It's impossible to look at a handbag by Dallas company Cykochik and not smile. With their bold colors, poppy graphics and child-like whimsy, they're an instant mood lifter and a splash of good cheer on your arm. You won't get far at the market or mall without someone stopping to exclaim or inquire as to their origin.
Young entrepreneur Nikki Dương Koenig formed Cykochik as a student project in 2003 while still attending SMU. But it's only been the past few months that she's vaulted Cykochik from hobby to full-time concern. She's stepped up production, launched a new "artist series" and won an award from a national organization for her use of cruelty-free materials — a major accomplishment in a realm where animal skins are the rule.
A native of Vietnam who moved to the United States with her family when she was 7, Koenig says she's always made things and loves working with her hands. "My mom made our clothes when we were little — that's how I learned design and how to sew," she says.
"We express ourselves creatively through what we wear and carry, and I believe we can express that without harming others, the planet or animals. That's always been my philosophy."
She made her own clothes in high school and created her first handbag at SMU as a "wearable art piece." Everyone on campus wanted one, and a handbag company was born. After school, she went to New York to work in the advertising industry. You can see that background in her polished graphics and presentation.
Cykochik's cruelty-free policy stems from Koenig's own abstention from eating meat.
"Ever since I started this, my passion for art and design and freedom of self-expression has been the core of Cykochik," she says. "We express ourselves creatively through what we wear and carry, and I believe we can express that without harming others, the planet or animals. That's always been my philosophy from the beginning when I started Cykochik."
That won her a compassionate business award from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in late 2013. And PETA is one of the two organizations she'll donate to, along with Against the Grain, a group that promotes awareness of Asian American culture, via her new "Causes" collection, which she'll launch at the spring Pin Show in Dallas on Feb. 22. "Those are the two organizations I’m passionate about," she says.
A Kickstarter campaign in April 2013 gave her the funds she needed not only to quit her job but also acquire the materials she uses for her bags. She pays a premium for fabrics produced in a sustainable manner.
"I use these eco- and animal-friendly polyurethane materials that are very expensive," she says. "Anything eco-friendly is always expensive. But it's the difference between sticking with my philosophy and being responsible in my sourcing of materials, and not going for something cheaper, easier or faster."
Her custom-made bags, available online, include totes, clutches and sleeve bags, and are priced from $40 to $270. They're clean and simple in pleasing shapes; her "Vanguard Bots" look like little bowling bags. Some come with supremely practical removable straps. She also stocks a few ready-made bags at local art galleries such as at McKinney Avenue Contemporary, to which she donates 40 percent of the proceeds.
In her artist series, she collaborates with artists from around the world who create limited-edition designs. Customers — typically creative types or supporters of the arts — can choose the design executed in different colors. "I'm not a traditional accessory label where I crank out a new collection every season," she says. "I don't do fast fashion. These are works of art, meant to last. They're classic things that people like collect."