How an entrepreneur turned a side hustle charging up to $1,000 to paint on luxury handbags into a career

March 11, 2023, 2:00 PM UTC
Michele Sobel in the studio adding the finishing touches on a hand-painted leather glove.
Image courtesy of Michele Sobel

Imagine spending thousands on a Louis Vuitton satchel only to paint all over it. 

To some, it may be sacrilege. But to others, it’s the customization that makes the bag that much more special. At least, that’s what one New Jersey bespoke artist, Michele Sobel, aims to deliver—hand-painted designs that personalize everyday items for her clients. 

A former news producer, Sobel now spends her days in the studio designing and painting accessories, from luxury handbags and designer sneakers to gloves and even smaller goods like wallets and keychains. Her creations range from simple monogram additions to elaborate floral and geometric designs that can encompass the entire good. She estimates she’s hand-painted at least 1,000 different commissioned pieces for clients over the years.

When she’s not in the studio hard-at-work on her latest commission, Sobel also works with luxury brands to do in-person live events where she paints products on-site. Sobel put down her paints for a morning to fill Fortune in on how she juggles her time as a small business owner.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How did you get into this?

Art has been a lifelong passion of mine. I started creating and selling my artwork as a side hustle years ago, while juggling a demanding job as a news producer.

I began experimenting with painting on jackets, scarves, and furniture. I left the news world in 2017 as my side hustle got busier. This niche of painting on luxury handbags really started in early 2020 when one of my existing clients commissioned me to paint her vintage Louis Vuitton bag, which she never used because she said it needed some TLC.

I studied the process of painting on designer bags and then I practiced and practiced until I felt comfortable delivering a product she would be really excited about—but one that would also be very durable to last for everyday use. She absolutely loved it. She shared it on her Instagram, all her friends reached out to me, and within a matter of weeks, I had a growing list of people who were very happy to have their own piece of wearable art. The transition was so organic and unexpected. 

How do you come up with the designs? 

Many artists will work in one style—whether it’s pop art or abstract or realism. But I like to think of myself like an art chameleon. I love the challenge of working in many different styles. I’ve never painted two of the same things. 

Sometimes clients will have an idea of what they want. Sometimes they ask me to pick something fun. I try to create a unique design that is specifically representative, whether it’s their favorite flowers or different kinds of realistic-looking heirloom jewelry that represent children or lost loved ones.

Part of the process is just learning about my clients and helping them to decide what artwork will make them feel happy, confident, and empowered. For me, that’s what it’s all about. My clients are investing in artwork because it brings them joy and confidence to literally wear original artwork on their shoulder.

So how does it work? 

I am exclusively a hand-painting service. My clients already own goods. I don’t source them, and I am not affiliated with any brands except for the companies who hire me to paint for them during on-site events.

People usually reach out to me either through one of my social media platforms, primarily Instagram, or my website. I ask them to send me a photo of the piece they’re interested in having customized, if there’s any particular ideas they have, and what their budget is. From there, I make a general concept suggestion and give a quote. If they agree, we’ll move forward.

All the pieces are so special to my clients, in that they are either expensive or are family heirlooms passed down from generation to generation. That’s a responsibility that I do not take lightly. So before my paintbrush actually touches their piece, I either sketch out the concept or create a digital mock up on the computer for them to approve. Once they’ve approved it, I get to work. 

Generally prices for something more simple like a monogram, stripes, or star types of designs start around $300. Some of the crazier pieces that I’ve done are upwards of $1,000. That’s mostly just based on the amount of time that I predict I’ll spend on a piece.

What’s it like painting on such unique canvases? Are there any special steps you need to take? 

I start by preparing the canvas—cleaning the leather or coated canvas or whatever the material may be. This prepares it for better paint adhesion.

The actual process is meticulous. Some pieces I will spend between three and four hours on. I’ve also spent 25 hours on some pieces that are much more detailed. So this is a process where I need a lot of endurance because I will just go straight through the day. Sometimes I forget to take lunch breaks. I’m a perfectionist.

It’s hard work. It’s just layers and layers of paint and waiting for paint to dry and just having a very, very steady hand all day long. 

Image courtesy of Michele Sobel

Is it more difficult to paint on objects versus a normal canvas? 

Painting on leather is my happy place. It’s a smooth surface. It’s like a blank canvas, and it’s probably my favorite unique surface to paint on.

The more challenging surfaces are ones that are less rigid. For the most part, bags have shape to them and they hold their shape. But gloves you can scrunch up. And that is a little bit challenging, especially when I’m trying to paint a ring that goes 360-degrees around one finger. 

I’ve also painted fragrances and beauty items. That was a challenge because it was a new type of canvas. All of these different things that I paint on require different materials, paints, drying and curing techniques. These are things that I really taught myself. I would never take on something before I felt very comfortable working with it.

What is the most expensive thing that you’ve painted on?

Definitely one of the bags. Most of the pieces that people bring me are pieces that they already own, but some clients have specifically purchased pieces for me to paint. So I would say the most expensive was probably many thousands of dollars.

People always ask me: Are you intimidated by painting on these expensive items? My answer is that it’s always 95% excitement about touching down on a new blank canvas, but 5% is nerves. Not because I’m afraid that I won’t be able to do justice to my client’s vision, but just out of respect for the piece. 

Since you’re working with unique and sometimes vintage items, have there ever been times where you’ve questioned whether a client really wanted this particular piece painted?

The only time I would caution a client is if the piece itself is not in great condition. It would affect how the paint could adhere. I would never want someone to invest in artwork that, in my heart, I’m concerned it won’t be able to last. 

No one has ever come to me and said their artwork was peeling or chipping and asked me to do a touch up. If they did, of course I would. But I also experiment on all my own things first. I’ve been carrying around my own painted bag for two years. It’s my everyday bag and I’m rough on my stuff. I work with a few different water-resistant, highly-durable seal coats, so that makes it so you can bend it and move it around—it won’t crack the paint, won’t peel. 

What happens when you make a mistake?

I’m grateful I’ve never made any big mistakes. I’ve never accidentally dumped a little jar of paint, for example, on one of my clients’ special pieces. I am very careful. Occasionally after working many hours, my hand will be less precise and maybe I will get a little bit outside the lines. But I work with professional acrylic leather paint on the bags and sneakers, so really it is water based. So God forbid if I made a little mistake—I am human and it does happen on occasion—it’s fixable. But you would never know it when you see the final product.

Image courtesy of Michele Sobel

Where do you see your business going? 

The past couple years, the events portion of my business and the onsite customization has taken off. One of the earliest ones was Saks Fifth Avenue. They started hiring me to come in and paint on their “unique” canvases and goods. My first day at Saks, it was winter. I thought, how cool would it be if I could paint people’s favorite gemstone or birthstone on their leather gloves and then they wear that all winter long? So that’s what I did. I always like to be creative.

I’ve worked in Bloomingdale’s stores. David Yurman hired me and I was at Ralph Lauren in December. They had me paint on all kinds of unusual things like eyeglasses. I’ve painted on terracotta planters for Earth Day for Clarins. And then, of course, I painted on their bags and their small leather goods. Pay for live-event painting, on average, ranges from $1,500 to $5,000 per day, depending on location, travel, etc. 

So this is definitely an area where I plan to have significant growth. The demand for customization in general has just soared over the years, but there are only a few artisans around the world who do what I do. 

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