Our beloved founder and forever inspiration, Etienne Aigner, was born in Hungary to a close-knit Jewish family who taught him the value of education and hard work. As a young man he would make his living as a carpet merchant, a window dresser, and a light bulb salesman. While apprenticing under a well known bookbinder in Paris, Mr. Aigner also learned to make handbags from a colleague in what he described as a “fortuitous accident.”
Luck would always play a role in Mr. Aigner’s life; it’s no coincidence that his iconic logo was styled to resemble a horseshoe, a universal symbol for good luck. Living in German-occupied Paris, he was forced to flee to the countryside where he became a member of the French Resistance. He and his Parisian-born wife Suzanne supported their family by hand-stitching leather goods. When it was safe to return, he had the good fortune of working in the ateliers of famed couturiers Christian Dior and Jacques Fath. The latter would help guide Mr. Aigner’s approach to handbag design, telling him that “a bag had to be constructed intelligently; being unique was not enough.”
“Fath declared that if I worked according to this principle, this would not only result in the bag’s selling, it would also result in that type of bag being kept and sold long-term in the stores,” he wrote. Eventually, producing critically praised, best-selling handbags featuring other designers’ names and logos on them began to wear thin, and the former bookbinder began to look toward his next chapter.
Mr. Aigner’s father had long ago foretold that his future would be in the United States. “Because America is comprised of immigrants from every corner of the globe, society is generally open to all,” he said. So in 1950, he embarked on a voyage to New York City. His brother, Lucien, who was already there and starting his career as a photographer, warned him “not to listen to tales of streets paved with gold…but I was determined to go,” he said. Mr. Aigner came over on the Queen Mary in 1950 and answered an ad for a sample maker at a shoe manufacturer in Manhattan: “Fate deposited me in a shoe factory, and there I gleaned enough knowledge of that industry to later guide me through the first shaky steps in starting my own business.” Soon he was making $150 a week, enough to send for his wife and daughter.
He was inspired to go into business for himself when an associate was selling garments that required belts. “The fashion of the day was a skirt and blouse combination that practically demanded a belt,” he said. He and Suzanne had some couture buckles brought over from Paris, bought cordovan cowhide leather (whose deep burgundy hue became his signature), and together made belts working seven days a week. “What made them unusual were the details,” he explains referring to the bespoke buckles as “jewelry.” Mr. Aigner would eventually patent his hardware creations as they became frequently imitated in the industry.
He and Suzanne opened the Etienne Aigner atelier in 1959 in New York City, and were off to the races—literally. His logo was an “A” styled to resemble a horseshoe, a symbol of good luck. Among the pieces that flew off the shelves in upscale department stores were his cordovan riding boots. And his innovative handbags—including the now iconic basket bag—shoes, and accessories were a hit with the town and country set.
In a feat of groundbreaking marketing that anticipated an audience for multiple price points, he created a line of mother/daughter handbags that could be sold in pairs. Mr. Aigner’s roots in European craftsmanship and embrace of modern techniques made him a standout in America’s burgeoning post-war fashion scene.
Mr. Aigner sold the company in 1969, and he and Suzanne lived what was described by a friend as “comfortable but unpretentious lives,” splitting the year between France and New York (where he drove the same Oldsmobile for 25 years). He died in 2000 at age 95; global obituaries praised his style and innovation, calling Mr. Aigner “the man with the golden hands.”
Today, we build on our founder’s heritage, basing many new handbag, shoe, and accessory details on his original work. Enduring hallmarks include the iconic logo, signature hardware, woven leathers, and yes, wicker handbags.
As we celebrate our 60th anniversary, we feel lucky to provide new generations of women with modern accessories that embrace Mr. Aigner’s quintessential legacy of craftsmanship, timelessness, and innovation.