Designer recounts journey as 7 grads win scholarships

ORANGE >> The Orange Scholarship Fund Association awarded scholarships to seven high school seniors at its annual reception in June at Case Memorial Library.

The winners are Michael Cannata, Christopher Cassella, Jordan D’Onofrio, Mary Kate Fox, Brandon Liebnick, Katherine Meehan and Stephanie Lin Satonick.

Before the awards were presented, 1999 Amity Regional High School graduate Sapna Shah, now a designer of luxury handbags, spoke.

Shah traced her path into the fashion industry from her high school graduation, recalling her excitement at the world of possibilities opened when she went to Tufts University.

Though she started as pre-med, she was also deeply engaged with courses in painting and illustration and the other arts. Eventually the arts won out, and Shah graduated with a major in American studies and minors in studio art and Spanish.

Still uncertain of what she would do, she was led led toward the fashion industry by her interest in “creating and applying art in a practical manner,” an interest bolstered by magazine summer internships.

A first job designing sweatsuits led to work at Coach, where she learned to design handbags. Shah called it “a perfect creative marriage of art and science,” making an item not merely pretty but functional, able to “hold a certain amount of weight and pass a series of tests.”

Eight years later, after moves to Calvin Klein, then to Rag & Bone, always increasing her knowledge and skills, but also becoming disillusioned by the callous and glitzy aspects of the business, Shah was threatened with burnout.

Rescue came with the chance to go to Swaziland, to work with native women artisans to develop a collection of handbags that incorporated their traditional weaving techniques with leather.

“It was an opportunity to create elevated product and garner more income for the women and economic sustainability,” Shah said.

The resulting brand, Khokho, has been launched in New York.

Though she returned to New York to design a handbag collection for Eddie Borgo, Shah has arranged to return to Swaziland annually to continue her work with Khokho.

“Never be afraid to dream big,” she told the audience. “There is no right or wrong in one’s career but rather, finding the path that brings out your true potential.”