brushing a piece of leather to make sure the color cream she just applied is worked into it evenly. Her fiance, Michael Beals, stands across from her. He’s about to sew a side of a tote bag together.
Mother’s Day is just two days away. Graduation season is here, and people are buying from Richards’ brand, Morgan Rhea.
Richards looks at Beals. “We’re going to be here late,” she tells him.
Unlike fast fashion pushed out by trendy, affordable clothing houses (think H&M and Forever 21), Richards is purposefully placing Morgan Rhea on the other end of the spectrum. She crafts her bags by hand. She sources from U.S. companies. She rarely uses a sewing machine.
It’s slow fashion.
“It’s all done here in West Virginia. Everything is,” Richards said.
Her prices reflect the high amount of care and time that she puts into every product. For example, her Dennen messenger bag, named after musician Brett Dennen, is marked at $1,495.
In a theoretical sense, her designs are slow as well. She isn’t trying to match current trends, Richards said. Instead, she wants her leather totes, clutches and briefcases to be something people will still want to use 30 years from now. Functional but timeless, that’s her goal, she said.
The only thing that has moved relatively fast is Richards’ career. Fresh out of the Savannah College of Art and Design, Richards gained national attention when she won best student-made handbag in the 2014 Independent Handbag Designer Awards in New York City.
She competed against a field of more than 1,500 applicants. The win earned her an apprenticeship with Coach, an American luxury fashion company in New York City.
“It kind of threw me into my career quite quickly,” Richards said.
Most designers fresh out of school apply to big fashion houses and well-known brands before setting out on their own. But fresh out of Coach, Richards decided to do just that.
She moved back to her home in South Charleston and used the designs from her senior collection as a jumping off point. With the help of her family and Beals, Richards launched her own handbag and accessory brand — Morgan Rhea.
With the help of the Charleston Area Alliance’s business incubator program, she set up a studio workspace in Charleston, which she still works out of today.
Morgan Rhea has become known for its personalized products. On every bag, clutch or leather bracelet, customers can choose to have their story, a phrase or Bible verse inscribed on the leather.
“I was first inspired by vintage luggage, the scratches on it and that it has someone else’s story,” Richards said. “With that idea, I was like ‘Wow, we could put actual people’s stories onto the accessories.'”
Richards said they can inscribe anything but song lyrics or other copyrighted material onto the bags.
Since Morgan Rhea’s launch in 2015, sales and awareness have continued to rise.
British Vogue featured Morgan Rhea for two months consecutively. In the April 2016 issue, Morgan Rhea’s Sandra tote bag was featured in a list compiled by the magazine titled “Bags to the Future.”
In the following month’s issue, Morgan Rhea’s newest bag made its world debut in the fashion magazine. British Vogue featured Richards’ design work and her newest bag, the Jackie. They even used a photo of the bag that Beals took in their Charleston studio.
“Each accessory is inspired by somebody in my life,” Richards said.
The Jackie bag, which is a mini-briefcase, like a smaller version of Morgan Rhea’s Ronald briefcase, is named after Richards’ great-grandmother, Jackie Brown.
Brown was a real-life Rosie the Riveter. She worked during World War II building bombs. She had a strong work ethic and showed compassion to others, Richards said. She died suddenly in a house fire in the ’90s. She didn’t have a properly working smoke detector, Richards said.
In the hopes of spreading fire safety awareness, a portion of the proceeds from every Jackie bag sold will go to the American Red Cross West Virginia Region, Richards said. Morgan Rhea and the Jackie bag were recently featured at the American Red Cross’ “Women Who Care” event held at the University of Charleston May 18.
Every design in Morgan Rhea’s collection is named after someone in her life, Richards said. And in that person’s honor, Morgan Rhea has chosen a specific nonprofit to which she donates a portion of the proceeds.
It’s a way Richards can honor that person’s story, honor his or her legacy, like that of her brave and caring great-grandmother, Jackie.
To see more of Richards’ work, visit Morgan Rhea at www.morganrhea.com.