The Story of Mary Lai: Design Excellence is in the Bag


Mary Lai, founder and owner of MARYLAI New York, lovingly designs and manufactures luxury bags which reflect her unique style and individual attention. Perhaps the most distinctive thing about these bags, aside from the painstaking care that goes into their construction with hand-selected leather, specialty materials, and hardware, is Mary’s story itself—a story that reflects the remarkable and inspiring drive of an artist passionate to share her talent.

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Photographed by Marc Parroquin.

Born in Seoul, Korea, Mary moved to the U.S. at the age of two and was raised in New Jersey. She grew up loving all forms of art, and knew from an early age that she wanted to design and create as her future career. At first, this was a concern to her traditional parents (who have since come around to being very supportive), but she was encouraged by her high school art teacher and assisted by him in fine-tuning her portfolio. Having someone believe in her talent and guide her along the right career path, she says, was a huge stepping stone in her path to success. Mary’s diligence led to her being accepted by Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers, where she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Graphic Design.

After graduating, she moved to New York City to pursue her design career. Transitioning from Graphics to Handbag and Accessory Design, she gained valuable experience working with several major handbag manufacturers. According to Mary, however, her most valuable training came from working with sample makers in the Garment District in New York, where she learned the essentials—using a sewing machine, creating patterns, and making a handbag from initial concept to finished product. While in New York, the five years she spent working with Kathleen Van Zeeland and Bruce Makowsky, were pivotal in her success. These two phenomenally successful handbag industry moguls, were her major role models in pursuing her own design dreams and goals.

MARYLAI, Inc. finally came to fruition at the end of 2012. Building a label on a limited budget was the biggest challenge, Mary admits, but it forced her to become resourceful and “wear many hats” as she learned to handle sales, branding, marketing, production, and other new areas for her.

Describing herself as a “sponge,” Mary loves to keep learning by taking continuing education courses in photography, video production, and web design.

The payoff has been tremendous. Mary says her favorite parts of the journey have been the incredible people she’s met along the way, as well as the satisfaction of winning awards for her designs. In 2013 and 2015, she achieved Independent Handbag Designer Awards (IHDA), and in 2014 was the recipient of the American Express “Ones to Watch Award” (formerly Rising Stars of Fashion). Very recently, in April of this year, Guess® launched a denim handbag designed specifically for them by Mary Lai.

Mary’s story and her label are a shining demonstration of the power of having dreams, making them into goals, and pursuing them no matter what. This is especially true in the ultra-competitive fields of design and fashion, which are teeming with talented people. Nonetheless, whether it’s creating your own design label, achieving a college degree, or figuring out how to earn a living doing what you love, Mary Lai’s advice rings true:

“If you fall five times, then you should get up six times. You have to work hard, not give up, and hopefully your stars will align.” Well said.

About author

This article was written by Christine Miller

Christine E. Miller, M.S. has been a professional writer and editor for over 16 years, during which time her expertise has evolved from composing marketing and business copy to writing articles/blogs and creative nonfiction. Combining her marketing experience and writing talent, she specializes in assisting new authors publish their work by researching and composing effective and compelling Book Proposals to sell their nonfiction book or book idea to literary agents/publishers. In addition, Christine enjoys working with authors on ghostwriting and copyediting projects of any magnitude.

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