For a guy barely out of college, Matt Murphy knows a whole lot about ladies' handbags.
He can tell a Hermes from an Etienne Aigner. He sympathizes with the women he sees fishing deep within their purses for car keys. And he can guess, with a frighteningly small margin of error, the capacity of various zippered inner compartments.
Murphy had to learn all of that if he wanted to make bags his full-time business.
Working out of a tiny Pasadena bungalow that doubles as his studio, he is just starting to see the payoff for his efforts. In the next few months, the high-end L.A. boutiques Ron Ross and Fred Segal will begin carrying his designs. And Henri Bendel in New York snatched up the first commercial batch in '95.
"Bendel bought straight out. They could see the passion in the work," Murphy says.
His pieces have attracted store buyers because of their strong, irregular shapes; they're like nothing we've seen before. Indeed, the bags might just as well sit on pedestals and serve as contemporary sculpture, but then all the fuss that went into making them "wearable" would be wasted.
The popular unisex "Daypak," for instance, was designed to follow the curve of the back, becoming an extension of the body. Like the other bags, the pack is a geometric mosaic of leather (usually black) shards.
Or, as Murphy puts it: "It's a puzzle."
The hardware, forged in either sterling silver or white bronze, is never repeated. "No two castings are exactly alike," he says. Of course, such lapses in production-line thinking show up on price tags: from $70 for a "Utilitysak" to $745 for an overnight bag. Sharon Stone and Bruce Willis are said to own items from the largely unisex collection.
By the time a shopper covets a Murphy bag, it has already survived the scrutiny of his friends and family. The designer grew up near Los Angeles. After graduating from the Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts, he headed off to the Art Institute of Chicago. A year later, he returned to the West, enrolling at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. The idea for creating "body-responsive, wearable" bags took shape there.
The scheme took a breather, though, while Murphy seized the chance to work as an underling on such architectural projects as CityWalk in Universal City and Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. When finally he decided two years ago to commit to his own company, he didn't worry about all the things he didn't know.
"The mind of a child is the ultimate perspective," he says. "Everything is new and fresh.
If Murphy is a success beyond his years (26), he can blame it on that gee-whiz attitude. Although he takes the pose of a brooding artiste in his publicity photo and wears matched outfits in sober colors, the designer is relentlessly upbeat. His bungalow is littered with evidence, from design prototypes to video promos (he'll be ready when "House of Style" calls), that he enjoys having his hands in everything. Before launching the line, he taught himself the ropes of manufacturing, retailing and marketing.
"The fact that I understand the buying procedure, the PR, makes it a stronger company," Murphy says. "And it's important to be in touch with people buying and selling the bags because of their feedback. If someone doesn't like the way a zipper or compartment works, that's translated into the refining of a product."
Even as he waits and hopes for the name Matt Murphy to register a blip on the American consciousness, the designer is dreaming of a eponymous clothing line and a boutique in which to sell it all. To his mind, no experience is necessary.
"Not having a formalized idea of how it's supposed to be [done] has really been an advantage," he says.