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Brand New Bag



Published June 14, 2006 at 4:00 p.m.

Ali Marchildon and Laura Cheney have found an artful way to stop strangers on the street, and it doesn't involve carrying a cute puppy. Rather, those gushing sounds are reactions to Flashbags -- the attention-grabbing totes the women have been making since last fall in the dining room of Marchildon's Burlington home.

The bags are sturdy rectangles with loop handles made of clear tubing, and they come in varied sizes to hold everything from makeup to wine bottles to . . . just stuff. But Flashbags' appeal is not about practicality; it's about art. Outside and in, they're covered with color-copied, plastic-laminated original artworks -- photographs, paintings, or collages of pop-culture images and text. That's what distinguishes them from a bazillion similar totes; it's what causes strangers to exclaim, "Ooh, where did you get that bag?" And then there's the funky stitching, in unique patterns around the edges and sometimes swirling across the sides. "The stitching helps make them pieces of art," declares Marchildon, who notes that no two bags are identical. Wherever Flashbags are seen, she marvels, "people are wild about them."

No wonder the nascent brand's tagline is "Carry a conversation." A "Flash Party and Flashion Show" this Saturday at Pine Street Art Works -- where the bags have been selling since December -- will no doubt get some tongues a-wagging. The invitation already has: It includes a photograph of Marchildon, Cheney and three girlfriends wearing nothing but strategically placed Flashbags, big smiles and semi-disguising wigs. Call it naked truth in advertising.

It's generally women who are wild about purse-type items, and most Flashbag designs have a more or less ladylike look. For example, floral watercolors by Burlington artist Katharine Montstream; women in the faux-Leger portraits by artist Liza Cowan, owner of Pine Street Art Works; or abstract paintings in pretty colors by Connecticut artist Tati Kaupp. But there's nothing too girly about a dude hanging 10 on a 50-foot wave. That and other marine-themed images are the work of renowned Hawaiian surf photographer/videographer Don King. Shots by a local 19-year-old skateboarder are similarly sporty. Who says bags can't be a guy thing?

Marchildon and Cheney have entered licensing agreements with about half a dozen artists so far, and that alone ensures nearly endless aesthetic options. The women developed this collaborative model while enrolled in the Women's Small Business Project earlier this year. "Marketing their images, crediting them -- it's great for everybody," Marchildon says. "It's fun for artists to see their work on a bag." And the free cross-promotion is the epitome of "win-win."

At her gallery, Cowan reports selling more bags with copies of her paintings than any of the other designs. "I think people enjoy seeing art on the wall and then taking the bag away," she suggests. Flashbags are also currently available at Salaam in Montpelier, Envi in Richmond and a retail outlet in Portland, Oregon, where Marchildon's mother lives.

Beginning next month, Flashbags will be one of a few select brands at Mi Bag, opening on upper Church Street in Burlington. Owner Jason Robinson, who also owns LeZot Camera Repair upstairs, says he will sell bags by the Australian line Crumpler as well as Burton -- both brands are utilitarian, masculine and made with "heavy, water-resistant, rip-stop material," Robinson explains. "We wanted to carry Flashbags because they're local, and we were also looking for a softer bag for female customers." It was the naked-lady invitation that first caught his eye. "But, it being about bags, it doubly caught my attention," he says.

When the Flashbags website launches this month, online shoppers will be able to customize bags with their own uploaded images. Imagine what the Myspace generation can do with this! Imagine a nation of grandmothers carrying baby pictures on their purses, not just in them. For that matter, more artists will surely see the merit of this portable advertising approach as well. Marchildon is working with an attorney to prepare for a mind-boggling array of potential legal issues regarding images. But at least her bags no longer scream copyright infringement.

Marchildon, 36, began making totebags as a creative pastime while living in Hawaii. That's where she met Don King -- his son and one of her two boys were best friends. King donated some of his sea-and-surf photos, but mostly she used copyrighted pop-culture pictures from magazines. The bags were one-of-a-kind items she gave to family and friends.

In January 2005, when Marchildon's husband took a job in Vermont, the family found a home in Burlington's South End. It was a harsh move. "We dropped 80 degrees in one day," she says. "I thought I was going to die. I couldn't meet anyone for two months -- we were hibernating."

Marchildon had to start over professionally as well; though she'd taught art at a private preschool in Hawaii, she had no teaching certificate and, she says, "Here the art-teaching community is really saturated." She decided to enroll in the University of Vermont to earn an art-education degree, but meanwhile her mother visited and brought her a lifesaving gift: a Bernini sewing machine. "I had no social life, so I started making things," Marchildon says.

A friend from Washington, D.C., had told her about "these great bags she'd seen made from old magazine covers. The wheels started turning -- I couldn't stop thinking about them," Marchildon says. "When I got the new sewing machine, that's when I really got into [making bags]. I hadn't planned a business, but people really loved them."

She made bags from skateboarder magazines for her son's skate-park set; she sent a batch to her mother to sell in Portland. "I started to think, 'This could really fly,'" Marchildon says. But the more bags she made, the more warnings she heard about copyright issues. "I knew I wasn't going to get permission for pictures of Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn," she recalls. "Meanwhile, more and more people were asking for bags -- it was Christmastime."

Marchildon knew she needed help, not only with sewing but with creating a business. That's when she heard, from her hairdresser, about Laura Cheney, now 30. "She'd had the seeds of an idea -- she had been making funky vintage bags and was going to create a space for others to come in and make their own bags," Marchildon explains. Instead, the two women met, hit it off immediately, and decided to form a partnership. (Cheney was out of state last week and unavailable for this interview.) Grad school moved to the back burner. After getting through last year's holiday season, the women "decided to stop selling and devise a business plan," Marchildon says.

Except the sales didn't stop. Last November, Cowan had seen a Flashbag prototype on a woman at her daughters' school and "pounced on her," she says. She was just starting Pine Street Art Works and loved the idea of selling the bags. She ordered some with her own artwork as well as that of fellow inaugural exhibitor David Klein.

"David was elated when he saw a bag with his old Beanie [the Singing Dog] poster on it," Marchildon says. This was, she adds, "the first time I saw the potential of taking original artwork with permission."

WCAX-TV reporter Jack Thurston took notice; he did a piece on Flashbags at the end of January. It happened to be the first day of the WSBP class. "Things kept happening that way for us," says Marchildon. "We were running to keep up."

Last month a different kind of opportunity for Flashbags arose. Marchildon and Cheney made a few bags featuring photographs of Sudanese children -- shot by former "Lost Boy" Isaac Majak, now of Boston -- to benefit an educational initiative back home. "It was very moving to speak with this young man," Marchildon says. "He's supporting 15 people in Sudan on his Dunkin' Donuts salary."

In the future, Marchildon predicts, "One section of our business will be nonprofit, when we can afford it." But right now, these Flashbag ladies are focused on getting through their party, launching the website, and training more sewers. "Eventually," she says, "we will move out of my house."