Maurices bags new design with online contest

When Maurices decided it wanted a hot new handbag to anchor its fall clothing collection this year, the women's clothier didn't turn to the fashionistas of New York or L.A. for guidance.

When Maurices decided it wanted a hot new handbag to anchor its fall clothing collection this year, the women's clothier didn't turn to the fashionistas of New York or L.A. for guidance.

Instead, the Duluth-based chain launched a nationwide contest dubbed "Project Handbag."

Here's how it worked: Maurices teamed with a popular online tastemaker -- -- to solicit handbag sketches. It received more than 200 design submissions, selecting 10 semifinalists to post online at and Visitors to these Web sites were encouraged to vote on their favorite design. More than 17,000 votes later, the three most popular designs emerged as finalists. These finalists were then reviewed by a team of judges, including staff from Maurices, Fashion Indie, a handbag manufacturer and a former Coach executive now serving on the board of directors for Dress Barn, Maurices' parent company.

The winning design came from Christina Oertel, a 27-year-old graphic designer from Plover, Wis., near Stevens Point.

For her efforts, Oertel received a trip for two to New York, $500 in spending money and was recognized as the guest of honor at Maurices' fall fashion show.


"They really gave me the celebrity treatment," Oertel said.

Oertel said she also found it rewarding to see her purse design transformed from a sketch into a retail product. Maurices collaborated with Oertel to select materials and fine-tune the purse. She was able to review two prototypes before the purse went into production.

Maurices ordered 10,000 of the custom-made synthetic handbags and plans to sell them for about $40 a pop, said Vivian Behrens, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Dress Barn Inc., Maurices' parent company. The purse is being marketed simply as the Christina Bag. Oertel will receive no royalties.

"Having something out there nationwide with my name on it is pretty surreal," Oertel said. "Every time I see some carrying my bag it will be a treat in itself."

Behrens views the contest experience as a valuable eye-opener and is already talking about the possibility of a similar endeavor next year.

"This was completely new territory for us, so we didn't know what to expect. But I was very pleasantly surprised," she said.

"It wasn't a huge investment, and it created a lot of positive excitement," Behrens said. "I think it certainly introduced some new customers to Maurices."

Busie Matsiko, co-founder and CEO of, said her company is exploring similar initiatives with other clients, but she's always looking for the right fit.


"In order to connect with our audience on the ground, events need to be fun," she said.

She described the design contest model as a cost-efficient means of product-line development. Matsiko also noted that contests open doors for newcomers to the industry.

"You don't necessarily think about these kinds of design opportunities being readily available to someone living in a place like central Wisconsin," Oertel said. "But this just goes to show that you don't have to live in New York. Design contests give people in small towns, like me, an opportunity to have their talents recognized, and I think there is awful lot of talent out there."

PETER PASSI covers business and development. He can be reached weekdays at (218) 279-5526 or by e-mail at .

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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