Artistic inspiration is all in the bag

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Getting a “time out” in grade school never felt like a punishment to Jess Rizzuti. It meant more time next to the easel. 

“I knew it was art for sure,” Ms. Rizzuti said. “I didn’t know what in art, really because I liked to do so many different things. And I still do.” 

Now she’s the designer behind an eco-friendly handbag collection combining high fashion and practicality. Her collection hit the shelves in 2008, has been featured in Nolcha Fashion Week for up-and-coming designers and is now available at Pamela Gonzalez in SoHo.  

Ms. Rizzuti is currently working on her Spring 2014 collection and shows no signs of slowing down.  

Her pieces include the “Fiona” baguette in cork with a black handle and “Fifi Carry All,” a chestnut leather hobo embossed with a crocodile center, among other designs. 

The names, she said, were inspired by circus posters she would sketch in college.

Ms. Rizzuti grew up in upstate New York, where she was exposed to the value of creativity early on. She credits her mother, Linda, most with getting her artistic juices flowing. 

Her mother came to art through necessity. She didn’t have enough money to buy her own clothes and grew up making her own — styles her daughter said were good enough for the runway. 

“My mom always said, ‘I wish when I was your age there was art school,’” said Ms. Rizzuti, who graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design and the Fashion Institute of Technology. 

But what Ms. Rizzuti loved most about her mother’s style were the cowboy boots she used to wear. She managed to acquire her own (in red) after burning her entire 4-year-old body with her mother’s chicken soup, which had been simmering on the stove. 

Along with visits to a plastic surgeon, the accident led Ms. Rizzuti and her mother to Bloomingdale’s in White Plains. 

“It was my reward,” Ms. Rizzuti said. 

It was there that her affection for accessories grew. 

“When [my mom] asked me why I put certain things together, I said, ‘It just goes.’ I always felt connected to fashion,” she said. 

She was also connected to painting and artwork, thanks to her father, Dr. Richard Rizzuti. 

“I saw a self portrait [my dad] did when he was 18 and it was so well done,” she said of the 8-1/2-by-11 pencil drawing, capturing her father from the shoulders up. Together they went to museums, where he introduced her to artists including Pablo Picasso. 

Before long, Ms. Rizzuti took her love for art abroad. She participated in a pre-college program hosted by Parson’s New School for Design, which allowed her to “do Paris by foot,” sketching everything she came into contact with. 

“I have more drawings than photographs,” she said of her time in France. The most memorable drawing was a two-page spread of the Paris Opera House.

 “[I] learned when to draw detail and when to fuzz it out, which I think translates into everything I do,” she said. 

Her high school job at Grand Design Flower Shop in Salem, N.Y., evolved into the management position she holds today, and also serves as inspiration for her handbags. 

Ms. Rizzuti said she uses the color and texture of flowers, specifically pink orchids, and that the flowers also find their way into the murals she creates in people’s homes.  

Ms. Rizzuti’s Spring 2014 handbag collection will draw inspiration from all of her experiences. Her pieces are created with sustainability in mind. She uses water-based dyes and predominantly cow skin. But no animal is ever killed for the sake of her collection. 

Ms. Rizzuti has also worked with Nolcha Fashion Week and two other designers to create three bags made by women in Kenya. Although she did not travel to Africa for the project, she worked in conjunction with Nolcha to give women an opportunity to learn a trade and manage a business. 

“It’s easy enough for people to make a difference,” she said. “I don’t understand why people would do it any other way.”

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