HANDBAG design sounds like nice work if you can get it, and Carmen Woods, who has just returned from being wined and dined in Paris, doesn’t deny there is plenty of glamour attached to the job.

“I got a personal tour of the British embassy and went to a drinks’ party in the centre of Paris,” says Carmen.

The enterprising 37-year-old was in Paris at the invitation of the Government export agency, UK Trade and Investment.

She says: “Yes, the job is glamorous and creative, but anyone who does this work should expect to work very hard. Of course it makes a lot of difference if you’re doing something you love.”

A more normal day for Carmen is one spent at her shop – called Carmen – in Leigh
Broadway. Here she juggles a dozen or more strands of her work, ranging from mundane chores like book-keeping to gloriously creative tasks, like designing a new range of handbags. The core creative work of designing is often fitted into odd moments.

She says: “I’ll get an idea and at the very least I’ll make a record of it. Then I’ll start to develop it later when I've got a bit more time.”

Carmen begins by sketching out a rough design and then scans it and uses Photoshop to work out the details. Her handbags sell for anything between £25 and £325.

She trained in art at South East Essex College, then went on a specialist textiles course at Ravensbourne Art College in London.

After qualification, and determined to create her own label, she went to Italy to gain some industry experience.

She says: “I had no trouble working in Italy. I showed employers my portfolio and I got
offered a job, although I could hardly speak a word of Italian.”

Carmen could have made a career in Italy, but chose to return to her Southend home,
partly because she wanted to develop her own brand, under her own name.

She says: “Leigh is a very good environment to do that.”

Carmen is now expanding her brand to include clothing as well as handbags. Having outgrown her premises for a second time, she is on the look-out for a new retail unit.

She says: “I’m as ambitious as ever about developing the Carmen brand. If I see someone carrying a Carmen bag, I like to give them a wave, even though it can cause some puzzled looks!”