CEO and founder Sam Wagner shares the story of Sambag over the past 20 years, and how it has grown to be the coveted brand it is today.
Sam Wagner was on holiday in New York when she was struck with the vision for an accessories brand based on colour, quality and captivating designs. “Kate Spade had just launched in New York and I was mesmerised by her cool fabric bags and her savvy brand identification,” says Wagner. “I thought, why not do something on my own?” Returning to Sydney, Wagner launched Sambag in 1996 with a stall at the Paddington Markets that sold a concise edit of just three styles: a satin shopper tote, a metallic shoulder bag and a mini crocodile leather bag.
Demand for the bags was immediate, driven by their clever chic and colourful appeal thanks to Wagner’s background studying fashion and design in London and her previous work with designers Harry Who and George Gross in Australia. Newly married and working full-time in marketing, a sleep deprived Wagner worked through the night on the accessories range she wittily named Sambag, and also sold at parties she held at home. “I was working through the night and on the weekends but I was driven by the passion to succeed,” she says.
Succeed she has. Two decades on, there are now eight Sambag boutiques in Australia and a thriving online store. Wagner has built a formidable fashion empire based on her signature ballet flats and tote bags. Nicole Kidman, Naomi Watts, Elle Macpherson and Robin Wright are among the celebrity fans of the brand that now produces two womenswear collections each year built on the same affordable luxury ethos as Sambag accessories. Wagner celebrates her 20th anniversary in business this year with a new Spring/Summer collection inspired by gypset life in the tropics that embodies the sophisticated ease that defines Sambag.
“I’m so excited about everything we’ve achieved, and in particular our new Spring/Summer collection as it’s a really beautiful range,” she says. But the road to shoe and handbag heaven hasn’t been easy. One of the bravest decisions Wagner made was leaving her career to pursue Sambag full-time after just one year of selling at the Paddington markets. “I had so many early ups and downs and a lot of tears along the way, but I could see there was a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel where I felt I could make this a business and that it could work,” she says.
Focusing all of her efforts on Sambag enabled Wagner to introduce more bag styles in luxurious materials such as lizard, snake and velvet, which were swiftly snapped up for sale by the nation’s premiere boutiques. Ballet flats and sandals followed, in bold prints and exotic finishes such as ponyskin, snakeskin and metallics.
In 1999 Sambag made its debut at Australian Fashion Week with a slide sandal and a leather ballet flat called Grace that would go on to become a best seller. Wagner had her first daughter Ali just three months later in a juggling act that would make some women baulk but Wagner relished celebrating two milestones together. “I was heavily pregnant at fashion week and I think a lot of people were like ‘wow, look at this woman, what is she doing?’ but when you are having your first child you have so much amazing energy that you think you can take on the world,” she says. “I had all that passion, focus and drive to have my child and launch my brand around the same time.”
The business continued to grow as Wagner had a second daughter India Grace two years later, then in 2005 she opened the first stand alone Sambag store in leafy Woollahra. The store on Edgecliff Road debuted with a large range of shoes and bags and a small collection of cashmere that was perfectly attuned to the needs of the local customers, predominantly stylish young mums and locals.
“Our core customer is a mum who is chic and on the go,” says Wagner. “She’s casual but she wants to look and feel good everyday.” That demographic is Sambag’s most loyal and devoted customer base, but for the new Spring/Summer collection Wagner is courting a younger woman with designs driven by colour, print and a relaxed bohemian aesthetic. Embroidered cotton sundresses, flirty silk spotted shorts, easy tiered maxi skirts and off-the-shoulder blouses are among the pieces in the range inspired by resort life on islands from the Seychelles and the Maldives to Hamilton and Hayman in Australia.
Raffia wedges, pineapple print slides and beaded leather sandals are some of the tropical themed accessories that round out the collection alongside Sambag classics such as totes and pretty ballets. “We have a younger feel this season, and it’s very bohemian but utterly wearable,” says Wagner. Wearability for all occasions has been a key driver of Sambag’s success over the years, which Wagner has poured back into supporting the arts. In 2011 the brand became the first ever Pointe Shoe partner of the Australian ballet, in a marriage of Wagner’s twin passions for fashion and the arts.
“The Ballet approached me and I jumped on it because it was a beautiful, amazing partnership and I really believe in the arts,” she says. In 2012 she followed up the Pointe Shoe partnership with a capsule collection to mark 50 years of the Australian Ballet that was inspired by influential Australian women in the arts and the media. “It was completely true to Sambag and to my personal philosophy and I enjoyed everything about it,” she says.
Since the inception of Sambag that philosophy has remained driven by a desire to create affordable luxury for everyday living. “I am so focused on ensuring the highest quality for everything we make, and aesthetically on ensuring it will look good and work for everyday situations,” says Wagner. “I love art galleries and culture and I love to travel as much as I can,” says Wagner. After 20 years in the business, Sambag’s journey is continuing with an uncommon elan and enthusiasm. “I’m passionate about the business and I really take it personally so I’ll do everything to ensure it will continue to succeed in style.”
Edited by Georgina Safe