Q&A: Caraa’s Carmen Chen Wu, Athleta’s New Bag Designer, On the Sports Bag Market

In Industry Experts, What's New by Lauren Parker, Accessories Magazine

Carmen Chen Wu

According to The NPD Group, while 2017 handbag sales were down 8% from 2016, backpacks sales to women were up by 15%. Duffel bag sales rose by 17%. An excellent Forbes article explores this further, illustrating that just like much athletic clothing isn’t worn for sport, bags made from “technical materials” aren’t just used for the gym. In fact, traditional handbags might be struggling because they’re just not meeting women’s needs. On the flip side, women are opting for lightweight, multipurpose bags that solve problems… but still look great.

Seeking a knowledgeable source, Accessories turned to Caraa, a major player in the chic sports bag category. Co-founder and CFDA award-winning designer Carmen Chen Wu gained luxury experience designing at Alexander Wang and Marchesa, and launched Caraa in 2015. Since then, the brand boasts sales that grew five-times expected targets, and three-fold year over year. Caraa bags are sold from Nordstrom to Equinox gyms’ upscale boutiques, and the brand is rolling out a men’s line soon.

Caraa was also tapped to create all the handbags for athleisure retail chain Athleta. Here, Wu gives her take on the “sports bag” market and why traditional handbags aren’t giving women what they want:

How does your experience in the designer/luxury world inform your design for the athletic market?

When I was designing for high-end fashion brands I was designing objects that wanted to be sexy, beautiful and chic; but not functional. Designer bags have a baggage of rules: small and lady-like, precious, made of real leather and exotic skins, heavy, and unattainable in every way. Their only function was to be a status symbol. They are the opposite characteristics of what real women need their handbag to be.

How does Caraa solve those issues?

We make handbags that truly marry “chic” with functional. A lot of women struggled to find the right balance in a bag. So perhaps the athletic-look that is trending is just a consequence of our thirst for performing handbags!


Pearls accent a Caraa sports bag

It’s interesting to see so many high-end designers incorporating athletic elements into their runway shows such as anorak/bungee cord pulls, etc. They seem to be inspiring each other…

Athletic details are a hot trend in current fashion, but you will notice that Caraa bags have none of those athletic trend influences in the designs. We purposefully call our bags “sports bags” and not “athletic bags” because we are not part of that athletic trend. To us, “sports bags” are bags that are purposefully designed to suit the multi-faceted lives of real modern women. Her “sports bag” needs to withstand office, travel, gym, social all in one day! That is what we are solving.


The trendy round bag gets a functional treatment with additional compartments and mesh pockets.

Don’t Call Them Athletic Bags!

Is the term “athletic” bags even relevant? 

“Sports bags” are the new generation of women’s handbags because the old one just doesn’t make sense for the modern woman anymore. This is not a separate category of bags but just an evolution of the handbag. When you think of an athletic bag you see the image of a big duffel made of polyester fabric. There are plenty of athletic bags in the market but that’s not what I design for Caraa. Our bags are on average bigger than a regular women’s handbag but we carry all sizes and we usually mix leather with nylons. What we think of “sports bags” are not confined by size nor material but they are determined by their function-driven design.

Congratulations on being the new designer for Athleta handbags! How will they be different from the Caraa line?

The Athleta bags have the same essence as our Caraa bags: feminine and carefully thought out for the modern woman who is on-the-go. The Athleta bags are more streamlined and made of different materials than the Caraa main line and will be at a lower price point.


Cirrus backpack features a built-in phone and battery pockets for on-the-go power.

What is Caraa’s point of differentiation from the other bag brands in this category?

I think we’ve been so well received because women have been craving bags that are functional as well as fashionable in a market that is laden with unpractical fashion-focused handbags. We talk a lot about the functional aspect of our bags, but the truth is, at the end of the day women buy Caraa bags because they have an emotional reaction to our bags. I really think that the emotional aspect of our designs wins over the functional one. Our CEO would slightly disagree with this point, but he is also the more logical half of our founding team. If you ask me, it is the pretty design that wins. Our retails range from $150 all the way to $800 and the bags are made of luxury Italian materials and craftsmanship shared with the world’s leading luxury brands.

Where do you get your design inspiration? 

From everywhere and all the women that surround me. I’m based in New York and what I love the most about it is women around me are active and very fashionable. You can observe them everywhere! There are two components to my design process: the emotional and the technical. The emotional side absorbs runway, street and even the hottest pastry or restaurant of the moment and processes that into what “feels” good into a handbag. That doesn’t make much logical sense but this part of my design is really not logical at all. Then the technical portion comes from observing how women interact with their bags in their daily activities and how I could help streamline those interactions with their bags. Designing bags that are both very chic and also really functioning for her is very challenging. Sometimes I think for days on a particular construction issue on a bag to make the “chic” meet with the practical. And when I arrive to the solution it is so gratifying!

What is trending now going forward for Holiday and then SS19?

Colorblocking, over-the-top embellishments, a bit of vintage, fringes, pillow bags, belt bags (can I call them fanny packs? I love them with either name!). l love seeing the trends but I make a point not to design with the trends. Our customers love that we are a bit offbeat and we like it that way too. Everything we make has to make sense way before being trendy.

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