SPECIAL POST: Mister Ernest Handbags - The Vintage Purse Museum Interviews Son of Ernest Blum

Classic straw bag with travel motif. Labeled Simon - Made in Hong Kong - Styled by Mister Ernest.
From the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum.

SPECIAL POST! The Vintage Purse Museum is extremely grateful to Paul Blum, who shared with us the story of his father, Ernest Blum, a prolific 1950s-1990s handbag manufacturer known as Mister Ernest. We found additional biographical information on a genealogy website, as well as articles and ads from Newspapers.com (credited). The photos of handbags in this post are from the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum. (Be sure to scroll all the way down!)

The Straw Bag King was born in Germany in 1934, the second son of Jettchen and Hugo Blum. Like many immigrants escaping escalating circumstances in Europe just prior to WWII, Ernest Blum came to the US through Ellis Island. According to the manifest of the ship S.S. Deutschland, Jettchen and her two very young boys arrived October 26, 1934 to join her husband, already living in New York.

The family was sponsored for citizenship by Hugo’s sister Sitta, who’d emigrated to the US in 1927. Sitta Blum married Bert Simon in 1939. Bert was one-half of the Simon Brothers Company (also known as Simon Bros. and Simbro), a handbag firm; his brother Fred was his partner. It’s uncertain when the company was established, but there are newspaper ads that show the brothers were importing straw bags from Madagascar in the early 1950s. When Ernest was a young man, he went to work for his uncles at their company, designing handbags and learning the business. By the late 1950s, they were bringing in bags from Italy, Germany, Spain, Japan, Hong Kong and other locales.

Simon Bros. advertisement from the March 1958 issue of Handbags & Accessories magazine (a trade publication). Original magazine from the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum.

“They were refugees, immigrants and worldly people,” said Paul. “The handbag business required a really diverse supply chain and a global way of looking at manufacturing. They were amazingly fluid in terms of the way they bought things and sold things.”

Paul noted that “straw” is the correct word rather than the widely used “wicker,” which—even though it has become a generic term—traditionally refers to the weaving technique itself. Straw handbags by the Simon and Blum companies were constructed of raffia, rattan, sisal and other materials.

Straw and leather house-shaped handbag. Label says Simon - Made in Hong Kong - Styled by Mister Ernest. From the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum.

Leather label on the side of handbag above.

Ernest married Naomi Tobias in 1956, and they had two children, David and Paul. While Naomi, a teacher and well-known abstract expressionist painter, occasionally traveled with her husband and children on overseas buying trips, she was not involved with the business. 

According to a genealogical website, Bert Simon died in 1966, and it appears that this was approximately when operations were turned over to Ernest. A 1970 newspaper article says that “he is head of Simon Straw Bags Co. and the nephew of the original Simon brothers who started the firm many years ago.”

Another whimsical house-shaped bag by Simon - Made in Taiwan - Styled by Mister Ernest.
It is made of wood and hand-painted, with faux mother-of-pearl handle and clasp.
From the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum.

Simon Bros. was located in New York City at 6 E. 34th St. in 1950, and at 33 E. 33rd St. by 1955. A 1986 newspaper article shows its location as 32nd St. after it became the Blum Co. These tall buildings were the heart of manufacturing and showrooms for the handbag industry during the mid-century. Ernest’s son Paul told us that not everyone is aware that many buildings in Manhattan have massive one- to two-story underground spaces, which some in the handbag industry were using as warehouses. (The Vintage Purse Museum contacted the real estate company that leases the building at 33 E. 33rd St, and learned that the basement is currently a gym. The 32nd St. location is now The Cutting Room, a concert venue.)

Savvy handbag collectors will note that Simon and Mister Ernest handbags have a series of labels with varying company names. “Basically, it started as Simon Bros.,” explained Paul. “Then it became Simon Straw Bags. Then it became Simon. Then it became Simon Styled by Mister Ernest. That was the point that my father became involved in the business as a product developer. When he took over that role, he established the Mister Ernest personality to further enhance the name of Simon Straw Bags. That transition happened in the 1950s. Then it eventually became Mister Ernest, and that became the primary brand and Simon became the sub-brand.”

Horse and buggy motif bag by Simon New York - Made in Hong Kong. The front is plastic-covered fabric and the body of the bag and handle are straw. From the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum.

Ernest and Naomi’s son David joined the company in 1980, and Paul in 1982. In the mid-1980s, the company became the Blum Co., while still making Simon straw bags and a variety of handbags with the Mister Ernest label. By 1986, Manhattan warehouse space rental and shipping costs had become prohibitive. According to a business article in The (Yonkers, NY) Herald-Statesman, the Blum Co. moved to 21 Saw Mill River Road in Yonkers (currently a towing and auto body shop), keeping a showroom and offices on Fifth Avenue in New York City. The article stated that Ernest Blum was importing 200,000 bags annually.

That same year, Ernest was interviewed by the Los Angeles Times about the kiondo handbag, which he and Naomi had discovered on a trip to Nairobi in 1974. Identified in the L.A. Times article as “the self-proclaimed ‘straw bag king of the world,’” Ernest was quoted as saying the trend made its everlasting mark in the 1977 film Annie Hall. The title character, played by Diane Keaton, famously sports a menswear look with a huge sisal tote slung over her shoulder. 

“Kiondo is one name. It’s a kitui sisal basket, but it ended up being called the Kenya bag. We were literally buying those baskets at market,” said Paul, who recalled making a number of purchasing excursions to Africa. The straw handbag trend that began in the 1950s had subsided during the 1960s, but the imported Kenya bag in the 1970s gave it a boost. It was not only fashion, but an early supporter of global economy.

Loredana large-size blue straw bag with original hangtag.
 From the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum.
Reverse of hangtag of bag above, showing Mister Ernest as Loredana's parent company and the company headquarters at that time.

With Ernest as president of the company, focusing on finance and operations, and David in charge of logistics and shipping, Paul was working on product management, adding several new lines to the company. Loredana was beautiful straws and evening bags imported from Italy, and Fortrend consisted of styles that appealed to the junior market. 
Fortrend cage-style bag with Velcro tabs and removable shoulder strap, designed by Paul Blum.
From the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum.

Paul was interested in computers, and the name Fortrend was inspired by FORTRAN, a programming language developed by IBM. One of the Fortrend designs used the magazine-shaped plastic handbag mold from the 1970s Mister Ernest line, but with a contemporary twist on patterns.

“I was really into technology and how the change of the world would affect people’s fashion choices,” said Paul.

Next came the Tribeca line, which was composed of higher-end leather products. “We owned the trademark for Tribeca because it was before the neighborhood was well-known,” said Paul. “The Blum Company was doing all of these different brands so we had a very complicated business.”

In 1989 or 1990, Paul and David felt they needed additional branding and became a handbag licensee of Kenneth Cole. In 1995, Kenneth Cole bought the Blum Company, discontinuing its lines, with the Blum Company folding into Kenneth Cole Leather Goods. David went to work in a different industry and Paul became an employee of Kenneth Cole, eventually becoming COO of Kenneth Cole Productions. He went on to another company, but returned to Kenneth Cole as CEO five years later. Since then, he’s helmed other prominent companies and is now a consultant.

Paul sees his father as an early enactor of the concept we know today as branding. This is evidenced by the evolution of the company, starting with the Simon Brothers to Mister Ernest to David and Paul and their collective contributions.

“He loved straw—loved the category—loved the material,” said Paul. “There were and are ways to communicate pride and he always did. The fact that my father took sort of a commodity-based business and gave it the personality and the design and what he applied to it by calling it Mister Ernest, that’s a significant thing. By putting that name to it I think he really got that importance of the brand. My father was really on the cutting edge. He was pivotal. He was a pioneer.” 

Ernest Blum passed away in 2017, but Simon Bros. and the Blum Company’s many diverse designs remain wearable, collectible art for those who appreciate a well-made handbag with an inspiring history

Simon Bros. Co. - New York brown half-circle straw bag, made in Italy.
From the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum.

Mon, Mar 23, 1964 – Page 7 · Denton Record-Chronicle (Denton, Texas) · Newspapers.com
Mod blue and red straw bag with gold-tone decorations. Simon - Made in Hong Kong - Styled by Mister Ernest. From the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum.

Mon, May 18, 1970 – 17 · The Evening Sun (Baltimore, Maryland) · Newspapers.com

Mon, Jun 21, 1976 – 7 · The Danville News (Danville, Pennsylvania) · Newspapers.com Tue, May 1, 1984 – 5 · The Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California) · Newspapers.com Thu, Sep 13, 1984 – Page 6 · Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York) · Newspapers.com Sun, Apr 21, 1985 – 11 · The News and Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina) · Newspapers.com
Tropical-motif magazine clutch, as shown in the advertisement below. It is tagged Fortrend - Made in China. These were made using the original Mister Ernest 1970s molds.
From the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum.

Sun, Feb 10, 1985 – Page 4 · The San Bernardino County Sun (San Bernardino, California) · Newspapers.com

1970s Mister Ernest magazine bag, made in China. The mold that made this bag was later used to create hip, updated designs in the same shape, including the tropical motif shown above.
From the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum.

Wed, Feb 12, 1986 – 13 · The Herald Statesman (Yonkers, New York) · Newspapers.com
Wooden box bag by Simon - Made in Hong Kong - Styled by Mister Ernest.
From the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum.

Sun, May 4, 1986 – 612 · The Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California) · Newspapers.com Wed, Apr 30, 1986 – 4 · Hattiesburg American (Hattiesburg, Mississippi) · Newspapers.com
Straw-look gold wire small bag with label that says Styled by Simon - Made in British Hong Kong. The lining is bright gold plastic. From the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum.

Mon, Sep 14, 1987 – Page 14 · The Pantagraph (Bloomington, Illinois) · Newspapers.com Sun, May 7, 1989 – 174 · Daily News (New York, New York) · Newspapers.com

Simon - Hand Made in Hong Kong - Styled by Mister Ernest black bead bag with heavy clear plastic frame and clasp. From the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum.

Mister Ernest - Simon - Made in Italy elegant tapestry bag with gold thread-wrapped frame.
From the collection of the Vintage Purse Museum.