The father behind the "it" bag.

By Jill Kirchner Simpson, Photo by Miki Duisterhof

Remember LeSportsac? Those '70s-era travel bags and totes made from the same durable ripstop nylon used for parachutes? Well, LeSportsac is back. In fact, says CEO Timothy Schifter, whose family founded the company, those lightweight bags with their signature-logo twill tape never really went away. What Schifter has done is reinvent the LeSportsac brand, now being discovered by a new generation that relishes the utilitarian chic of Prada, with a brighter disposition and more down-to-earth price.

Celeb moms like Catherine Zeta-Jones, Andie MacDowell, and Christie Brinkley have been spied carrying LeSportsac's slim Kiki reversible clutch, and new mothers on the go are gravitating to the brand's backpacks and diaper bags because they're waterproof, lightweight, and modern. Adding cabana stripes and pop-art hearts to the line's solid colors has paid off: LeSportsac has been growing by more than 30% annually and has become an "it" bag for actresses like Drew Barrymore, Kate Hudson, and Marisa Tomei.

When Tim Schifter graduated from Pitzer College in Claremont, CA, in 1980, he planned to enter the Peace Corps, but his father persuaded him to put his idealism on hold and join the family business. Eight years later, he took over as CEO, married fashion editor Helen Elizabeth Lee, and repositioned LeSportsac as what he calls "affordable luxury." The brand would retain its quality, function, and accessible pricing but put more emphasis on style, with seasonal collections of cutting-edge colors and patterns.

Schifter introduced baby bags -- a term he prefers to diaper bags -- to the line when his daughter, Storey, was born six years ago. "We would go into these baby stores and see cutesy stuff when we were looking for something much simpler and more understated," he recalls. LeSportsac's baby bags and backpacks come in everything from mod florals and classic plaids to basic black and denim prints.

"In order to be successful," Tim says of his business, "you have to know the customer you're designing for. You can't be all things to all people." That's where fatherhood and the influence of his fashion-conscious wife come in. "Designing with Helen in mind keeps me focused and consistent," he says. "Helen has very high standards, and I'll often bring home bags we're developing to get her feedback. She might say, 'That would be a great bag if the shoulder strap were six inches shorter' or 'It just needs one more pocket on the outside to slip a cell phone in.' She understands that good design is in the details."

Becoming a father has influenced more than just his designs, Tim adds. "Parenting has created a very healthy balance in my life. I've learned to organize the business so that I can spend time with my family, because children grow up so quickly. In fact, I think the business can benefit as much from the time I have with my family -- which allows me to step back and look at the bigger picture -- as it can from my time in the office."A voluble, precocious kindergartner, Storey Stetson Schifter was named for Tim's great-great-uncle, Captain Storer Ware, a renowned fly fisherman, and Tim's mother. "I didn't appreciate my name when I was little," confesses Helen, who hopes her daughter will eventually value the unique roots of hers.

In the meantime, Storey passionately wishes she were Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz and has named everything from the family's French bulldog (Daisy Peanut) to her stuffed penguins (Polly and Snowy). Following in her parents' footsteps, she has shown an interest in riding horses (Tim was a local junior champion) and ice-skating (a love of Helen's). Mother and daughter take lessons together at Wollman Rink in Central Park.

Children can feel pressured to grow up fast in Manhattan. "But we're trying to let Storey be a kid," Helen says, as her daughter scampers around the family's Upper East Side apartment in her bare feet. "We don't want her to peak at age 17!" Helen has been preserving Storey's childhood by saving some of her favorite clothes and has started a scrapbook and a charm bracelet for her daughter. "We're more into things like that than videotaping," she says, adding that Storey's TV viewing is limited to one hour a day on weekends. "If we watch a feature-length movie, we'll break it up over Saturday and Sunday, which gives us a chance to talk about it in between. We ask Storey, 'What do you think will happen next?'"

Though the Schifters frequently attend benefit events in support of charitable causes -- Helen is involved with the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, among others -- they make a point to stay home until Storey is in bed. After bathtime, Tim relates the latest installment in a serial story about Sir Mont Morency, a make-believe mouse that his father invented when Tim was a child. And though he never made it to the Peace Corps, Tim Schifter has had the satisfaction of creating 400 manufacturing jobs in one of Appalachia's most depressed areas. While making the business he inherited his own, he has been fortunate enough to integrate his dedication to helping others, his passion for work, and his devotion to family.

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Copyright © 2001. Reprinted with permission from the June/July 2001 issue of Child magazine.



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