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Published: Sunday, 11/28/2010

Michigan woman honors state as she lives her dream

Jenna Kator shows off one of the handbags, a design named Huntington, from her new collection. Her purses are named for cities in Michigan. Jenna Kator shows off one of the handbags, a design named Huntington, from her new collection. Her purses are named for cities in Michigan.
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The loss of a job in the Detroit automotive industry and the inspiration of her mother were key factors in Jenna Kator's decision to launch her own business in the fashion world. But equally important behind the scenes of the Jenna Kator Collection is Michigan.

Jenna was born, raised, and educated in Michigan, lives there with her husband, Michael, and is such a strong supporter of her native state she promotes 17 of its cities in a very unusual way.

The handbags in her first and latest designer collections are each named for a city. Jenna doesn't just point to a Michigan map to select a city for the names. Instead, she knows the city for one reason or another. One handbag carries the Leland name because as a child she visited the western Michigan city with her parents. Detroit, Petoskey, Traverse City, and Mackinaw are other cities that got the nod on Jenna's drawing board. Troy, her home city, was one of the first to be acknowledged.

Another handsome handbag was named Adrian because her in-laws, Linda and Andy Kator, are residents there. It is no surprise that the Adrian bag has been a good seller at the Especially for You shop in downtown Adrian. Owner Judy LaPlant was so impressed with the Kator collection that she gave up the Vera Bradley handbags in preference to it.

Even though Jenna had always dreamed of having her own business, her professional life was running smoothly after she graduated from Michigan State University in 2004 with a degree in advertising, a background that landed her positions as media planner with Chrysler and General Motors. As part of her work on the Cadillac account she met editors at Gentleman's Quarterly and Vogue who discussed fashion accessories.

Jenna lost the job in December, 2008, and two weeks later was on the brink of launching the handbag business in 2009. "I had looked for jobs, but I have never wanted to leave Michigan. So many interesting things are happening here to transform the landscape, including alternative energy," she said from her showroom in Royal Oak. "And I had always wanted to have my own company."

Her late mother's inspiration plays a major part in the business.

"Her legacy has been the driving force behind the collection," Jenna said, describing her mother as "fashion forward."

"She was always far ahead of the fashion trends and wore things that went together. I used to say 'why are you wearing that?' and then a few days later I would ask to borrow it," she recalled. Handbags were important elements in her mother's wardrobe.

Her initial steps for the company included two trips to China, accompanied by her father, to select fabric, hardware, and a factory to produce the handbags. With production locked in, selling from the showroom and road trips for trunk showings now take many hours.

"If there is a negative, it would be the long hours," she said. "But when you love what you are doing it's really not a negative. And I love what I am doing."

Her husband, operations manager for a plumbing company, is well-versed on handbags. "He knows all about hobo, clutch, and shoulder styles," she said.

Her goal is to have 12 handbags in the collection at all times, each with a Michigan city name. Her second collection, introduced last week, includes five new bags to replace seven that were retired. New ones include the Bellaire, the location of Shanty Creek ski lodge, and the Huntington, which Jenna describes as a fascinating city of "just homes." Sky blue has been the most popular color and eggplant is new to the collection.

Most of the handbags are large with shiny hardware, though there are a few clutches.

"I want them to be statement pieces that will increase a person's self-confidence when they carry them, " she said. "Fashion is a way of talking to the world without saying a word."

Prices range from $60 to $90. Information is at www.jennakator.com.

Mary Alice Powell is a retired Blade food editor.

Contact her at: mpowell@theblade.com.



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