Handbag designer Jenny Nemlekar is a biomedical engineer by training. For years, she studied how to make medical devices that were sound enough to fly past FDA requirements. Now she uses her background to create custom luxury leather bags out of her home studio in Wylie, a suburb of Dallas. The Jenny N. Design totes, purses, and wristlets are made from full-grain cow skin leather, proofed with water-resistant canvas lining, and completed with shining YKK zippers; some are also hand-painted. “I don’t regret at all being strongly persuaded by my parents to go into engineering,” she said. “I think that it’s made me a better handbag designer.” Here Texas Monthly talked to Nemlekar about her work. You can also go inside her studio in our latest Made in Texas video.
Texas Monthly: When did you make the jump from focusing on biomedical engineering to making handbags?
Jenny Nemlekar: Art has always been in my life. I think everyone who knew me prior to high school probably anticipated that I would have a career in the arts. But based on the trajectory of my older cousins and my older brother, a career in medicine and engineering seemed inevitable. I felt like art was just going to be a passion project on the side of whatever I’d be doing during normal business hours. But when I started classes at the University of Texas at Austin, it was so technical and the amount of information was overwhelming. I needed to do something with my hands, something tangible, something physical, and I remembered a simple handbag I was taught to make at six years old.
TM: How did you learn to make bags at such a young age?
JN: I learned how to knit when my grandmother visited from Vietnam. When my parents came to the United States, they decided that they didn’t want their kids to speak any Vietnamese. I could understand what my grandmother was saying, but then I’d have to run to my mom and say, “Hey, how do I say ‘this’?” We ended up “charading” [using gestures] during her whole stay. So the easiest way to connect was knitting. This was really fun because we could pass the time, and we didn’t have to talk. It was a great bonding experience. She taught me to knit this little magenta rectangle. Then my mom helped me make it into a pouch with her sewing machine.
TM: You began Jenny N. Design in 2008, while you were still in college. What was the genesis of your business, and how did you end up selling your luxury bags?
JN: In college, I bought a sewing machine and some fabric. After some experimentation and reading, I started to make the same tote bag my mom had taught me. My room quickly filled up with tote bags, and I realized I needed an outlet. So I bought a camera and set up an Etsy shop. I got my first sale after a week. I slowly started doing more and more handbags because it was what I liked to do, and I eventually exited the science space.
TM: You started with tote bags, and now you sell backpacks, briefcases, and purses. How have your designs changed over time?
JN: My first original design was the ruche bag, which was actually modeled after a Chinese dumpling that I was eating when I thought of the idea. Then the briefcase came out, which wasn’t as popular at that time as it is today. But then almost everything else from there has been built based on customers’ demands. They’ve been the driving force for basically all subsequent designs.
TM: Texas has a long history of leather craftwork. What makes Jenny N. Design bags stand out?
JN: The customization aspect of my business is what customers most appreciate. I spend almost all of my time doing custom orders. That means I have the silhouette, and then they can choose any leather color, the hardware color, the thread color, and type of pockets. One time, a hunter had a crocodile skin tanned, and he sent it to me to make a gift for his girlfriend. The end result ended up being really great. Even though I’m a one-person operation, I make sure to have a back-and-forth conversation with my customers about things like functionality.
TM: Do you still use your education in biomedical engineering?
JN: I never took a sewing class or a leather-working class. I’ve been self-taught. I’m an engineer. I should be able to find solutions. I’m a problem solver. I didn’t lose that core engineering knowledge and experience that I gained from learning how to design medical devices. I’ve been using those skills for thirteen years now.
This article originally appeared in the December 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Leather Engineer.” Subscribe today.