Q&A: From designing handbags to bagging deals

By Guelda Voien | November 15, 2013 06:15PM

Many New York sales agents have come to the business of real estate from a wide range of other professions. In an ongoing series, TheRealDeal.com will profile brokers for whom selling properties represents a major career transition.

Before embarking on a career as a real estate agent, Nicole Dreyfuss of Warburg Realty started successful fashion label Margaret Nicole, and worked in finance for Oppenheimer Funds. Handbags she designed have appeared in global editions of Vogue and on the shelves of Anthropologie, and have inspired knockoffs on Etsy.com. Last month, the 38-year old mother of twins sat down with The Real Deal and explained why real estate is more fun than either.

How did you end up in fashion?
I went to Kenyon College, in Ohio, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I actually went into finance. I worked at Oppenheimer and at Lazard. I didn’t really have a passion for mutual funds [laughs]. I wanted to be more entrepreneurial and I wanted to work for myself, which is why I started a handbag line.

But that’s such a challenging world.
I just sort of jumped in not quite knowing what I was doing, myself and a friend. It was good in a way because no one tells you “no.” My partner actually decided it wasn’t the right thing for her, and I took over the line.

When did it launch?
2003. Our first bag was sort of a clutch bag, with kind of a cable knit design.

I feel like I’ve seen that bag.
Yeah, it has been knocked off everywhere.

What did you enjoy about designing bags?
I worked a lot with Japan, they loved [my bags] there.

Did you go?
My sales rep in Japan would come here. I had twin boys, so it was never terribly convenient to go. There was a whole spread in a Japanese magazine, though, about how to match your fingernails with my bags.

Why did you end up leaving the fashion industry?
With all the knockoffs, the [business] had run its course. And I got to the point where I sort of petered out. So from there … I’ve been focusing on my kids, I’m very involved with their school. I’m the president of the [parent teacher association], and without being a broker I already was putting people into other people’s apartments. I just sort of became a liaison.

Where do you live?
The Upper West Side, in a co-op, although I lived in the Village for a long time. But I’m willing to go anywhere! This morning I was showing an apartment in Washington Heights.

Are you doing rentals or sales?
I am doing whatever people want! I have clients who are looking at classic six, classic sevens on the Upper West Side, although … I was at an open house the other day and the other broker said “we are going to best and final tonight.”

Yeah, it’s a little bit of a rough market to make an entrée as a broker, given the lack of inventory.
Yeah, it’s a little scary!

So much of the market is whisper listings.
The nice thing is I am so in the child circuit, so all the doormen in my neighborhood know me. I’ve been going around telling them I am now in real estate and I’m starting to hear whisper listings from this doorman who knows that doorman.

Is it ever awkward to mine your own friend circle?
I haven’t been in too much of a position where I have to bother my friends and family. But I am telling people [I’ve entered real estate].

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Westchester and spent a lot of time in the city when I was a kid. When I went to college, [my parents] moved to the Village. When we were ready to buy I said “we are not moving above 14th Street,” but by that time I knew I was carrying twins, so it was like… the Upper West Side is perfect for kids.

Do your parents still live here?
My parents used a Warburg broker and bought in the Meatpacking District… in 1992, 1993, I think. They really bought at the right time.

How did that happen?
My mom works at the law school [at New York University], so she wanted to walk to work.

Did you ever think about selling your handbag business?
I think I missed my chance. I think if I had sold it in 2008… the invention of Etsy.com really killed it off. You would go to Etsy and see a knockoff and the write-up would say “Nicole Dreyfuss” does these …

People don’t even realize they are knocking it off?
Yeah, exactly. And I’m not putting them down, I love Etsy, but … my website had been very good for me for getting business and now that everyone [has the same resources]…

Would you ever sue?
It worked out with Abercrombie [& Fitch, to whom Dreyfuss sent a cease and desist letter in 2005, for selling bags very similar to hers], but only because my mother is an intellectual property law professor. A friend of hers wrote the letter. But there are so many knockoffs out there. It’s very unfair.

Was that part of why you left fashion?
No, in design you need to roll with the punches and design new things. But everyone always went back to my knit designs. Also you work around the clock and even though I was profitable, all the money goes back into the business. When you are working with small stores you say “OK, order just 15 bags.” But with larger stores, they say they want 200 bags and then… you negotiate. You’re not really making any money, but you get to say that Anthropologie is carrying your line. It’s hard, just figuring out what’s worth your while.

Will real estate be as exciting?
Yes, over the past few years I have been so involved with the kids. And they are in first grade, they are almost self-sufficient [laughs], I can focus all my energy on this new career.

What do you miss most?
I met so many jewelry and clothing designers, and I loved to see what people were up to. But I do kind of miss the camaraderie. This is much more independent.