As party-based, direct-sell businesses experience a renaissance of sorts, the invitations land in our mailboxes with alarming frequency:

“Please join the girls for an evening of food, fun and jewelry shopping (candle shopping, fat-fighting lingerie shopping, designer dog sweater shopping …).”

You name it; we’ve been to somebody’s house to buy it. But a recent shindig put a new twist on the old Tupperware formula, and those who attended were genuinely glad to be out with each other doing something completely out of the ordinary. We were gathered to design our own handbags–an opportunity bestowed upon us by our host and mutual friend, Kris and facilitated by the owner of Mi Bolsa Custom Made Handbags, Cindy Shea. And while we vary in our degrees of comfort with the task at hand, we’re all anxious to have a crack at it.

As we huddled around a table piled high with swatches of fabric, Shea explained the process. Behind her, a rack of plain canvas bags in 28 different styles provided the starting point for our masterpieces. On each of the display bags, a simple tag will provide us with that item’s price as well as the quantity/variety of materials to be selected for that specific model.

Many of us were relieved to find the price spectrum reasonable (from $13 for a small wallet to $150 for the mother of all bags). And there’s no hard sell from Shea, who clearly designed this be a fun and low-pressure experience.

Once a style is determined, we’re encouraged to fondle and fold the 150-plus fabric samples until we arrive at a combination that speaks to us. Careful to be available, but not imposing to those of us who get dizzy during this phase, Shea made a few friendly suggestions.

“Look for your inspiration fabric,” she said. “Sometimes it’s the first sample you’re drawn to … or the one you keep coming back to.”

Once we nail that down, the rest will fall into place, said Shea. And we shouldn’t worry that we’re not being creative enough or that our fabric choices are too wacky. To that she says, “Poppycock! It’s your bag.”

As diverse women with diverse daily routines, we all have different loads to carry. In three weeks when our custom creations are delivered to our doors (some with silk stripes and gabardine flowers, others with more conservative, monochromatic themes), they will be taken into boardrooms and classrooms, nightclubs and grocery stores. They will be stuffed with cell phones and presentation materials, Goldfish crackers and sippy cups–probably all at the same time. And thanks to this unusual experience, they will be the perfect accessories to our unique personalities.

The clutch kid

Ordinarily, a party like this would take place at the host’s home with Shea or one of her reps bringing in a trunk full of samples and setting up temporary shop in the living room. But we gathered at Mi Bolsa’s new studio and distribution center, 1401 Circle Ave. in Forest Park, for a meet and greet with the new digs. So we also got an insider’s look at a business venture that many have been curious about for a while.

With enough warehouse space now to house four regular employees and execute the orders of 15 independent reps across the country (and with financial figures finally creeping into the black), Mi Bolsa has come a long way since Shea launched it in the basement of her home on South Thatcher Avenue in River Forest.

“I’d been leading a business segment for a human resources consulting firm,” Shea said in a post-party conversation. “My job was becoming more global in nature, which meant more travel. It was hard to protect my family time and I was feeling disconnected from my community.”

The turning point came at her oldest son’s eighth-grade graduation.

“I cried the whole way home from work the night before,” Shea said. “He was going to be gone in four years and I didn’t want to spend them stranded in airports. I vowed to find another way.”

After looking around for an idea, she and some friends happened upon a storefront-based bag design workshop in the city, and she couldn’t stop thinking about how much more fun and relaxed the whole thing would have been in somebody’s house.

“When I found myself still thinking about it two months later, I decided to investigate it as a potential business opportunity,” Shea said.

With a background heavy in process improvement and customer service, she could see how a party plan business would work with this concept. And with three boys at home (Matt, Eddie and Aidan, now 18, 8 and 7) and no sisters of her own, she could stand to make a few female connections along the way.

In 2004, while still holding her full-time job, Shea started making bags on her home sewing machine. Having grown up on a farm in Winnebago County, surrounded by 4-H women, Shea was a competent crafter, but realized that if she was going to charge $100 for her products, they needed to be made on commercial equipment by people who knew what they were doing.

By 2005, she’d quit her full-time job and was all in. With labor being her biggest overhead, she started with contractors before seeing enough success to add a designer/production person and a sewer. In 2006, Oak Parker Ruth Massmann became Shea’s first rep and helped her work the bugs out of a system that would soon attract 12 more.

“The reps are independent,” Shea said. “They buy a Mi Bolsa starter kit and then it’s their own business to grow. We support them with meetings, training and tools … and they earn based on sales.”

Women are attracted to this kind of career (and to this kind of party experience) for different reasons, Shea said. Some like the business model, some are handbag junkies or have a thing for textiles and some are drawn to the ‘made in the U.S.A.’ factor. The reps get to design their own lifestyles, the hosts get a sales-based discount and the customers have a good time.

Bigger than bags

From the get-go, Shea said it was her intention to infuse Mi Bolsa with a “give back” component. After a friend told her about Mercy Ships, an organization that employs old cruise ships as floating hospitals for the poor, she was moved to make it her house charity. Designating one of her designs as “The Mercy Bag,” Shea makes contributions each time that specific model is sold.

She also initiates partnerships with local artists, donates excess year-end inventory to Sarah’s Inn, and now that she has so much space, plans to open the studio for fundraising events.

“Basically, you can get together 10 to 30 women for a party and we’ll donate 20 percent of the retail to your charity of choice,” she said.

For Shea, the biggest reward has been the flexibility and diversity of her daily responsibilities and a basic rejuvenation of spirit.

“I feel like I’ve completely redesigned my life and I’m engaged in everything I do,” Shea said. “I’ve pledged to be the best role model I can for my children and show them how to live life in a way that makes them happy.”