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How a Sheridan native started with soda can purses and landed at the top of the handbag industry 

Christopher Belt won three titles at the 11th annual Independent Handbag Designer Awards.

click to enlarge THREE-TIME WINNER: Event organizer Emily Blumenthal and Neiman Marcus fashion director Ken Downing stand with Christopher Belt as he clutches his trophies from the Independent Handbag Design Awards.
  • THREE-TIME WINNER: Event organizer Emily Blumenthal and Neiman Marcus fashion director Ken Downing stand with Christopher Belt as he clutches his trophies from the Independent Handbag Design Awards.

I've found the best way to keep good opportunities coming my way is to think like a beginner, because the moment I don't think I'm a beginner, I quit learning." That's Sheridan native Christopher Belt's approach to the competitive world of fashion design and, so far, it's worked out for him pretty well. Belt competed against 44 other handbag designer finalists from around the world and won three titles at the 11th annual Independent Handbag Designer Awards in New York in June, a global contest that could effectively transform a homemade designer into a household name like Kenneth Cole — who, by the way, was one of 20 esteemed judges for this year's event.

Belt won the Best Retail Handbag presented by Neiman Marcus, the Bernina Best Handmade Handbag and the Perfect Everyday Work Tote Bag by Aimee Kestenberg. "I don't think there's anything wrong with a healthy realization that you have to wake up and compete," he said.

Growing up in a small town in the middle of the South, Belt sought inspiration from pop culture and the women in his life. "I watched a lot of 'Project Runway' and looked up to the idea that the contestants competed against thousands of designer applications to be chosen," he said. "The fact that talent could be discovered from towns and cities you never see in the movies gave me hope."

Belt says he began to notice women around him communicating with each other through fashion and accessories, even when they had vastly different senses of style. He remembers perusing department stores critiquing the accessories on display with his grandmother, Angela Belt, when he was young, and recalls his high school art teacher, Patricia McClain, who was passionate about providing a space where artistic minds could grow.

His competing bags, the Amelia tote and the Aerial bag, were named with a strong female lead in mind; Amelia means "hard worker," and Aerial describes something existing, happening or operating in the air (and serves as a nod to his favorite red-headed mermaid). Belt envisions the lady wearing his wares to be "a woman who lives her life unapologetically, a woman who knows what she wants: sexy, strong and determined."

As a student at Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, Belt said his knack for building bags began with some creativity and a bit of, well, trash. "I wanted to do something different, so I began making shoes and handbags out of found items," Belt remembers. "I agreed to sell a soda can handbag with a matching set of shoes to one girl in the class. The next morning, I had orders for every kind of canned beverage you could imagine in the form of a handbag."

It's not impossible to imagine building accessories out of scraps (anyone remember the era of Duct Tape fashion?), but Belt gave it flair. Belt's bags, to him, are more than merely a vessel used to store crumpled receipts, a debit card and long-forgotten tubes of seasonal lipsticks.

"If you look over at the handbag nearest you, it will become obvious that it's not that different from a home," Belt says. "It houses all your essentials, plus frivolous items you love. I grew up with the notion that a house can be built to your exact needs and desires." Belt is referring to his own childhood home, built by his father and, as he says, not a "cookie cutter McMansion." Building handbags, he says, isn't so different from architecture itself. When it comes to balancing human sensory appeal and structural efficiency, Belt says, there can be a domino effect. "Anytime you change one detail, it affects another. Then you have to change another until, finally, the design is reliable, yet elegant," he related.

Don't expect Belt to slow down anytime soon. He says each workday involves four different collections, "the one on the shelves, the one you are promoting next, the one you are developing, and the one you are brainstorming, which is the same season that is on the shelves a year from now," he said. "My life is a circus." Two collections Belt will soon launch are the Harrian Collection, a partnership with a South Korean company that offers an innovative approach to the classic handbag, and the Christopher Belt brand collection, which will include inspirations and design elements from the Aerial bag paired with classic styles. As a result of his victories at the Independent Handbag Designer Awards, Belt's collections will soon be featured in Neiman Marcus stores.

Belt, who lives in New York, says he returns to Arkansas as often as he can — most immediately, Oct. 12, where he'll be the star at ESSE Purse Museum's "An Evening at ESSE with Christopher Belt," benefiting Comfort Cases, a nonprofit that provides children in the foster care system with travel cases filled with essential and comfort items. See Eventbrite for $50 tickets. Prototypes of Belt's winning handbags — the Aerial Bag and the Amelia Tote — will be showcased, along with a few other new bags from his upcoming collections at the event, and will remain housed at the ESSE Purse Museum.

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