Sharing Stories and the Human Experience - One Accessory at a Time
As a longtime fan of “Project Runway,” I appreciate the importance of using one’s accessories “very thoughtfully,” as Tim Gunn advises contestants. Morgan Rhea Beals’ work takes that idea to a whole new level. Her hand-crafted, luxury leather pieces inspire human connection, engagement and communication through beautiful and moving quotes and graphics that are truly one of a kind.
Morgan graduated from Bridge Valley Community and Technical College, where she earned an Associate degree in Fashion Merchandising before going on to receive her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Accessory Design from the Savannah College of Art and Design, where she also met her future husband, Michael.
It was during her senior year that Morgan won an apprenticeship with Coach in New York City and was featured in InStyle magazine. While she enjoyed her time in NYC, Morgan was eager to come back to West Virginia to start her company.
“I can’t design in a cubicle,” Morgan said, sitting in her fast-paced studio in her hometown of South Charleston. “I learned a lot [in New York City] but I knew I didn’t want to do corporate fashion.” At the end of her apprenticeship in 2015, Morgan moved back to West Virginia, armed with her experiences, education and passion to start her business.
“I could have started my business anywhere, but I chose West Virginia because it’s my home,” Morgan said of her decision to return. “West Virginia is the best kept secret.”
Through her technical training and apprenticeship, she had found a niche designing with leather, and combined that with her desire to work with accessories. Her experience in New York – being surrounded by a melting pot of people, ages, races and ethnicities – fueled her passion to share people’s stories. “I was on a subway at rush hour and a group of us were holding one pole, and there were all sorts of ethnicities and I realized that each person had his or her own story,” Morgan said. This became the inspiration for her company, Morgan Rhea.
It began in a small warehouse studio in Charleston, with Morgan and her husband, Michael, designing and her brother and sister-in-law stepping in to help run operations. As the business grew, they relocated to a larger space at West Virginia Regional Tech Park in South Charleston.
The company designs and creates high-quality, hand-made unisex luggage, handbags, bracelets, wallets and other leather goods. What sets Morgan Rhea apart from other accessory companies is the personalization and stories behind each piece. Some are chosen by the designer when inspiration strikes and others are chosen by customers. “Anything I see that speaks to me, I consider as a possible quote to put on our pieces,” Morgan said. They also work with customers to memorialize words of wisdom from a loved one or important life events for families.
Morgan’s own life has served as inspiration for her work. Her Sandra tote bag is named for her Aunt Sandy who battled breast cancer. Her Jackie bag was created to honor her great-grandmother who died in a house fire. She designed a pair of shoes inspired by her great-grandfather’s experience in World War II.
“Your accessories are who you are,” Morgan said. “They represent the person that carries them, their history and the path they’ve chosen in life.”
Morgan has made customized pieces for wedding parties, charities and even a pair of shoes for singer-songwriter John Legend at the request of his wife, Chrissy Teigen. Morgan regularly works with charities and causes that are important to her, contributing a portion of the proceeds to benefit the organization. She’s worked with March of Dimes, the Michael J. Fox Foundation, the Kanawha-Charleston Humane Association and YWCA Charleston, among many others.
Morgan is proud of her decision to start her business in West Virginia, viewing it as on opportunity to give back to the community that helped raise her. Through her business and philanthropy, Morgan is helping to support West Virginia, its economy and the organizations that benefit its citizens.
“The YWCA is empowering women to be who we are and to support each other,” Morgan said. “As a community of women, that’s sometimes the hardest thing, especially in the business we are in – feeling like we have to compete, but in reality we don’t. We’re all in this world together and I see how the YWCA empowers women to support one another.”
Of her nomination as this year’s YWCA Charleston Woman of Achievement, Morgan was shocked when she heard the news. “It’s a huge honor to be chosen as an honoree,” she said. She and her family are looking forward to the event on February 28 at the Charleston Coliseum and Convention Center.