Enjoy our Purse Blog interview with Ben Harnett
. The images are bags and accessories from the current Hayden-Harnett 2009 Spring line.
PB: The name, where did it come from?
Ben: It is totally made up. The Harnett is my last name. Toni's last name is Hacker, so if you put those two names together, it kind of comes off as a law firm vibe. Hayden is a name Toni has always liked. We liked the two H's, she sketched the logo and just came out of the blue and said Hayden Harnett sounds good - it just stuck. And apparently, the name Hacker can cause some trouble when you are trying to sign up for things online. Once we came up with the name, we had the logo and then the website.
PB: Where did you two meet?
Ben: We worked together at a company for a very short period of time. I was their IT Director, and she was the Director of Accessories. She left, but I stayed on for a while and we stayed in touch - went on a date, and then here we are. It was a year before we started the company.
PB: So, were you always into handbags or was it something that just kind of grew?
Ben: It was one of those things where we talked about "you are really good at what you do, but you don't want to do it at the company you are at, so why don't we try and do this on our own and see what happens." You know, that way then your mistakes are your own and nobody else's.
PB: You were dating then and married now, how would you say it is to work together?
Ben: We work together, live together, do a lot together. But, very quickly as the company grew, we split off and spent time away from each other during the day. We handle different aspects of the company. Toni is in charge of the creative part and everything involved with that. I work more with the warehouse and sales - more the business aspect. When we first started we were together morning, noon and night. She had a small office, but then there were boxes in the kitchen and all over the place.
PB: How quickly did the transition occur? You know, from boxes around the house to where you are now?
Ben: I think about after a year we rented a space. We borrowed some showroom space and were there for a while. We working out of the apartment and then the small showroom. But, then we had to get a small warehouse to store everything. When you add up all the rents together - after a while, we had the warehouse, design shop, design office and then the showroom.
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PB: Everything is out of NY? Do you foresee keeping everything out of NY, out of the US?
Ben: The production is overseas - that is why Toni is in Hong Kong right now. Actually, everything has been done overseas from the beginning. Some people start out making things themselves, or working with some others, but Toni had started a company with her boss and helped run it from the beginning, they did a lot of work with all different people and developed all sorts of contacts. I don't think we could have done the range and quality without these contacts.
PB: When it comes to the design process... You have a design team, and Toni is involved, but can you tell us a bit more?
Ben: Toni is involved, she is the Creative Director, and also does about 50-60% of the handbags, all the shoes and some of the apparel. But it really is a collaboration with the entire design team. In larger companies there are lots of teams of people involved - merchandising, design, technical design, sourcing - a whole lot of people to make the final product. But, everything is done in house at Hayden Harnett. So, what we have is a senior handbag design, apparel designer, graphic/print designer and Toni. They all work together to get the final product. You get the materials together, line reviews and then you bring sales into it. It is Toni's vision that directs what happens. There is a back and forth, but what is in Toni's mind is what we end up with.
PB: When it comes to the materials that are being used, the leathers, how is the process when picking the leathers? People on the forum talk about how gorgeous the leather is and we were just wondering a bit about that process.
Ben: That is important for us. Well, a beautifully designed bag, it can be ruined if the wrong material is used. Also, the way a bag looks - if you see a bag, a sample is designed with cheap material, just so you can get the idea. But you have to be able to envision the final product. Once you translate that into different materials, some shapes or designs like metallics, or naked leather, all of those have different characteristics. We don't really have preferences, but we do like soft leathers. The vegetable tan leather is the kind that gets deeper, darker and better over time. The style of the bag has to interact and correspond with the materials. Every season we go to the leather shows and you run through everything while listening to what others say about what they are thinking for the next season. Once we have that is the pallet. What are the colors that you are seeing for the next season? So we either have something that is already being made or we have to have the leathers made in a custom way. We have leathers our customers respond to so we carry that through, but we are always incorporating new things. I think you will find most of our bags are unbelievably practical. We started doing these fun Youtube videos on these bags and you start to realize things about the bags you didn't know or realize. It is great to know each bag has a story and detail behind it. We aren't just making bags because that is what everyone is asking for that season. Every bag has a reason for existing, they aren't just here to fill in a gap or a hole.
PB: You guys started off in bags, but it has extended - I see travel, apparel, accessories, shoes. So, how did you know which step to take next and how were you able to do it so quickly?
Ben: We are very resourceful. We do work very hard which is besides the point. For us, Toni is a designer. She started out not as a fashion designer but in sculpture and product design - like ATM machines, coolers and so on. I would say that is where she gets the fact that everything is intelligent, comfortable. Our reason for doing things is because we think we can and want to offer these things to people. At the same time, early on, we didn't want to get pegged or labeled as being really good at only something like handbags. Handbags will always be at our core and we love that we are good at them. We had a reason for being - an aesthetic - it's just not about one thing. There are all different pieces that we think fit together, that work together really well. We can close our eyes and think about a HH shoe, accessory, bag. You know, I think in the kind of world we live in, it is really important to have an identity. Us being able to do a lot of things and offer a lot to our customers is heartwarming. We don't have to say "this is the bag you have to have". We are just trying to do things our own way. Our focus is the end customer. We have to keep changing and doing things our way.
PB: Which way did you start?
Ben: Handbags, accessories, travel items, clothing, outer wear and then shoes - they are more recent. We are doing a lot of custom print designs. So, a lot of the lining you see on the inside of a handbag might then be used on the inside lining of a jacket or on a dress. And you will find that the leathers and styles in the handbags, like the hardware are also custom. You can find the same hardware can be on the shoes and the bags or the same leather is on shoes and bags. Not that it is having everything be all matchy matchy. But it is about getting people to know the items. They might try one thing one day and then branch out and try something else. Like these little charms that people will even put on their Prada or Gucci bags.
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PB: I know from our forum you have a very strong and loyal customer base. Your sample sales always go really well - they might even be a little nuts.
Ben: We definitely have loyal customers and we do our best to serve them. We do sell directly to our customers and we like that. I mean, what if there is a time we want to do something and the stores don't like it? Well, our customers can still get it. We are able to reach out to everyone out there: fashion obsessed teenagers, professional women in their 30s, doctors, lawyers, college students. We ship to stay at home moms, and all over the country - even to places you would never think. There have even been times when we placed orders for 70 year old women and we hear about it from them!
PB: You also do wholesale? What do you say the ratio is between wholesale and direct sales?
Ben: 50:50. That is very different from other companies. We are working to grow our wholesale side. It doesn't seem like this is the time or the climate to push that, but...
PB: Well it really could be! We see the trend that a lot of shoppers are going away from bags that are $1500 and up but looking for reasonable yet fashionable.
Ben: You are right - if you are looking to describe exactly what we offer it is that, a quality product, with a really good fashion component to it. Very user friendly, very versatile. We don't want to be intimidating. You are going to feel good that you made the purchase because the bag is going to age gracefully, you are going to realize the handles are padded, every little detail will come at you and maybe you will make discoveries along the way.
PB: On Design*Sponge we saw your place. Is there a lot of inspiration that stems from there?
Ben: It goes both ways. At the beginning I helped to be a sounding board for her. She would look at me for certain things. Now what we have more staff, I don't get so involved in that. The design of our department, everything Toni does can be seen. The art of designing an interior is the same as the art of designing a handbag or accessories. I think also our aesthetics mix and merge. A lot of the things we see, I find will be integrated in what Toni does. I took her to upstate New York to see a museum of Native American Art; we got the book. A lot of the stuff turned around and influenced the spring line.
PB: Did Toni mostly design everything?
Ben: Yes. It is a big open space, so it can actually be kind of difficult to design. We had a lot of furniture stuffed into our old place. She is an eBay addict and I love going to stores and finding stuff or even junk on the street. So we had crammed our little apartment. When we moved to our new place, it looked perfect. Before that move it looked like two pack rats living together.
PB: I read on your website that you are really into mechanical pencils. What is the fascination with mechanical pencils?
Ben: I just really like mechanical pencils. I love how they produce a nice, crisp line and I love the technology behind them. The idea that you can dump those little bits of lead into the pencil and it is guided to where it needs to be. But for me, I just like that they have a sharp predictable line. Toni likes them too!
PB: What kind of music do you listen to?
Ben: I'm more conventional. Toni on the other hand, she will listen to anything. Basically what happens is that she will download all this stuff from iTunes download it, play it and I will ask her what it is. Then I will secretly download it for myself. I am the kind of person that ends up listening to the same thing, over and over again. Toni is the kid of person who is listening to something new every week. She is always telling me about a cool new band she found. And then about 6 months later they will be on the cover of Blender. She is amazing when it comes to finding things in the world. It is so natural to her. She reads blogs, newsletters and finds everything. I mean, I do the same thing, but what she comes up with is so much different. She has a way to crystallize everything. We can both be listening to NPR in the morning and I am listening to it for the facts - what is going on, and what she gets out of it is what is going on in society.
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PB: It is really cool to see how two people can have such different takes on things.
Ben: I think that is why we work so well together. We have very similar opinions on a lot of things but then also see things much differently.
PB: What are the biggest challenges working together?
Ben: Whenever things are stressful for the business, the biggest challenge is to be able to go home and not talk about business or work - talk about something else. That is the hardest thing. But I think we are doing an ok job. Since we both know what is going on, sometimes it kills us not to talk about it.
PB: You have a pet tree named Figgy?
Ben: Toni calls it a tree; I call it a plant. We have a fig tree we found on the street. It looked really sad and sick. We didn't think it was going to do well where it was; it had 3 leaves, it looked like Charlie Brown's tree. Toni was telling me how she dreamed about having a fig tree in the house how she needed a fig tree in the house. So, we put it in the back of the car, get it to the house, and we transplant it to a new pot. Then, all the leaves turned brown and fell off. We are about to go away for a week and Toni said we should just get rid of it. We watered it before we left, but then when we came back it was completely covered in green buds and then within a couple days it had new leaves and it has been growing ever since.
PB: And the tree was the inspiration for your Target line?
Ben: Yeah, she took a picture of it, we made a print and part of the Target collection has that print on it. So, if you see the Target collection, it is basically a view from our kitchen looking at the fig tree.
PB: When did the Target Collection come out?
Ben: It is in stores December 28th and run through March 15th.
PB: How did that collaboration happen?
Ben: They called us, brought us in, we talked about it, played phone tag for a long time, and then got a call saying they really wanted to do it and wanted to get started right away. It was discussed a bit and then sort of happened out of nowhere. We are overjoyed and we are really proud of the bags we made and how they look. We are using a printed canvas which requires PVC products. I think this is a collection that can really appeal to everyone. No matter what you value us for, you will really be drawn to the collection. It lets us use the materials we did in a fun way and at a great price.
PB: You don't believe doing a lower price point collection would dilute who you are?
Ben: My feeling on that is that a lot of the reason a brand gets diluted is that you aren't thinking about it. If your brand is about design and quality and function, then it shouldn't matter what your price point is. If your design is exceptional and your quality is there, then everything should be ok. What other people might do is take an existing design and then throw different material on it and it just looks like they haven't thought it through. Our Target Collection lives in its material. These bags don't pretend to be something they are not. We wouldn't have done it if we didn't stand behind it.
PB: Are you still thinking of doing some bespoke bags? Is that still in the works?
Ben: This is definitely something we are still thinking about. Toni has talked about doing this for years now. We need to figure out the best way to do this and how to handle it logistically. We are not doing it as a huge money making proposition but we'd do it because it would be for people who really want it, who can think of what they really want - maybe it is a color, a style, something we don't make anymore and then give them the opportunity to have it. You know we couldn't offer this to them at the price of some of our other bags, but it would be an option. We haven't really figured out what we would do to make it perfectly special for people. But it is in the works.
PB: What charities do you really like? Which ones are you really big fans of?
Ben: We both have a lot of different passions about things. I know one of the things Toni is really passionate about is arts education. It is something she really valued in her childhood. I have a little sister and she doesn't have art class regularly - it is like every other week, which is insane. Art class was one of the things I looked forward to when I was in school. I know schools are having trouble teaching kids the fundamentals but I think art and appreciation for art is a fundamental. Obviously the environment. Global warming. We are concerned about our impact and societies impact. Another thing would be women's issues. We've donated to shelters, for battered and abused women, women who are on their own now. I think it is very important to support women's charities. We could go on and on. There are issues in the 3rd world. But for us, we'd like to focus on a lot of the issues here in this country and we can focus on that. There is plenty we can do to help out. Whether is is people, children or the environment, there is a lot we can do.
PB: You mentioned previously that you worked in IT. What is your academic background?
Ben: I have a Bachelors in Physics and Computer Science. For a little while I studied graduate Physics but decided I wasn't going to be a Physicist. But I have a graduate degree in Classical Languages - Greek and Latin. I also studied studio art and painting in Italy. I do have an artistic side. I got into the fashion thing, just really by trying to find work. It has been very helpful for me to have those skills.
PB: Thank you very much for your time, Ben!