With a grandmother who was a seamstress and a mother who could sew just about anything, it’s no surprise that Melinda Chu-Yang is a natural behind the needle. She took up sewing in junior high and started making pillows and aprons—“easy stuff,” as she calls it.
But one day, while out shopping, Chu-Yang was struck with a bolt of inspiration. “I saw a bag that I liked, but it was really expensive,” she recounts. “I thought to myself, ‘I could probably make that,’ so I did.” The bag proved to be the first of many.
Chu-Yang is the designer and creator of Melinda Mae Handbags, a San Jose-based company that specializes in bags of all sizes, styles and designs. From wristlets and clutches to carry-all diaper bags and over-the-shoulder day bags, Chu-Yang has a bag for just about everyone. Her designs are functional and practical with lots of pockets and zippers, and her fabric choices are playful, colorful and eye-catching. “A lot of my fabrics are really fun, with bright, vibrant, bold, rich colors,” she says. “I go through different themes every season, but the rich, vibrant colors stay consistent.”
The tagline for Melinda Mae Handbags reads: “Handbags for playful days and soulful nights.” When asked about this, Chu-Yang details how her bags are great for a day out—the wristlets are big enough to hold the essentials: a phone, some cash and cards; the big bags are big enough “to put your life in them”—and have the functionality for a night on the town. “I really love live music and going out with friends,” she says. “You can dress up a little black dress really easily with a bag.”
Unlike traditional clutches, Chu-Yang likes to add a bit of fun to the evening with her colorful and playful prints. “It’s hard to find a bag for a nice occasion that’s also fun,” she says. “But I get bored with a plain black bag,” she admits with a smile. “I know they go with everything, but I get bored with them.”
To keep things fresh, Chu-Yang adds a new design to her line every year, and sees this as a way to keep growing as a designer and maker. “I try to grow in terms of making something different each year,” she says. “I’m just constantly learning.”
As her business has grown, Chu-Yang has considered mass-marketing her bags, but she prefers the custom, one-of-a-kind attention that she’s currently able to give to each bag. “A lot of people ask me, ‘Why don’t you manufacture these where you can make 10,000 at a time?’” she says. “But I really like that each bag is unique. That’s the whole reason I started making them.”
Finding herself in good company within the local maker scene, Chu-Yang has been pleasantly surprised at the amount of talent and support that she has discovered here. Through her network of connections, she has gotten Melinda Mae Handbags into several local and Bay Area stores including the Usuals, Eni-Thing, RAG SF and Modern Mouse. She is also involved in local maker fairs—including the upcoming SJ MADE on April 2—that illuminate the wealth of creativity in Silicon Valley.
“I’m really excited by the San Jose craft community,” she says and explains some of the ways that local creative types have helped her to launch and grow her business with tips, advice, collaborations, consignment and more. “The talent here is amazing and not a lot of people know about it,” she says, adding, “It’s exciting how all this art is coming to life in San Jose.”