Sitting at her workspace with twenty containers of minuscule glass beads arrayed before her, Rachel Ellenbogen spends two days hand-beading each of her clutches. The final product is a purse that doubles as a realistic portrait of a woman in profile, glimmering tears streaming off the bag.
Since late 2020, the 23-year-old designer has been creating videos about her tambour embroidery work, a technique that affixes beads one at a time with a hooked needle. In May of this year, she posted a video marking the completion of a new experiment; a portrait clutch she’d been sketching out for months, titled “:(”. The video garnered thousands of likes almost immediately, and currently has almost five million views. Before she had really thought about selling the bags, people were asking to buy them.
Her beaded bags are rendered in three-dimensional detail, each chain of beads forming one colored layer in an almost topographic picture. Getting to a final design is only possible through painstaking trial-and-error.
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First, she pencils out a sparse line-art face, then tries to imagine how each tiny pinpoint of the image would look as a single glass bead. The shadow of the eyelid, the sharp swoop of a cheekbone, and the softness of the lip are all picked out in subtly varied shades. The final result is almost photographic, but radiant and unearthly.
“The internet is such an interesting place. You never really know what’s going to hit and what won’t,” Ellenbogen says. “I made the bag, posted the video, put my phone down for 6 hours and then went back.” From there, she says things became “crazy and weird and amazing, but really surreal.” Commenters remarked on how they felt like they were “witnessing fashion history,” begged her to trademark her work fast, and exclaimed over and over at how beautiful the design was.
Ellenbogen has always been passionate about illustration, and drew hyper-realistic colored pencil portraits throughout high school. She picked up embroidery on her own as an extension of those interests. “I started using beads because I had a bad day at work one day. I walked past the bead store, and I just went in and was like, ‘I’m going to go buy a ton of beads and add them to a dress.’”
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