Dental student all smiles over handbag success

By Paul Mayne
October 24, 2013

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HandbagPaul Mayne, Western News
Second-year dental student Sarah Shell’s love for fashion has seen her designer handbags on the arms of such stars as Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift, among others. While her love for fashion and designing handbags continues, her main focus is on school and becoming Dr. Shell.

Sarah Shell’s name has been linked with the likes of Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift. So how does a second-year dental student find herself in such company?

It’s all about the handbag.

“From day one, I knew I was in it all the way. I love it every day,” said 32-year-old Shell, of her time so far at Western. “I’ve met such incredible people in this program, the doctors and students are so interesting.”

While dentistry and fashion may seem an odd mix, neither was where she initially planned to be. Graduating from McGill University with a biology degree in 2003, Shell had thoughts of medical school in her future.

“When I was volunteering in the hospital, I felt too emotionally connected to every patient,” she said. “I saw the doctors and how their temperament had to be and I just felt this couldn’t be me. I was crying with the patients. I didn’t have that emotional maturity I felt was needed. I didn’t feel like I was in the right mind space in medicine.”

With plans of being a doctor dashed, the then-third-year student decided on a summer adventure to Florence, Italy, for a two-month fashion course.

“I thought it would be a nice break and I’d get it out of my system. I honestly thought I would suck at it, I’d hate it and I’d realize I have no talent and could check it off my list,” she said.

She was wrong.

“I simply loved it. I loved the people and the creative freedom that I felt,” she said. “I felt like I was also discovering myself, plus it’s so hard not to be a happy person when you’re in Florence. I guess I was happy on all levels and felt fulfilled doing sketching and venturing out.”

During her last year at McGill, she was accepted to Parsons: The New School for Design, an elite century-old design institute in New York. Within a week of arriving in the Big Apple, it was system overload for the then 21-year-old.

“People are so surprised when I tell them it was the most intense year and a half of my life,” Shell said. “I was so enthralled with the New York scene. (Parsons) gets you right into the mix. Within the first week, I was working at New York Fashion Week. I just remember being backstage, and when you’re in that scene, you are that scene.

“I felt like a rock star. You don’t sleep for the two weeks; you are in it, you are living it, you’re in front of those cameras that you were always sort of behind growing up watching,” she added. “I indulged in it.”

Shell soon found herself interning for various companies such as Club Monaco and Gucci, but found it too much of a desk job.

“I didn’t feel that creative freedom that I fell in school. The reality is, it’s not glamourous. What I saw growing up is reality, but not in the way I wanted it to be,” she said. “Being part of the scene, it just started to feel a little off. I started to feel, down the road, was that the impact I really wanted to have.”

Drawn to the business side of the industry, Shell returned home and began doing freelance work for a firm in Calgary. Asked to create a report on leather straps, she rediscovered her creative side in a hunting store.   

“I saw these rifle slings and they were so beautiful, how intricately they were designed,” she said.

Never able to find a leather bag she liked, Shell bought one of the rifle straps and decided to make one for her mom; she then made one for herself. And, as if fate was following her into a Calgary retail store, the owner would change her life with a simple question.

“She asked me ‘Where did you get your bag?’ I told her I made it and she asked me to make a few for her,” Shell said.

A few weeks later, a fashion magazine was in the store and did a story on the bags. Then a few more articles were done. And a few more.

At this point, Shell, working as an assistant buyer at the Forzani Group, was unable to keep up with orders. She quit her job and launched 442 McAdam (, named after the address of her grandparent’s home in Winnipeg.

“It was nerve racking, but I was making money. I was getting a great response from customers and had a hard time filling orders,” she said.

And when names like Gaga, Swift, Perry and Cyrus all want your bags, life has got to be good.

“I remember hearing about Lady Gaga and going gaga,” Shell said. “It’s a wonderful moment, but to me the ‘I made it’ moment is when my mom comes home and tells me people stopped her on the street and asked her about her bag. My moments are when people text me a saying they just saw my bag go by on the street.”

Moving back to Toronto in 2009, Shell began to feel less fulfilled, and other life changes, including the death of her grandfather, had her contemplating where she wanted to be. Starting to crave science again, she took the Dental Aptitude Test and was accepted into the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.

“We’re not as emotionally tied to our teeth as we are to our heart,” Shell laughed. “Dentistry has the creative side, social side, entrepreneurial side; the more I thought about it, it fit my personality.”

Shell still spends her weekends keeping the designs flowing and the company thriving.

“Things are going great for me. I’m not doing it (designing) for the career aspect anymore, but for the love of doing it for myself. I got lost in the business side of it, but its now back to doing it for me.”


8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
(holidays excluded)


Helen Connell

Jason Winders

Paul Mayne

Adela Talbot

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