THERE’S a film you might remember from the 1990s called One Fine Day. It’s a comedy romance starring George Clooney and Michelle Pfeiffer as two strangers whose lives intersect on a stressful day when they’re trying to get their children to school. At first, they can’t stand each other; by the end they fall in love – it’s a pretty standard rom-com format. But for some women who saw the movie, it’s not the plot that sticks in their mind but something else entirely: Michelle Pfeiffer’s handbag.

The big black bag seems to contain everything. In one scene, Pfeiffer’s character suddenly remembers that her children are supposed to be going to a fancy-dress party. But she hasn’t organised any costumes. No problem. She rummages around in the bag and pulls out what she needs to make some outfits. It’s the same with anything else that might come her way: whatever the problem, there’ll be something in the bag to fix it.

Sarah Haran, one of Scotland’s most exciting new handbag designers, remembers seeing that film at the time and loving Pfeiffer’s bag with a passion. “It was like this magic Mary Poppins handbag,” she says, “but those big practical ones are not very beautiful and they’re also heavy to carry.” Haran has also struggled over the years to find a bag that’s big enough to be useful but small enough to comply with all the strict rules about what you can take on flights. The struggle was one that many women, and a few men, will recognise: big versus beautiful, practical versus pretty.

However, Haran then did something most women wouldn’t: she decided to fix the problem herself by becoming a handbag designer. At the time the thought first occurred to her, Haran, who’s 51, was a senior figure at the cloud computing specialist Iomart, flying all over the country to oversee its computer centres; she was also bringing up two teenage boys with her husband, who works in construction. But she also craved something on top of all that: something she could do for herself in her free time.

At first, she thought she might make clothes. “I’d always made clothing and I thought as the kids were getting older I could do it again,” she says. “I was taught by my mother and I used to make all of my own clothes. We lived in the middle east at the time and there were no clothes shops – lot of tailors and fabric shops but nothing off the peg so my mother said, ‘you need to learn to sew’ and she taught me. I then went to boarding school in England, we weren’t allowed out so I used to use the school sewing machines just to pass the time. After that, I just kept making clothes.”

She then got thinking instead about handbags as a possible project and bought herself a sewing machine that could do leather as well as material. “I just started practising and made bits in front of the TV at night,” she says. “Then people said to me ‘oh, will you make a handbag for me?’ so I was doing loads of bespoke. At that point I thought people are really interested and I wanted to get better at it.”

So Haran took the project to the next level: she took a course to learn more about design, invested in some of the machinery she needed - including a 20-ton leather-cutter machine and the wonderfully-named skiving machine which presses the leather into a finer finish - and set up a studio in the garage next to her house. It meant something that started as a hobby was slowly transforming into a bona fide business. “My husband was hassling me saying this is quite expensive!” laughs Haran

That’s when Haran started to think seriously about the kind of bags she wanted to make. “I was travelling all the time,” she says, “Glasgow, London, Glasgow, London … I started looking for a bag that would work for what I was doing and at that point I couldn’t really find one. I was going straight out from meetings in the evening to see clients and I didn’t necessarily want to take my big handbag.”

So Haran came up with the idea of a bag-within-a-bag, which became her Dahlia Tote. Available in nine different colours, the soft leather bag is big enough to take a laptop if you’re going to the office or a meeting during the day. However, it also has a pocket on the front that detaches and turns into a smaller bag that you can take out with you when you need something smaller. Suddenly, your day bag becomes an evening bag. You can also customise the bag by adding pockets of a different design.

This adaptability was very important to Haran, as was using good quality leather. Her home in Kilmacolm happens to be slap bang in the middle of an area known for producing leather but ironically she has had to go elsewhere – her manufacturers are in Manchester and Spain – because the local companies only work on big projects such as cars or trains. “It took a bit of time to find manufacturers,” says Haran, “because there aren’t a lot in this country. In Britain we don’t have enough makers, which is terribly sad.”

Haran is also aware of another potential problem: Brexit. At the moment, Sarah Haran handbags is still transforming from a small hobby-business-at-home into a much more serious outfit that employs a team of freelancers (she launched the new business in late 2017). Haran also at some point wants to own her own supply chain, which means owning her own factory, but she thinks that would be difficult until after Brexit.

“It’s so close now,” she says, “I haven’t put things on hold but I’m aware that things will change. If I want to do something, like start my own factory, you have to understand what’s happening in the market. It's possible it will be bad for the market, but I have no idea – the best thing for any small business is just get on with what you’re doing.”

For Haran, this means designing new bags. She takes me up to her design studio, which is at the top of a flight of stairs off her hallway, behind a secret door that looks like a bookcase, and shows me sketches of the bag she’s working on next. It’s still at the really early stages, but the basic principle is the same: a small bag that can be lifted out of a bigger one, a bag within a bag.

Haran is also still aiming pretty squarely at the same market: the 35-45-year-old woman who needs a bag that is right for before, during and after work, although she is also thinking about ideas for a younger market. Interestingly, Haran has just done some market research which showed that women on average own 10-15 bags. So how many does Haran own? Apart from the work ones, she says, about 10.

This makes Haran fairly typical, but she’s also typical of a new type of businessperson: the mother who works from home, or starts a business on the dining table or in the garage; many women also have careers made up of many multi-careers – they do a bit of this and a bit of that (this is how many of Haran’s freelancers work). Of course, Haran also has a business pedigree: she grew up in London and studied business at the University of Sussex before moving to Scotland after meeting her husband and worked in telemarketing and technology.

She has now fully retired from that previous career and is focusing on Sarah Haran handbags. She’s also loving living in this new world that mixes the industrial and the beautiful, sketching ideas on paper, then cutting patterns from thin sheets of leather, and producing her signature bags-within-bags.

Haran also believes – because she’s felt it herself – that a good bag can give you confidence and likes being part of that. “I’m doing a little bit to help women in the work environment,” she says. “They’re more empowered when they go into a meeting. With my bags, everything is organised inside. And that gives you confidence.”

Bags of love


This small Edinburgh-based company made the bag Meghan Markle carried on her first royal engagement - Strathberry Midi Tote Tri Colour – and it sold out within 11 minutes of the pictures emerging last year. Strathberry relaunched production the following week due to the level of interest and the first pre-order batch of approximately 400 bags sold out on in under 24 hours

Catherine Aitken

Former film producer Catherine Aitken creates accessories in heritage cloth such as Harris tweed, waxed cotton and linens, and is expanding into movie-inspired printed textiles. Edinburgh-based Aitken found her path into fashion after designing a Katharine Hepburn-inspired bag to promote a film at Cannes.

Pauline Lothian

Pauline Lothian Designs, which is based in Edinburgh, produces a range of luxury ladies' accessories and gifts, from larger items such as handbags and tote bags through to clutch bags, purses, and brooches. All of the products are made using Harris Tweed cloth sourced from the Outer Hebrides.