From Fortune 500 to designer handbags: Zeina Dalal Ossi on business and fashion

Zeina Dalal Ossi is a handbag designer bringing together cultures. Born in Beirut, Lebanon in 1974, she and her family immigrated to the United States when she was six. She originally pursued a more traditional career path working in management at American Airlines, consulting with Deloitte, and in new product development at Frito Lay. A lifelong lover of fashion and artistic pursuits, she finally took the step to begin her own business creating designer handbags that convey glamour and quality, at reasonable prices.

We sat down with her to talk about designing handbags under her brand NinoRossi, her inspirations, and her life as an entrepreneur.

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You have beautiful and unique handbags – what makes them different from other handbags on the market?

NinoRossi’s research shows that only a few designers are offering creative and original designs, but at very high prices. Hence, our business model is to bridge that gap where we offer distinguished designs and luxurious quality at reasonable prices.

Our forte is an artistic interpretation of style, creating designs which exemplify our motto: “The Art of the Handbag”. We begin with the finest grade of European leathers that include embossed lizard, hornback croco and anaconda snake leather, to name a few. We love color. And we love to combine and weave colors and textures into pieces of art.

From art and music comes imagination, hence the creation of beauty. Beauty that manifests itself in a good design. A good design must always express an intrinsic balance of flow while being elegant, glamourous, and rich.

Do you bring your own culture into the handbag designs, and if so, how?

Our “Inscription” Collection employs a centuries-old method of Lebanese embroidery called “Aghabani”. Aghabani was used to decorate garments, tablecloths or shawls, using threads to stitch patterns. Traditionally, this was done purely by hand in small shops by elderly ladies – a time-consuming and intricate process.

What we have done is to evolve this process into a more sophisticated method by bringing special machines together with hand and foot led movement to create what is called an “Aghabani” stitch – you can see a video of the process here. This method embroiders beautiful and colorful French silk threads onto European embossed leather using a hand-led machine to create an authentic and artistic handbag.

What inspired you to start creating handbags yourself?

I have always known that at some point in my life the focus of my passion would be in starting my own business. Now my children are in school and I have more time on my hands – and considering how much energy I have for being productive and purposeful – I decided it was the right time to begin a new venture.

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Through my work experience with select Fortune 500 companies that took me around the world, I had a wide exposure to art and artisanal work which fostered a tremendous appreciation for culture. My lifelong study of music and the arts were equally an inspiration, as was my family’s love for the finer things in life. Growing up in an entrepreneurial family, where my father was involved in starting and developing major companies, I gained the perspective that there are no limits to what you can do.

I’d say the most important turning point was early in my life, during my study abroad in Salzburg, Austria and my subsequent travels throughout Europe. It planted the seed for what became a lifelong journey of artistic discovery in wherever beauty is expressed, be it live performances of classical music at the Vienna Musikverein (The Golden Hall), the study of impressionist paintings at the Louvre, or breathtaking views while crossing the Alps from Italy to Switzerland, to name a few. I learned that the more I immersed myself into the study of the arts and culture, the more I could discover a deeper layer of myself.

With my love of fashion, I knew that designing handbags would draw from my own strengths, experiences and passion. I truly enjoy interpreting each design to satisfy the lifestyles of today’s discriminating woman. It was not so much a risk as much as it was rewarding to be able to see so many pieces of my life come together.

And, with this decision came the ability to fulfill my goal of supporting St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, a charity which has been near to my heart since my mother passed away of cancer in 2011.

What is it like to be in business with your dad, and what roles do each of you cover?

My dad is a wealth of knowledge and experience when it comes to business. He is also well traveled and well read, so he brings an open and multi-faceted perspective to everything we do. We also have an association which is quite special. We have a lot in common, which fosters a deep understanding of one another – we often finish each other’s sentences! Our roles evolved in a complementary manner, as we work closely together on every aspect of our business model from design and marketing to finance.

When it comes to production, my dad plays the major role. While we work closely together on all the aspects of the business, my dad takes a direct responsibility for seeing that the designs are sampled and produced exactly as agreed upon. This is done through a reputable factory in Lebanon which my dad has contracted with for producing samples as well as production of inventory.

How do you manage overseas production?

Upon finalizing each group of designs, my dad travels to Lebanon for around two months, where he works with stylists and sample makers at the factory to produce the samples, and offers various choices for hardware. The samples are then shipped to Jacksonville with DHL for our evaluation and for any changes, if necessary. Sometimes, samples may require more than one trip to get them exactly right. Subsequently, we create final patterns for each of the designs together with all the selected hardware to be ready for production. Finally, we put in place a rigorous quality control for production.

My dad travels to Lebanon as frequently as needed, depending on what new designs we have in the making. He also gets to meet with representatives of European tanning companies in Lebanon, getting samples of new leathers and new colors.

Why did you choose Lebanon as the main place to create the handbags?

Lebanon has always been a center for art and creativity. It’s given birth to many world-renowned fashion designers, such as Elie Saab, Zuhair Murad and Reem Acra, whose dresses steal the spotlights at red carpet events with gowns made for Hollywood celebrities. Beirut is known as the “Paris of the Middle East”, not just for its cultural vibe, but also for the remnants of its status as a French colony during the second World War. The city is rife with Parisian-style cafes, as the city is constantly alive with art showings, plays and poetry nights. Even the streets and architecture stand true to the nickname.

As a result, Beiruit is famous as a fashion capital in the Middle East, and a major world hub. Downtown Beirut and its souks are a hub for luxury shopping in the region, boasting names like Louis Vuitton, Hermes and Christian Dior, among others. It’s not only the city that makes Lebanon such a hub for fashion but also the locals. The Lebanese have proved more understanding of cultural change. Trends catch on, and Lebanese high society are quick to consume fashion goods. Gucci is a household name. Cultural enrichment and beauty is readily embraced by much of the population.

From that perspective, and because of our connection to Lebanon’s artisanal tools of production, we chose Lebanon for manufacturing, as it has a strong emphasis on quality.

What was your biggest challenge in business, and how did you overcome it?

Our biggest challenge was to understand the market and define NinoRossi’s business model. There was a tremendous amount of research to be done in understanding the marketplace, and then in determining where we would fit in. And of course with production being overseas, we had to plan well and work efficiently to keep our costs down.

There were so many hurdles to overcome – research, product positioning, design, production, as well as online marketing and advertising. So I am most surprised by how well things have come together in an efficient and cost effective manner.

What are three pieces of advice you would give to someone starting out in business for the first time?

  1. Have a good business plan and continually reevaluate your roadmap. Plans are necessary but are constantly in transition.
  2. Take in as much feedback from as many people as you can about whatever idea you have…seek critical feedback.
  3. Quality and passion should always be main ingredients.

What is a typical day for you? How do you maintain work-life balance?

At this stage with NinoRossi, it’s all about marketing. We are continually assessing our marketing strategies. We are constantly looking for opportunities and working to steer our business in the proper channels. We also persistently monitor the market for future product and design direction.

On a personal level, I have three children, ages 12, 11 and 9, and they are my first priority. I am involved in their school and also with them in all their after school activities, which range from violin and piano, to tennis and swimming. My day starts at 8am after I drop off my kids at school and ends at 2:30pm when I leave to pick them up from school. During those hours, I work on NinoRossi, exercise, run errands, cook, have coffee or lunch with a friend, and make plans for my family. I have a loving husband who is very supportive of me and my vision and that helps things go smoothly. My father is also tremendously helpful in lending a hand with my kids.

Having an online business allows for so much freedom. Freedom of staying in your workout clothes all day, or approving ad campaigns in your pajamas. While a photoshoot would have to end by 2:30pm, most of my work can continue throughout the day and around my other responsibilities.

Okay, now for some fun questions! What is currently lying on your bedside table?

Photos of my kids, parents, brother and grandparents. Also, “Pride and Prejudice”, by Jane Austen.

What couldn’t you leave home without?

A snack. I’m always hungry. ?

Who is your favourite designer or fashion brand and why?

We have always admired Louis Vuitton for their quality and beautiful designs. My vision for NinoRossi is an artistic and vibrant image for today’s woman.

With so many handbags in the marketplace, NinoRossi provides clarity to women in their search for the right handbag. A handbag that offers authenticity and luxury, as well as value. You can take a look at their full range here!