Susie and Brit Ankari’s bag line, Leni Penn, is making functional fabulous, while supporting the South Florida community.
Leni Penn light-gray ostrich tote ($230).
It started with a basic need. As an interior designer, Susie Ankari found herself constantly schlepping fabrics and pillows between client meetings. Meanwhile, her daughter, Brit, at the time a film production and studio art student at the University of Miami, was lugging cameras, paint supplies, and other sundries between classes, her job at Diane von Furstenberg, and her internship with the Miami-based film company Rakontur. To meet their needs, the Ankaris would each carry the most functional—and least fashionable—totes they could find: cobalt-blue Ikea bags. “The very expensive bags that I had fell apart,” says Susie.
Hoping to create something more stylish—but also durable enough to withstand paint-spattered art studios—Brit discovered the remains of some chocolate-brown, marine-grade faux crocodile material that Susie had used to cover seats on a client’s yacht. Brit had the fabric transformed into an extra-large tote that not only looked elegant but could be cleaned with soap and water. When she used the bag to bring her laundry home one weekend, her mother requested one for herself.
From then on, everywhere the Ankaris carried the totes, they were besieged by people asking about them. “It was such an organic, amazing process, where it was one bag that turned to two that turned to four that turned to eight,” says Brit. “We started thinking there really is something here.”
The Ankaris made 30 bags with similar industrial-grade, high-fashion materials—faux exotic skins like ostrich, snake, and crocodile in a rainbow of shades, from Miami-chic pink, lime, and grape to black, white, and slate—and took them to an outdoor market on Lincoln Road. When they sold out in just a few hours, their bag line, Leni Penn, was born.
Four years later, each Leni Penn bag is still handmade by artisans in South Florida with thread so durable it’s commonly used on yachts and in cars. They have been seen on the stylish arms of Tina Fey, Kate and Rooney Mara, Jessica Alba, and Michelle Pfeiffer, who wield the bags (which come in four sizes) as carry-on travelers, gym bags, work totes, and diaper bags.
Besides producing items that are American-made and “vegan-friendly,” Leni Penn also has a philanthropic component: The Ankaris donate new purses and backpacks to families in need through local programs like Women in Distress. They also regularly contribute bags to charity auctions for such organizations as Ronald McDonald House, the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America, Boys Town, and the ALS Association, to name a few. “We have a group of female artisans in South Florida who work for us privately, and to see their lives transformed by being able to support our local and immediate community, it’s rewarding on a whole other level,” says Brit. “It makes everything we’re doing worthwhile.”