442 McAdam

Bag Designer


How many bags do you own that you can say were designed by a biology grad?
Sarah Shell graduated from McGill University with a biology degree, but has since become one of the most coveted bag designers to come out of Canada. Post-biology degree, Shell changed direction and graduated from Parsons School of Design in NYC, and spent several years there, designing for Club Monaco and then working in buying/merchandizing at Gucci North America. While in NYC, Shell also worked with designers like Catherine Malandrino, Yigal Azrouel, and BCBG Max Azria. Now she’s back in Canada where her bags are engineered into covetable pieces seen on the arms of celebrities from Taylor Swift and Katy Perry, to Jeanne Beker, Leighton Meester, Mena Suvari, and Fefe Dobson.
When did you realize you wanted to be a designer? 
The idea came to me when I was 12 years old. My mom bought a bathing-suit wrap, and I spent the next few days coming up with different ways to wear and style it. I started sketching designs back then. When I was in pre-med I was still considering it. I spent a summer in Florence in my first design course, getting a feel for whether I had a skill for it, and if so, whether I even enjoyed the process. I did. I loved it.
What made you choose the field of handbag design?
An internship in the merchandising department of Gucci Int’l made me realize the luxury and allure of a well-made timeless handbag. Prior to that I wasn’t interested in purses in the least; following that, all I wanted to do was craft the perfect bag for myself made of luscious textured leather, with a design inspired by vintage and equestrian lines.
What was it like to move from biology to fashion?
Refreshing. I believe everyone should challenge both sides of their brain: be it a hobby, a mere interest, or a career dedication; science and design are two incredibly intriguing, and surprisingly intertwining, aspects of life. I realized I needed to have both elements in my life, and coming to that realization has allowed me to feel much more fulfilled. I am currently studying dentistry while maintaining an active role in 442 McAdam Handbags.
Has your knowledge in biology helped you at all in the world of handbags?
Perhaps not biology specifically, but the ability to conceptualize three dimensional objects, imperative in chemistry, physics, and genetics, all parts of my degree, have been quite useful. Science is not a finite area; new models and theories are continuously circulating as old theories are dismissed or modified. This is also the case with fashion – there is no right or wrong, there is only what makes the most sense given the information provided. New facts emerge to modify what is scientifically accepted as often as hemlines shift and colours fall in and out of trend. Maybe biology did prepare me in way of thinking that has helped with the constant modifications of design and colours as it applies to handbags.
Where did the idea for your metal logo plate come from?
When I first started to design handbags, I immersed myself in vintage hardware. I sourced all different types of hardware, from vintage stores and eBay, even to hardware stores. I loved the substance and durability of the hardware and its interplay with the delicate lines on vintage furnishings and door handles. The metal logo is the silhouette of a cabinet pull I found from the 1940s. I just loved it, and it ended up becoming a signature feature on 442 McAdam handbags.
How would you describe your style?
My style shifts with the weather and my mood, although during the week you can pretty much always find me running around in scrubs these days. In the last few years I’ve noticed my shift from bohemian prints and oversized flowing outfits, to bold colour-blocking with fits that are more complimentary to my figure. It is so important to understand what works for your shape, and how to bring out your best features. I still get caught up in what’s pretty and need to remind myself to take a step back and assess whether it’s right for my features and skin tone. I am always excited for summer though, mostly to get into my flowing summer dresses and floral prints… nothing makes me feel prettier. My thoughts on matching: as long as your shoes and purse match, despite what you wear in between, you will look put together!
What is your favourite material to work with?
I only use cowhide leather. These days they can do amazing things with cowhide to replicate the texture of even the most endangered species. I love the thickness and texture of faux buffalo made from Italian cowhide.
Any other materials you want to explore?
I am stuck on the endless possibilities of cowhide. I am, however, interested in eventually looking at a canvas collection for the summer.
Do your final designs reflect your original idea?
Absolutely. I question myself a lot, making sure I don’t stray too far from the vintage and equestrian roots of my brand. Far too often I see brands with unique designs quickly blend in with the vast pool of handbags. It is important to regroup and ensure that the origins of 442 McAdam are incorporated in to all the designs. A brand needs to infuse each season with fresh options while maintaining a consistent voice. For that reason, I try not to focus on what other brands are doing; I focus more on working with what 442 stands for and incorporating that into what my customer wants and needs.
What do you look for in a good handbag design?
Strong seams, a timeless silhouette, practical features, and fabric and hardware that are made to be abused. A woman has too many important things to worry about. She therefore needs to feel confident with her bag and not have to worry about what touches it.
Do you have a favourite piece amongst what you have designed so far?
If you saw me once each week for the next 6 weeks, I will likely be wearing a different bag each time. I can’t choose a favourite. I just love them all, each for different purposes, and absolutely depending on my shoes or my mood. I have a lot of shoes… and perhaps an equal amount of moods.
Can you describe the first moment you heard of a celebrity carrying one of your bags?
It is a little embarrassing. I heard Lady Gaga had sported our black Hobo bag… I did a high-pitched scream followed by Google image searches. I loved seeing Fefe Dobson with the same bag. The style is just so rock n’ roll, so to see an actual rocker with the bag was to see a design come to fruition.
Who is the ideal 442 McAdam woman?
The ideal 442 McAdam woman is really my mom. She was the first person I designed and made a handbag for. She is hard to please, and very open with what she does not like. She is elegant, travels the world, loves to walk around anywhere interesting, from Toronto to Shanghai, with everything she could possibly need, and still maintains a professional appearance for meetings. She is the most consistently put-together person I know, and the ultimate woman I want 442 McAdam to appeal to. So the fact that so many designs within the line, from the bohemian to the more modern styles, appeal to her and fulfill her needs, and have people stopping her on the street to find out where she got her bag, is quite an accomplishment for me.
Who would you most like to see wearing one of your designs?
Jeanne Beker. She was one of my fashion inspirations. Fashion Television was my earliest education in fashion, and her attitude towards it really drew me in. After speaking with her a few times at New York Fashion Week, back when I was beginning my career in fashion, her enthusiasm and modesty made me appreciate her that much more. She is busy, worldly, dynamic, and all the while maintains her elegance.
Do you travel? If you do, do you get inspiration from traveling?
I love to travel. Florence, Italy is one of my favourite travel destinations. Its history, architecture, and galleries bring out the artist in me. Eastern Europe infuses me with a fresh perspective on design. Finland may be the ultimate place to be inspired. It breaks down the definition of design and gives it new and amazing possibilities. Creatively, it may be the antithesis of Florence, but the combination of the old and the new is what 442 McAdam designs are built upon.
Why do you feel it is important to keep the company Canada-based?
The Canadian fashion industry is small enough to be a part of it and connect with other players in the fashion scene, but large enough to be of significance worldwide. From a business perspective, this gives us greater access to our customers and the forces within the industry. Having a louder voice in a smaller community, as the Canadian fashion industry is compared to the states and Europe, is useful in building a brand and having a finger on exactly who the brand’s customer is. Moving the company to Toronto from Calgary was a shift from an even louder voice in a much smaller community, and that was a hard decision to make as it was. We love Toronto and are very happy that the Canadian fashion industry has embraced us as they have.
Do you have any plans to expand the 442 McAdam line?
From our intricate little Chappy evening purse to the laptop-friendly Pencil Skirt bag, 442 McAdam bags take our customer from day to night. Our men’s briefcases have also grown quite the following. An exciting recent spotting was in L.A. with Vincent Gallo sporting a 442 Men’s bag! Working within the handbag desires of our customers is what we are good at, and we are going to stay on that course.
Are there any handbags from history that have grabbed your heart?
The Hobo bag is one of the first styles I made, and I believe it is the essence of what 442 McAdam bags are. Bohemian yet elegant, practical, comfortable, luscious texture, fun lining, and will absolutely get you stopped on the street. It’s where we began and you will be sure to see it make appearances throughout the 442 McAdam seasons to come.