Handbag designer balances a life of fashion and science

Handbag designer Sarah Shell

Handbag designer and dental student Sarah Shell said fashion and medicine are two fields that are equally close to her heart.

With a degree in biology from McGill University, and another from Parsons The New School for Design in New York City, Shell refused to settle on just one career path.

In addition to currently studying at University of Western Ontario’s Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry, 32-year-old Shell also manages a successful designer handbag line called 442 McAdam, which she founded in 2008.

“I had originally planned to be a physician, but I volunteered in an oncology ward, and I became too emotionally tied up. I just couldn’t put aside what I felt,” Shell said.

Fashion design was always in the back of her mind, she said, and in the summer before she graduated from McGill, she decided to try her hand at designing. She signed up for a course in Florence, Italy, which is where she discovered her love of the design process.

“When I finished McGill I applied to Parsons. I worked harder there than I ever did at McGill, and I completed a two-year program in a year and a half.”

One of the “amazing” internships she had while at Parsons was at Gucci, she said, where she worked in the handbag division.

“I learned a lot about bags. I learned about quality, craftsmanship and customer service. I realized that purses were a luxurious product, and I became intrigued.”

Ironically, Shell is a self-confessed tomboy, and never used to accessorize her outfits with purses.

One of 442 McAdam’s handbags, some of which have been carried by celebs including Lady Gaga and Katy Perry.

One of 442 McAdam’s handbags, some of which have been carried by celebs including Lady Gaga and Katy Perry.

“I wanted a bag that was feminine, but I never found one I liked,” she said.

But it wasn’t until she returned to Canada from New York and was working for a management consulting firm in Calgary, that she was inspired to start her own company.

“I was assigned to research straps, such as belts, guitar straps, rifle slings, etc. I found myself in a hunting store, which was the last place I ever thought I’d be,” she recalled.

“I found slings, though, that were intricately designed in rich leather. I couldn’t stop thinking about them.”

She said she went back to the store, bought a sling for herself, and used it as inspiration to design a leather bag.

“Inspired by this sling, I designed some patterns, and began getting orders. I had a day job, but I couldn’t keep up with the orders for bags, so I officially launched 442 McAdam.”

The company is named after her grandparents’ former address in Winnipeg – the house where her mother grew up.

“I wanted to honour my grandparents. They were Holocaust survivors, and they played a very important part in my life. They supported me in all my decisions, and bought me my first sewing machine,” she said.

Shell, who is Toronto-born but has also called Regina, Calgary, Montreal and New York home at different points in her life, decided to move back to Toronto in 2009 so she would have greater access to the fashion industry.

Today, 442 McAdam offers nine styles of bags, all of which are manufactured in Toronto, and sold online.

“My bags are timeless. I don’t want anything trendy. I provide a variety of colour options, all in Italian cowhide leather. I am inspired by watching and talking to people. I need to understand what customers want,” she said.

“For example, I had never considered zippered pockets, but I’m not the best role model. People wanted them, so they got them.”

Clearly, based on the high profile women who have “embraced” her designs – including pop singers Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift and Katy Perry, and actors Mena Suvari and Leighton Meester – Shell is doing something right.

Despite her success in the design world, Shell said her mindset began to change in 2011, after her grandfather, Gedalia Berenhaut, died and she broke up with her boyfriend.

“I began re-evaluating my life. I missed science, and learning things that applied to the human body. Fashion is a luxury and a material good. I wanted to have an impact on society.”

In 2012, she wrote the Dental Admission Test, was accepted into a number of dental schools, but ultimately choose Western.

“I’ve completed one year of school, and have been able to keep up with my business as well,” she said.

“I feel perfectly balanced now. I believe everyone needs a little of both in life. I’m pretty busy, but I’m happy.“