By Gwendolyn Rahn
Jun 18, 2015 @ 2:00 pm
Credit: Time Inc. Digital Studios

It was an evening filled with immaculately dressed designers, speechless award winners, and to-die-for handbags. No, we’re not talking about the Oscars, rather Wednesday night’s 9th Annual Independent Handbag Designer Awards in New York City.

As one of the most anticipated award competitions in the industry for independent designers, thousands of fashion fanatics from across the globe submitted their handbag designs hoping to claim one of only 40 finalist slots across eight different categories. One category in particular, “Distinctly Denim” by GUESS Handbags, resonated with award-winning hopefuls with the promise of immediate brand recognition and a week-long apprenticeship in Florence, Italy, with the GUESS creative team. So, who was the lucky winner? None other than the vivacious New York City-native and three-time IHDA veteran designer Mary Lai from Marylai New York.

“Mary is one of our talents and we’re thrilled to be the ones who discovered her,” said Emily Blumenthal, founder and CEO of Handbag Designer 101, the company that produces the IHDA. “We know she will go on to be a name and brand everyone will want to carry.”

InStyle sat down with the former-city-girl-turned-recent-LA-resident after she collected her award to discuss her inspirations, nerves and her upcoming Italian excursion.

Congrats on winning the “Distinctly Denim” by GUESS Handbags award, Mary! How do you feel?

I feel amazing. When I flew in this morning from LA, I told myself that if I go all the way to New York City, I have to bring home this award. You don’t necessarily know if it’s going to actually happen, so the fact that it did is incredible. I can’t wait to go back to California and tell everyone about it.

We know this isn’t your first year entering the IHDA. How is this award different from your past experiences here?

This is actually my third year entering. The first year, I won the “Best Handmade Handbag” category, and last year I was a finalist in the “Distinctly Denim” by GUESS Handbags class, but didn’t win. I knew this year I had to do it better and go all out. I wanted to create something no one has seen before, so I had to give it 110%. I can tell you it feels so much better being a winner.

The bag you created is almost entirely denim. Is this a fabric you’ve worked with before in your other handbags?

I don’t typically work with denim; I usually work with leather, so it was such a fun challenge. When I entered the denim category last year, the bag I created wasn’t as rich looking, so this year I thought about how I can make this bag be more three-dimensional. That’s when I decided to take long strips of denim and weave them together to give the bag this beautiful texture.

Tell us about your inspiration behind this denim bag? Are there any aspects or details that you’re most proud of?

When I think of GUESS, I think of California, and because I recently moved there, I wanted it to be something versatile and effortless. I wanted to create a multifunctional bag you could either throw over your shoulder with the strap like a bucket bag or wear it on your forearm by the handles. I’m also proud of the unique hardware, but I love every element of the bag, down to its beautiful navy ultra-suede lining.

What’s next for you?

Italy! As the winner, I get to go to Florence and do an apprenticeship with the GUESS creative team, which is a dream. I’m so thrilled to go to such a beautiful place and work with such talented people from as brand as iconic as GUESS.

We also hear your design will be available in GUESS stores and on Does that make you a little nervous?

It’s a little nerve wracking, but if anything, it’s so exciting. I’m going to tell my mom, sister and all of my girlfriends to go buy the bag as soon as it’s available. I mean, anywhere you go, you see GUESS ads and GUESS stores, so the fact that my bag will be in there is mind-blowing.

Click here to see all of the 2015 Independent Handbag Designer Awards winners, and visit to shop Mary’s award-winning design!