Corrections or additions?

This article by Jamie Saxon was prepared for the November 17, 2004

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Friendship Fuels the Artistic Fire

If Mary Poppins had had an expense account, she would have carried a

Susy S. Chen bag. Chen, a former textile designer for such prestigious

companies as Scalamandre, Schumacher, and Cowton & Tout and a resident

of East Brunswick, now designs fabric for her own line of handbags.

Her bags are smart little numbers in chic fabrics and retro shapes

like the baguette, the carpetbag, and the Kelly bag, with handles of

bamboo, leather, or shell.

Chen’s signature bag, the Paulina, comes in a fabric she designed

called Sumui, named after a famous resort in Thailand. It features

dragonflies, butterflies, acacia nuts, durian (known as the king of

fruit), cavorting monkeys, and Queen of the Night (a flower in the

cactus family that blooms for only one night), against a pale sage

background. It’s the kind of fabric you imagine all those upper East

Side ladies use to decorate their guest room. In fact, it was. "This

fabric was featured in Gump’s catalog – they had a whole bedroom done

up in it," says Chen.

It seems fitting that the Thai-inspired Sumui fabric is one of Chen’s

favorite designs. Chen’s close friendship with Princeton resident Jeap

Imbrie, a native of Bangkok who designs silk pillows and kimono

jackets, has blossomed into a synergistic relationship that has

benefitted the work of both artists. Chen and Imbrie are among the

more than 140 exhibitors at the 31st annual YWCA Princeton Crafters

Marketplace, Saturday and Sunday, November 20 and 21, at Princeton Day

School. The juried event showcases the work of skilled artisans of

handmade jewelry, pottery, clothing, quilts, glass, furniture,

paintings, photography, metal work, and more.

Chen and Imbrie met through a mutual friend two years ago, shortly

after Chen had launched her handbag business. "I’m a very, very late

bloomer," says Chen, who married Anthony Manicone, a commercial

photographer, at age 40; had her daughter, Tiffany, at 45; and

launched her handbag business at 50 in spring, 2001, with a

handwritten catalog.

"When I was commuting to New York, my daughter would cling to my skirt

and beg me not to leave. I promised her that when she turned five I

would find a way to work from home," says Chen, who was raised on a

sugar cane plantation in Taiwan that her father had inherited from his

father. The family later moved to a remote frontier village by the

Pacific ocean reminiscent of Chen’s Sumui fabric pattern – replete

with the butterflies, exotic flowers, and succulent tropical fruit.

Chen played with the children of the mostly Aborigine population in

what she says was an idyllic setting that taught her a love of nature.

Chen moved to the United States in 1971 at the age of 20 and graduated

from Lehman College in New York with a degree in fine arts in 1976.

She later studied botanical drawing and computer graphics at Parsons

and textile design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. One of her

first design positions was as a "surface designer" for Diane von

Furstenburg, designing textiles for everything from umbrellas to

bathing suits as well as dinnerware design.

She says that before she started her business she only owned two bags

– "one beige, one black." She first tried selling her bags, which are

manufactured in very small quantities in Manhattan, on the Internet.

But September 11 occurred just months after her launch, and the

enterprise crashed. "My family wouldn’t speak to me. They thought I

was crazy. Being idealistic, I decided to continue and respond to

Mayor Guiliani’s call – the best way to fight terrorism is to go about

doing your normal business." She broke into the Princeton market when

Merrick’s on Moore started carrying her bags and she broke into the

national market by showing her bags at the New York Gift Market, a

permanent showroom for buyers from retail stores. Locally her bags are

sold at Charmed by Claire in Cranbury, the Zimmerli Museum in New

Brunswick, the Shoe Buckle in Hightstown, and The Shoe Fits in Red

Bank.

It was also the lure of an American education that brought Imbrie to

the United States. After graduating from Silaprakorn University in

Bangkok with a bachelors degree in architecture, Imbrie worked as an

architect and helped run the silk factory her mother had started when

Imbrie was a child. She came to the United States to earn her masters

degree in architecture from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in

Bloomfield, Michigan, in 1978, then returned to Bangkok, working as an

architect instructor at Silaprakorn and a freelance architect until

1989 when love brought her back to United States. She met her husband,

Greer Imbrie, while he was on vacation in Bangkok.

Greer, now retired, is the former director of Earth House, a treatment

center for schizophrenics in East Millstone. Imbrie volunteered with

him for eight years, then toggled back and forth between Bangkok and

Princeton when her mother became ill with cancer. "When my mother died

in 1991," says Imbrie, "suddenly I had the urge to touch and feel the

silk because it makes me feel close to my mother." She decided to make

pillows but didn’t know how to sew, so she bought a sewing machine at

Princeton Shopping Center, and it came with a two-hour free lesson.

This will mark her fourth year selling her pillows at YWCA Crafters

Marketplace.

Imbrie’s architectural training translates into her art. "Look at

that," she says, pointing to a square pillow sewn from squares and

rectangles of jewel-colored shades of pink and raspberry. "It looks

like the floor plan of a house. I always use a T-square. I don’t do

freeform or crazy quilt. Everything is structured and precise,

although I never do that consciously." She points to one square. "See?

That’s the bathroom."

Imbrie and Chen find that their friendship provides much-needed

support for their artistic and business aspirations. "Owning a

business is a lonely journey at times," says Chen, who sold her Dayton

home last summer for additional capital, and she and her husband and

daughter moved in with her in-laws in East Brunswick. Despite the fact

that her bags are now carried in 250 stores nationwide, including

Henri Bendel and Crabtree and Evelyn, sales have not been strong

enough to earn a profit. "Jeap and I sit around her dining room table

and discuss design ideas, how to market products, and how to take care

of the financial aspects of the business," says Chen. She calls Imbrie

her "second pair of eyes. I knew when I met her she had a great sense

of design. My background is in flat, two-dimensional patterns. Jeap

thinks in 3-D. She lets me know if a shape of a bag isn’t working."

In turn Imbrie says Chen validates her work and fuels her passion for

creating works of art from her family’s silk. "She encourages me.

Being with her I’m energized." In what many would call a stunning act

of generosity, Imbrie and her husband took out a home equity loan on

their own home on Markham Place early this fall to help Chen fulfill

the orders she had gotten from recent trade shows. Imbrie laughs off

the loan with a left-handed comment: "I am a generous person. That’s

why I have no money." On a more serious note, she adds: "I just told

my husband, ‘I’m not young. Not many people respond (to my work) with

the acknowledgment that Susy does. It’s enough," says Imbrie, adding

that Chen recently wrote a letter in Chinese about Imbrie and sent it

to Imbrie’s half-Chinese father, a gesture that Imbrie says touched

her deeply. Chen jokes to her friend, "I’ll write more letters so

you’ll take out more equity loans."

Chen and Imbrie also share a strong work ethic. Imbrie says that she

learned to work hard from a young age by helping her mother travel to

the village where her grandmother lived, bring the silks back to

Bangkok and sell the bolts of brilliantly-colored, hand-loomed fabric

at trunk shows. She watched her mother struggle and succeed in making

her business grow, first renting space in a corner of an antique shop,

and eventually buying a building. Imbrie’s brother and sister-in-law

now run the business, Phanthip Thai Silk, out of that factory. Imbrie,

who designs the colors for the silks, says that all the production is

still done by hand, whereas most other silk factories have gone to

machine looms.

At home Imbrie makes every pillow she sells with her own two hands. "I

can make two a day – but that means a day where I stay up until 3

a.m." She is close with Chen’s daughter, Tiffany, now a third grader,

and says they discuss work ethics. "The last time Tiffany came over

she brought two friends and I told them I would pay them a dollar for

every four bags of leaves they gathered up. One of her friends offered

to clear my back porch. She got four dollars and the other girls only

got two dollars. They were really mad about that." What Tiffany didn’t

realize is that she made more raking leaves than her mother makes on

her handbags. "We won’t sacrifice on integrity for financial gain,"

says Chen of herself and Imbrie. "We probably make under $2 per hour."

It seems that the reward for many artisans must come from the process

of creating art, as there is little to no financial gain. "It doesn’t

matter whether business is good or bad, you still work hard," says

Imbrie. "The thing that makes me happy is to see the colors (in the

factory). We have 20 to 30 shades of red." Chen’s sales reps have told

her that the post-9/11 gift market is the worst in 20 years.

Imbrie and Chen, however, find that working together keeps their

spirits high and their artistic batteries charged, as do E-mails from

happy customers across the country. Chen has promised Imbrie she will

design a silk pattern for her family’s business and that she will

teach Imbrie to draw and paint. Imbrie helps design Chen’s bags. The

two hope to eventually design textiles together, perhaps for the

interior design industry (including draperies, bedroom ensembles, and

table linens), and they want to make a line of tee shirts specifically

cut to flatter women over 40. "We have so many dreams but not the

funding," says Imbrie. Imbrie’s husband is writing a cover letter to

go with a bag Chen plans to send to Oprah Winfrey.

Chen believes the struggle is worth it: "All adversity makes you

stronger. If you withstand it, something will happen." In the

meantime, she says every time she walks down the street in New York,

someone asks her where she got her bag. One day, Susy Chen Design may

have the same cachet as a Kate Spade. You never know.

YWCA Princeton Crafter’s Marketplace, Saturday and Sunday, November 20

and 21, Princeton Day School, the Great Road. 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

each day. $6 admission per day; $10 for two-day pass. $5 seniors and

children under 16. Children under 6 free. Free parking. All proceeds

benefit the Pearl Bates Scholarship Fund of the YWCA Princeton, which

provides financial aid to women and families in need of support to

participate in Y programs. For information call 609-497-2100.

For information on Susy S. Chen Design call 732-438-9933 or visit

www.susychen.com. For information on Jeap Imbrie’s pillows call

609-683-7628.


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