Sharif Celebrates 45 Years in Business

By Karen Giberson

Known to the industry and his customers simply as Sharif, Sharif El-Fouly was born in Cairo, Egypt where his family operated a leather manufacturing company and produced luxury steamer trunks (a pre-curser to the suitcase). And while his earliest memories are of playing and working in his family’s factory, the young Sharif — who was his parents’ ninth child and only son — was driven to make his way to the United States.

“I put my heart and soul into learning to speak English,” he said, “because I knew one day I’d end up in the USA.” He went to school in Offenbach, Germany and then moved to Italy where he worked in the sample room of a handbag factory. Sharif was drawn to the design process. He watched, studied, and tried to understand every aspect of production. Inspired, he designed his first bag. “I admired the traditional Chanel quilted bag, but I wanted to create something with a little more humor, so I made a bag with color blocks.” The bag, he added, “didn’t go anywhere,” but the seed had been planted.

Sharif Founder

Today, as a talented handbag designer in his own right, Sharif is celebrating 45 years in business with a relaunch and a respectful look back at his magical career.

Sharif’s path to the US opened up after he was encouraged to go with a friend to the consulate and, on a whim, decided to apply for a visa. Three months later his application was granted; his friend’s, however, was denied. After taking out a loan to cover the required medical exams, Sharif bought a one way ticket to New York.

He landed at JFK on a chilly December night in 1974 — no family, no friends in the area — with nowhere to go. He had $101 in his pocket and when the cabbie asked “Where do you want to go?” he told the driver to take him to the cheapest hotel possible. Dropped off at the corner of Broadway and 27th Street, Sharif found a top floor room with a leaky ceiling. Despite the rough accommodations, he was excited to be in New York City. “Maybe ‘Where Do You Want To Go?’ will be the title of my autobiography,” he said with a smile.

The next morning Sharif looked out the window and spotted a big sign on the side of the building across the street: Modern Handbag. It was a Saturday, but Sharif walked in, asked for a job, and after a three-day trial, he was hired. The company specialized in needlepoint bags — customers sent in their needlework which was then incorporated into a customized handbag. Sharif took on the design and worked there for a few months before the company closed down.

Unwilling to give up, the tenacious Sharif applied for a postion at Morris Moskowitz. Located on 33rd Street near the Empire State Building, Moskowitz occupied three floors where the company produced an eponymous collection as well as private label handbags for Louis Vuitton, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Neiman Marcos, among others. Sharif settled into his role as a trouble shooter for Moskowitz and even designed bags for Louis Vuitton, some of which are still in production today.

Sharif loved the work he was doing at Finesse, and was shocked when on December 7th, 1981, at precisely 3 pm — with no preamble whatsoever — Moskowitz called him into his office and said, “Your service is no longer needed at this company.” Sharif started to ask why, but Moskowitz just walked away.

Crushed, Sharif started walking and ended up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where he contemplated his next move. He considered interviewing at Judith Leiber or Koret, but he was afraid of getting fired again. Instead, he decided to start his own business.

In 1979 Sharif placed an ad in WWD, promoting himself as a freelance designer and pattern maker. He made a few evening bags for himself, using brightly-colored French peau de soie instead of the popular black of the time. He showed his samples at a Henri Bendel open vendor day where the buyer took his phone number and, a few days later, met him at his apartment.


“We ordered a pizza, drank cheap wine, and made a few tweaks to the bags,” he said. “She gave me my first order — for 20 bags — which I personally delivered in time for holiday selling.” The bags were displayed in the store’s front window and in a serendipitous moment of good luck, Sharif jus happened to be in the store during a taping of “Good Morning America.” He was introduced to the show’s crew as the designer of the bags and within minutes found himself in front of the camera.

Shortly after, Bloomingdale’s reached out to place an order, but only if Sharif paid for an ad in the New York Times. Unfortunately, the ad cost more than the order would net so he turned it down. He also turned down an order from Neiman Marcus for 400 pieces, but he countered with a plan to ship 200 bags to the Dallas-based retailer with more to follow if they sold out. Over time, his business thrived, and Sharif gained a reputation for making and delivering high quality, innovative, functional, and colorful handbags. Within seven years, Sharif Designs, was the largest handbag manufacturer in the United States.

In 1982, Sharif bought the Morris Moskowitz company. During the closing, Sharif sat across from Moskowitz, saluted, and thanked the executive for teaching him what to do and what not to do. Soon after, he added the California brand Jay Herbert to his portfolio.


Sharif has won multiple awards over the years and his bags can be found in the Esse Purse Museum in Little Rock, AR, displayed next to some of the most recognizable brands in the world.

Sharif spent the pandemic working on new ideas, going back to his roots, and re-designing favorite styles. The Sharif Legacy Collection debuted on air at HSN on February 29th. The network is selling a combination of storytelling styles in a variety of materials, including a quilted heart and rose pattern. The collection retails from $79.00 to $300.00 and can also be found at It will also be offered at the Ac’s Showcase on May 6th and 7th in New York City.

When we asked Sharif if he had any plans to slow down and retire, he exclaimed, “I never have considered myself as having a job, I do what I love to do and it’s a great feeling!” To check out his bags, visit