How one woman turned her side hustle painting luxury handbags into a career

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

For some, it may be a blasphemy. But to others, it’s the customization that makes the bag so special. At least, that’s what one New Jersey artist is asking, Michele Sobelaims to deliver hand-painted designs that personalize everyday items for its 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 small items like wallets and keychains. Her creations range from simple monogram additions to elaborate floral and geometric designs that can incorporate just about everything. He estimates that he has 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 create personal live events where she paints products on site. Sobel set out his paints for a morning to fill luck on how he juggles his time as a small business owner.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How did you get into it?

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

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

I studied the process of painting designer bags and then I practiced and practiced until I felt comfortable delivering a product that she really wanted to be excited about – but one that was durable enough to last for daily use. He really likes it. He shared it with her Instagram, all his friends reached out to me, and within a few weeks, I had a growing list of people who were very happy to have their own piece of wearable art. The transition was organic and unexpected.

How do you create designs?

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

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

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

So how does it work?

I am an exclusive hand painting service. My clients already own things. I do not originate them, and I am not affiliated with any brands other than the companies that hire me to paint for them at events in the area.

People usually contact me through one of my social media platforms, primarily Instagram, or my website. I ask them to send me a photo of the piece they want customized, if they have any particular ideas, and what their budget is. From there, I made a general concept proposal and provided a quote. If they agree, we will move forward.

All the pieces are very special to my clients, as they are expensive or family heirlooms passed down from generation to generation. That’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly. So before my paintbrush actually touches their piece, I sketch the concept or create a digital mock-up on the computer for their approval. Once they approve, I will go to work.

Usually prices for something simpler like a monogram, stripes, or star types of designs start at $300. Some of the craziest pieces I’ve done are over $1,000. That’s usually just based on the amount of time I predict I’ll spend on a piece.

What is it like to paint such amazing canvases? Are there any special steps you need to take?

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

The actual process is meticulous. Some pieces I spend between three and four hours. I also spent five hours on some of the more detailed pieces. So this is a process where I need a lot of endurance because I’m straight all day. Sometimes I forget my lunch break. I’m a perfectionist.

Hard work. It’s layers and layers of paint and waiting for the paint to dry and having a steady hand all day.

Image courtesy of Michele Sobel

Is it harder to paint things compared to a normal canvas?

Skin painting is my happy place. It is 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 the less hard. For the most part, bags have a shape to them and they hold their shape. But the gloves you can take off. And that’s a bit of a challenge, especially when I’m trying to paint a 360-degree ring around a finger.

I also paint perfumes and beauty items. It was a challenge because it was a new type of canvas. All these different things I paint require different materials, paints, drying and curing methods. These are things that I actually taught myself. I never get something done before I feel comfortable working on it.

What is the most expensive thing you have painted?

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

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

Since you work with rare and sometimes vintage items, there are times when you ask if a client really wants this piece painted?

The only time I would warn a client is if the piece itself is not in good condition. This will affect how the paint adheres. I never want someone to invest in artwork that, in my heart, I’m worried won’t last.

No one has ever come to me and said their artwork is peeling or chipping and asked me to do a touch up. If they do, of course I will. But I also experiment with all my things first. I carried my own painted bag for two years. This is my everyday bag and I cotton my things. I work with some different water resistant, very strong seal coats, so you can bend it and move it around – it won’t chip the paint, it won’t peel.

What happens if you make a mistake?

I am thankful that I never made any big mistakes. I’ve never accidentally spilled a small jar of paint, for example, on one of my client’s special pieces. I am very careful. Sometimes after working for a long time, my hand is not very precise and I might get a little outside the lines. But I work with professional acrylic leather paint on bags and sneakers, so it’s water based. So God forbid if I make a little mistake—I’m human and it happens sometimes—it’s okay. But you wouldn’t know it when you see the final product.

Image courtesy of Michele Sobel

Where do you see your business going?

Over the past couple of years, the events side of my business and the onsite customization has taken off. One of the earliest was Saks Fifth Avenue. They started hiring me to come in and paint their “unique” canvases and stuff. My first day at Saks, 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 could wear them all winter? So that’s what I did. I’ve always loved being creative.

I work at Bloomingdale’s stores. David Yurman hired me and I was at Ralph Lauren in December. They painted me with all sorts of unusual things like glasses. I painted the terracotta planters for Earth Day for Clarins. And then, of course, I painted their bags and their little leather goods. Pay for live-event painting, on average, ranges from $1,500 to $5,000 per day, depending on location, travel, and more.

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

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