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Jan. 21, 2010 Volume 31, No. 16

In the bag

Jean Miller

PURSE PURSUIT Jean Miller, an office support specialist in plant sciences, is making a name for herself as a designer and producer of one-of-a-kind handbags that reflect her clients' personalities. Photo by Randy Mertens.


Staff member creates unique handbags

In the Parisian world of couture fashion, Adeline Andre can design a custom dress for you or Antonio Berardi can craft one-of-a-kind shoes. In mid-Missouri, Jean Miller is becoming well known for her unique handbags.

Miller, an office support specialist IV in plant sciences, has been making one-of-a-kind purses for friends and clients for more than five years. Each purse is not only a utilitarian device to tote things in, but a fashion statement that reflects the client’s personality.

“Fashion and purses have always fascinated me,” Miller says. “I could never find the style and look that I wanted so I began designing my own.”
Miller’s grandmother and mother were both seamstresses who handed their skills down to her. The design work began in earnest when Miller’s husband bought her a new sewing machine.

“Initially, I modified other people’s patterns,” Miller says. “Some of those instructions were not very good or poorly described. So, I started designing my own.”

Miller says her first creations were “average tote bags” that were easy to design and sew. As her confidence grew and her designs became more popular, she evolved into more complex purses with handmade buttons, zippers and flaps. Her design language also became bolder and brighter.
Larger bags are a little easier to make. With experience, her designs have become smaller with more details.
This is not Miller’s first entrepreneurial effort. The Shebina, Mo., native had a short stint detailing cars. She came to MU in 1997 as a curriculum specialist at MU Independent Study. She began human resources work initially at the School of Natural Resources, then the Division of Plant Sciences.
Most of Miller’s bags are made to order and it takes four to eight hours to make each item. Like other artists, she consults with her clients to find out how they intend to use the bag and what fashion statement they want to make with it. Getting to know each client helps her to impart the client’s personality into the bag.

“I have a client who orders a new bag for every season,” Miller says. “I’ve made a pattern designed specifically for her. In fact, I named the design after her.”
Miller tries to make each bag unique. “Women don’t like to see their bag being carried by someone else,” she says. Because each purse is made specifically for its wearer, Miller can sew in secret messages. A daughter giving a purse to her mom had “I love you” put into the purse. About one-third of Miller’s bags are given as gifts. Some are donated to charitable organizations as fundraiser items and others at her sole retail outlet, Granny’s Antiques in Rocheport, Mo.
“What is popular now are pleated bags,” Miller says. “Very casual. My bags tend to be on the bright and bold side. I want something that is striking and different. I want people to notice them.”

Almost all of her work is made from washable cotton. Finding the right material is often the most time-consuming part of each creation, she says. To get the right look, one bag was made from obsolete neckties. Another bag was made from fabric left over from the 1970s.
Miller has created several hundred bags so far. As her reputation has spread, so have orders for her work. She includes a designer label in each bag—a green bean graphic with the words Bean Bag.