DESIGN IS IN HER DNA

by STACEY MARCUS / photography by HOLGER OBENAUS

When asked which of her pieces is her favorite, award-winning designer Erika Lynn McKelvey confidently proclaims: “Anything made with fish leather.” Although she adores all her designs, it is the one-of-a-kind backpack that won four international awards that makes her heart go thump. Created with leather from a monster fish from the Amazon, the bag showcases McKelvey’s talent for transforming an ugly fish into a gorgeous backpack, one that has brought her much luck on her lifelong journey as a designer.

McKelvey’s love affair with handbags began at an early age. Long before she garnered design awards, created a fashion brand, and launched her studio and boutique, the entrepreneur fashioned placemats and colorful ribbons to create purses, starting at age 10. She learned more about sewing and, at 14, began creating her own patterns for handbags using fabrics. Two years later, the teenage talent imagined owning her own boutique in Charleston.

It wasn’t until her senior year in high school that McKelvey realized she could pursue a career in fashion. While visiting the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), she toured the fashion building and spotted two girls in the Accessory Design program making shoes by hand. “I immediately knew that was going to be my major,” she says.

Upon graduation, the budding designer had the opportunity to work for a prominent New York designer but elected to forge out on her own. “I felt like my ideas needed to be for my brand,” says McKelvey, so she started Erika Lynn, which are her first and middle names.

After an inspirational trip to Southern Italy, McKelvey began by making sandals, bringing the concept of handmade shoes to order to Charleston. However, her true passion is handbags. Although she still creates sandals, McKelvey mainly designs handbags and other leather accessories, including jewelry and men’s bow ties.

McKelvey modeled her boutique after the shops in Italy. She created a leather studio where people can see her tools displayed, watch her create and interact with her while they shop. Getting to know her customers gives McKelvey great joy.

Almost everything you discover at Erika Lynn Studio and Boutique is handmade. “I have a line of jewelry that is made by another fellow SCAD student. It is hand-forged sterling silver and gemstones. It’s gorgeous!” exclaims McKelvey. The boutique also carries unique gift ideas handcrafted by other artists, as well as jewelry and home décor that is handmade in Haiti. McKelvey works with girls from Haiti and teaches them sewing skills, then brings back the artisans’ goods to support them. “Everything in my boutique has a story,” she says.

When COVID-19 first hit the area, McKelvey had to close her studio and boutique. Instead of sitting idle, she used her materials and machinery to make ear-saver mask clips to give out to nurses, doctors and people working on the frontlines. McKelvey thought she would make 50 to 100 mask clips but ended up making and giving away more than 5,000.

Recently, a customer brought in a special sweater and asked McKelvey to turn it into a handbag. The designer had been wanting to create a tote bag with leather sides, so she inserted a strip featuring beautiful embroidered flowers into the middle to create the bespoke bag.

McKelvey was one of a thousand female entrepreneurs who were recently awarded $5,000 by Sara Blakely, founder and CEO of Spanx. The award is from the Red Backpack Fund created by Blakely, who named the fund after the lucky red backpack she unearthed in her mother’s attic and carried while creating Spanx. One has a notion that McKelvey’s backpack and bags will take her on a magic journey, too, but for now, we love having her here in Charleston. *

Stacey Marcus is a Boston-based freelance lifestyle, luxury and travel writer. Her works have appeared in Art New England, Boston, Boston Common Magazine, Coastal Design Magazine, Charleston Style & Design, Modern Luxury Chicago, Ocean Home Magazine, Playboy.com, RD.com and many others. A lover of big words and little white dogs, Stacey’s biggest joys are found in life’s simple moments.