Noha Nadler sees the world through Egyptian-colored glasses. To her, things that are old or even plain to the average person are full of beauty, harkening back to the vibrant colors and ornate aesthetics of her Egyptian heritage. You’ll also find markers of her eye for beauty around her office space in her Vestavia Hills home, with leathers from vendors around the world, hardware pieces she has carefully selected and finished bags scattered about—all part of a handbag line she designs through her very specific lens.
But Noha’s career began not in Egypt but grounded in the town where she grew up in the footsteps of her father, an anesthesiologist who moved his young family from Egypt to Birmingham in the late 1960s to work at UAB when the medical center was starting a kidney and liver transplant unit. Likewise, after growing up mostly in Vestavia, attending West Elementary and Pizitz, Noha trained at UAB to care for the same kinds of patients her dad had as a cardiac intensive care nurse.
Noha’s outlook changed in August 2009, though, when her dad unexpectedly passed away from acute respiratory distress syndrome at UAB where she worked. “Every day I was reliving the six weeks he was at the hospital, and I got to the point where I had no compassion,” she says. “I decided in my head I had to find something (else) to do.”
Around that time she took a trip back to Egypt, where she’d spent every summer growing up. Her cousin who is like a sister, Deena Wagdy, took her deep into an ancient outdoor market where she finds many of her supplies for her work as a jewelry designer. That’s when Noha saw him—a man in a tiny closet with shelves filled with leather. “I just started buying it,” Noha says today. “I don’t know what I was thinking really. I had a huge backpack, and I stuffed these leather in there.” As she and Deena continued to walk through the market, she spotted a set of hand-dyed fabrics—bright like her personality—and bought those too.
Back at home in Vestavia, Noha set to work on a line of table cloths, pillows and other home wares inspired by her time in the market, but it wouldn’t turn into the new career she had envisioned. “The hand-dyed fabrics were transferring to people’s furniture,” she says. “It was horrible.”
And so she continued working as a nurse. Then one night she had a party to attend, and she turned to her go-to outfit, jeans and a white T-shirt. To jazz it up she made an envelope clutch out of the leather she still had from the Egyptian market. People asked her about it that night, and that’s when her handbag line was born in 2011—just as organically as her first purchase of raw materials.
Originally Noha had her leather designs made in Egypt to support the economy there and sold them to boutiques in Birmingham including Mia Moda in Vestavia Hills and Marella and Elle in Mountain Brook, but with January 2012 came the Egyptian Revolution. One of Noha’s shipments got stuck in customs and was never realized. “I thought my company was gone,” Noha recalls. But like every other rock in her path, it was just time for a rerouting.
This time she turned to Accessory Think Tank owner Nancy Forman in New York to develop her first collection to be made in Los Angeles all with U.S.-made materials, and she quit her nursing job at last. That first collection debuted in 2014. “I learned and failed and learned and failed,” Noha says. “I did miss my direct deposit at UAB, but I kept persevering because that’s something my parents taught me.” In fact, it took until 2017 before her business turned a profit—what she says was a difficult but rewarding journey.
The biggest reward for her has always been an aspect with parallels to her nursing career: her relationship with customers. “I know their families and their kids, and I connect with them on a deeper level. That is why my handbag business stands out compared to other emerging brands. They may like my bag, but their stories and their connection with me are very important.”
Case in point: A mom first bought a bag from Noha at a market a few years ago, and the following year that woman’s own mom bought her own bag from Noha. “And then they brought their whole family to meet me,” Noha says. “They shared how their bags went to Italy and Japan with them and how durable they were. That’s what people share a lot—where they take (their bags).”
Another time Noha was at Target in Birmingham when she spotted a woman in the home section with a familiar looking handbag design. “I think that’s my bag,” she thought. And it was. “It’s pretty cool to see when you are out and about.”
Who is this customer Noha speaks of? She’s a busy woman somewhere between her 20s and 70s who likes a traditional look that is also edgy. She is conscious of the material her bag is made with, and is delighted by how functional and lightweight her Noha Nadler bag is. Perhaps most of all she loves the flair of the handbag’s leather.
Noha is drawn to textured and metallic leathers she says are signature of her brand. Even women who don’t think they like a metallic look are often enticed by the 3D foils on hers, and others are drawn to textures inspired by Noha’s travels, like a python print that reminds her of the snakes she grew up seeing in the Egyptian desert.
Equally signature in her designs is their turquoise lining—a color that also accents Noha’s home and wardrobe. “Most designers use a black or beige, but that’s boring to me,” she says. “When you look inside your bag, you want to be happy.”
The designer is also especially proud of how versatile her designs are. Her bestselling Deena tote—named for her cousin who took her to the market back in Egypt and who is “fashion forward but practical”—can be used as a diaper bag with her smaller top zip clutch to hold smaller items inside, or can hold a laptop and then lay flat in a suitcase when you are traveling.
You’ll also find pops of color in her lines outside her turquoise lining. Last year’s featured color was yellow—what she says was “sunshine to the blacks and greys.” This holiday season Noha unveiled 12 new designs, including one in this year’s signature color, turquoise, at a set of holiday markets across the country, from Nashville to Jackson to Austin. These days she has chosen not to sell through boutiques because she prefers the customer interaction she gets in person and through her online store.
Noha’s handbags might be glamorous by the time they make it into markets and onto Instagram, but the process behind them starts with a technical design and a lot of math. “I have to source my leather and calculate how much square footage (of leather and how much hardware I need) for each bag, and I ship it to my manufacturer,” Noha says. “I have never used so much algebra in my life. It’s very exhausting.”
A key part of Noha’s mostly one-woman team is her daughter Sophia, the second youngest of her four children who is now a high school sophomore. “She is my sounding board and helps me with the design process,” Noha says. “She has a really good eye.” For Christmas this year Sophia even asked to go to New York to work with Noha’s mentor in New York Nancy, who Noha credits for much of what her business has become.
In fact, Noha originally named her handbags after her daughter as Sophia Designs before changing it to her own name, which means “intelligent and brave,” followed by her married name, Nadler—although Noha is quick to note that she is still very proud of her maiden name, Mustafa, too.
While her business is certainly her “baby” in many ways, Noha’s principal focus is always on her human children and community. “My family comes first, so if my kids are sick I am not going to work,” she says. “That puts some behind, but at the end of the day I love them more. Growing up I loved that my mom was home when I came home from school and had something fixed for me to eat, and I like to do those small things for my children.”
“Whoever says you can do it all and do it all great, they are lying,” she continues. “There is no such thing as balance.”
Outside of her family, Noha is also active in the Vestavia Hills community and as a board member for the Parks and Recreation Foundation is passionate about current efforts to raise money for the new Miracle League Field at Wald Park.
Through the ins and outs of all she does in life, Noha is also always looking to understand style trends and let them inform her work without necessarily always following them. “I stay up way late and watch all the runway shows (in New York and Milan) and see what’s trending,” she says. “If you followed every single trend you’d look ridiculous though. You have to stay true to what is you. I try to translate a trend I like into something that is classic and functional.”
For instance, mini purses that only fit an object the size of a key are trending right now. “But why would I design a bag like that?” Noha notes. So instead she made a smaller crossbody bag that was still functional. And since orange is trending, she’s not designing an orange bag but instead looking at what colors will complement orange clothing.
Noha’s customers’ handbags aren’t the only ones who travel. You won’t catch Noha getting on a plane without her own Deena tote, and around town she carries her Yasmine crossbody bag—named for another cousin who is “very beautiful and very classic”—that she says fits a phone and wallet and has a pocket on the outside for whatever she likes to keep handy. Like all her designs, it comes with a story written through the Egyptian lens that is distinctly Noha Nadler.