Why Lawyers Are Becoming the Next Design Stars

Getty Images
Rachael Leigh Cook seen carrying an Ella McHugh clutch at the 2013 People's Choice Awards.

Ella McHugh of Ella McHugh handbags and Samantha Levine of Auburn Jewelry explain why they decided to go from legal to lace.

From lawyer to fashion designer? It wouldn’t seem the most natural of career transitions but lately a slew of designers have come from the legal world and they’ve seen success. Are our law schools secretly training the next crop of style stars? Designers such as Ella McHugh, Samantha Levine, Marina Ufaeva, and Jennie Kwon, all hail from legal backgrounds.

Ella McHugh, designer of Ella McHugh handbags, indicates that the difference between law school and actually practicing law drives away the creative mind. "Law school is one thing, they teach you to think in a particular way, but when you get to actually practice law, most fields of law are nitty gritty and details oriented. You get proficient in what your field is but if you need a creative outlet, it becomes repetitive," she says."

McHugh, who cites the 1930s and 1940s glamour as the inspiration for her red carpet-friendly clutches, found her design calling during a trip to China. Walking up and down the Bund in Shanghai realizing she was unhappy in law, she returned to New York and reached out to design legend Herbert Kasper with her ideas. When he was supportive of her vision, she decided to intern for Mark Cross in 2011, ultimately traveling to Italy to find her own factory.

"It makes you detail oriented which helps in the production process and working with the manufacturers is incredibly detail oriented," McHugh says of how being a lawyer makes for a different kind of designer. 

McHugh’s range, which is now carried in 12 stores since her launch last January has seen Hollywood success. Stylist Janie Bryant has carried McHugh's bags to three events including the Emmys. Actress Rachael Leigh Cook has carried the designer's Corrine clutch to the 2013 People's Choice Awards. Sara Rue is a fan of the range's Monika Olive,  it to this year's Slavery to Freedom gala. Kathleen Robertson has taken McHugh's design onto a red carpet. The collection has also found fans in New York with Orange is the New Black's Jackie Cruz and ballerina Maria Kowroski toting the elegant clutches.

For some designers making the career switch, both options were always battling it out. Samantha Levine, founder and creative director of Auburn Jewelry, has been making jewelry since she was 14. The accessories designer, who was president of both her schools Mock Trial and Jewelry clubs, went to law school on the advice of one of her professors. “At Skidmore, Professor Peterson said you can make jewelry with a law degree but you can't practice law with a jewelry degree,” recalls Levine.

But soon after law school, Levine felt the way McHugh did. “I had every intention of being a lawyer and then this took me in a different direction. I wouldn't be happy sitting at a desk reading legalese all day," she explains. "I worked for a corporate immigration attorney for three years and there's not much creativity in that. It's not conducive to a happy life.”

Levine, who has experienced popularity with her mis-matched cufflinks (such as bicoastal state shapes of California and New York, or an apple for New York and a state shape), has also received celebrity interest. Her range Auburn Jewelry was featured on Sept. 12 during David Tutera’s show CELEBrations on WE TV. WWE Diva Amy Weber chose Levine’s unicorn pendant as a party favor for her twins’ Narnia-themed winter wonderland birthday party.

Then there are the lawyers whose businesses were born from necessity. Marina Ufaeva, designer and owner of the dress range emploi New York, spent eight years working for two major law firms, Hogan Lovells and Hughes Hubbard, and says that she struggled with clothing options all the years she spent practicing law.

“The life of an attorney is working all the time, you have to be available all the time, and you don't sleep while you're working on the deal," says Ufaeva. "I would literally sleep on the floor on the office with the expectation that in the morning I had to look great, smell good, not be wrinkled, and be on, so the dress had to be not only good in day, but carry me through the night, literally! and be good in the morning still."

The attorney worked on deals such as the purchase of the New Jersey Nets by Mikhail Prokhorov’s ONEXIM Group and the investment of the Barclays Center with Jay Z.

Says Ufaeva: "I always had difficulty finding the perfect dress for the office. I was buying dresses and altering them. I would cut the length of the sleeve or have to lengthen the hems, some were too bulky, I was working with a seamstress and I decided just to make seven dresses with her from scratch. I got so many compliments."

The results of her efforts in 2011, led to enough interest to give Ufaeva the confidence to launch her own capsule collection. The hero product of the emploi range has been a style named the Lexington, which evokes the tight tailoring of Roland Mouret or Victoria Beckham without the constricting fabrics, Ufaeva indicates the dress has had enough demand that it has been rendered in 30 or 40 variations. Last week the company took an order from one woman who alone bought eight variations of the style. “I thought it was a mistake!" exclaimed Ufaeva. “Until I realized it was all different colors.”

Email: syl@hipguide.com
Twitter: @hipguide