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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
"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
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
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
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
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