This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
The Magnes sisters say they have always worked well together, collaborating as children on schoolwork and art projects. Now all in their 30s, the sandy-haired trio is capitalizing on their knack for teamwork: In 2005 they launched a line of leather handbags from their parents’ home in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Nearly three years later, the Israeli-born designing women have a studio of their own, and their Magnes Sisters-brand purses are sold at more than 150 retailers the world over.
Each day, Dina, Yael, and Tamar Magnes — a fashion designer, jewelry designer, and graphic artist, respectively — gather in their garment district workshop, situated in back of a fashion and accessories showroom. In their studio, faded family photographs share wall space with fabric swatches and shelves full of finished handbags in the solid, muted hues of a gentleman’s library: brandy, yam, and indigo.
With the exception of their evening bags, Magnes Sisters designs are sleek and angular — featuring both shoulder straps and briefcase-style handles. Brass hardware is used sparingly on the purses, which are lined with silky, whimsically patterned fabrics. Prices range from $224 for a pouch-size “Ballet” purse to $418 for the much larger “Gallery” bag. These pocketbooks, among others, are available for purchase at city boutiques such as Wink, Blue Bag, and Verve, and at magnessisters.com.
The designers say inspiration for the line (and its color scheme) came from the timeless, Italian-made handbags that fill their nonagenarian grandmother’s closet. The Magnes Sisters designs, by contrast, are made not in Europe — or, as is more common these days, in Asia. Rather, their bags are manufactured at a family-owned and -operated factory just a two-minute walk from the sisters’ West 39th Street workshop.
On a recent morning, Yael hand delivered a sackful of handbag hardware, after the factory called to say they were missing some brass clasps. That 10-minute errand was emblematic of the benefits of working with other garment district-based businesses — even as costs for domestic production rise, Yael said. “Our manufacturer is one block away, our leather guy is two blocks away — so if there’s a problem we can run over there.”
Raised in Jerusalem’s diverse Abu Tor neighborhood, the sisters came to New York with entrepreneurial dreams. Dina, now 37, moved here to attend design school nearly 15 years ago, and the sisters’ jazz pianist mother and art photographer father followed suit in 2000. Tamar, 31, arrived in 2004, and Yael, 33, a year later.
Each sister had planned to start a design business of her own. But once all three women were living in the same city, they decided to join forces. “We needed something we all loved and that combined all three of our talents,” Dina said.
They settled on handbags, sales of which have been on the rise with each passing year, Dina said: “At first, stores ordered four bags, and now they order 40.” The Magnes sisters attribute their success, in part, to the unwavering support of their family: Their older brother, Ilya, provided the start-up capital, and their parents not only offered up their home as a makeshift studio, but also volunteered to drive their daughters to out-of-town meetings and trade shows. “They love telling their friends that we’re all working together,” Dina said. “They’re like soccer parents with our business.”
Their mother, Liz Magnes, said that even as children, her daughters displayed an uncanny ability to use their differences constructively. “It comes naturally to them,” she told The New York Sun. “They’ve always been individuals, and they’ve always been fiercely family.”
According to Hannah Ohanna, a sales manager at the accessories boutique Verve, the Magnes Sisters’ smaller designs are popular with teenagers and older adults; young professional women often prefer the “Gallery” bag, which has room enough to accommodate a laptop computer, she said. Verve, which has locations in the West Village and on the Upper West Side, was among the first local stores to carry Magnes Sisters designs.
Dina, Yael, and Tamar collaborate on the design of their seasonal collections, but divide the less sexy work of growing their business. Dina, a numbers whiz, is responsible for finances; Yael, who has always been extremely organized, oversees production, and Tamar, a people person, manages sales and public relations.
The three self-proclaimed alpha women say they get along well, but as is the case with any group of siblings or business partners, it’s not always smooth sailing. “When we argue, it’s because we care — and we never hold a grudge from one day to the next,” Tamar said. Disagreements, Dina chimed in, “always seem to bring us to a better place when it comes to design.”