December 08, 2003 12:00 PM

Searching for the handbag of the moment? Crave a pricey stiletto that defines cutting-edge chic? Then Lambertson-Truex may be under your radar: Designed by the team of John Truex, 40, and Richard Lambertson, 52, the exquisitely crafted accessories are meant as keepers—collectibles in sumptuous skins including ostrich or alligator, they’re more Grace Kelly than Gwen Stefani.

Revered by fashion insiders, Lambertson-Truex is coveted by Hollywood style setters. Kristin Davis snapped up one of the pastel “lunch boxes” that she carried as Charlotte on Sex and the City. Sharon Stone loves her leopard-print “boxcar” bag. Salma Hayek and Jennifer Lopez are also fans.

But the design team’s biggest celeb booster is Julianne Moore, a neighbor in the building where Lambertson and Truex (partners in life as well as business) once lived. Moore, who schleps gear for her two kids in a python tote, loves the bags because “the shapes are always interesting, and they are incredibly well made.” Plus, “it’s nice to have a connection to the people behind this—it’s literally [just] these two guys.”

Not quite. Though their luxe goods are sold in 164 stores from Beverly Hills to Tokyo, the pair make do with just 10 employees, whom they call “family.” In 1997 they launched the business from their apartment and delivered early shipments in an old Volvo. “We kept samples in the bedroom and showed the collection in the living room,” says Lambertson.

Not an obvious career move for two seasoned talents who had escaped suburbia (Truex is from Wadsworth, Ohio, Lambertson from Neptune, N.J.) and were ascending the fashion world. Lambertson had worked his way up from creating displays at Saks Fifth Avenue to VP at Bergdorf Goodman, while Truex worked with handbag designer Carlos Falchi and Calvin Klein. “We both liked to try new things, so we thought, ‘Why not give it a try?’ ” explains Truex.” If it works, fantastic. If it doesn’t, that’s just as fantastic because we tried.’ ”

Employing factories in Venice and Florence, Italy (where the passionate travelers own an apartment in a 17th-century building), the two developed a collection based on fine materials-not trendy logos. (Prices are on the plush side too: from $395 for a satin clutch to $8,000 for a crocodile travel bag.) “When we worked for other designers, it was always, ‘How many times can you get the logo on the damn bag?’ ” says Lambertson. “We didn’t want all that. We want it to be very simple. We kept thinking, ‘What would we carry?’ ”

In some ways, their joint vision belies the couple’s differences. When they met in 1994, recalls Truex, “I was a vegetarian, and Richard was a meat eater and hated greens. We’re still very frick and frack.” By all accounts, though, the partnership is a felicitous one. “There’s a good balance between the two, not just on a design level but on an emotional level,” says Bergdorf Goodman fashion director Robert Burke, a friend. “And their attention to detail is impeccable.”

True enough: In 2000 an unsuspecting Lambertson was eating Milk Duds in a New York City movie theater when he got the thrill of his life. “I was watching Traffic,” he says, “and all of a sudden Catherine Zeta-Jones walked out of the courthouse with our orange suede ‘boxcar.’ I remember saying, ‘Look! look!’ She’s so beautiful that you [normally] look at her face, but of course, I was looking at her wrist.”


Rachel Felder in New York City

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