When Abbe Held
and her mother Bonnie had trouble finding handbags that they adored, they decided to start their own line. What started as a fun project, quickly turned into a budding business for the pair. Bonnie, whose maiden name is Kooba, and Abbe were always accessory addicts who were able to fill the void that they felt missing in the handbag world by creating their own. And from that, Kooba
was born in 1998 and was quickly picked up by Bergdorf Goodman and Barneys. Ten years later the company has flourished into one of the most well-known handbag lines out there, with a huge following. Kooba's line infuses a dramatic yet playful feel that introduces classic shapes, bold colors, and an overall product that will outlast trends and complement any outfit in a wardrobe.
Last week Vlad and I had the chance to meet with Abbe, the gorgeous mother of two. We previously introduced her on Purse Blog Savvy
, but this was a full interview that we were truly looking forward to for months. As much as we were anxiously awaiting interviewing Abbe and hearing more from the creative director of Kooba, Abbe was equally as intrigued by our site and how it got started. The first feeling when meeting Abbe was as if she were a long time friend, a down to earth gal who cares about others and truly finds the joy that is to be had in life. We spoke to her about working with her mother and best friend and found countless similarities in her core trio compared to ours. Being able to finally meet a designer whose bags were one of the first brands that I began to love when delving into the handbag world was a real treat. And what we did not tell Abbe is that her Kooba Sienna
holds a special place in our hearts, as my sister's very first designer bag! We had a great time meeting with Abbe and look forward to working with her more in the future. Enjoy the interview!
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Slide 1 / 4
PB: We pretty much know the story about how you got started, but can you share the story about how you are still in business with your mom? It is really interesting.
AH: I guess this all started about 10 years ago. Well, my mom has always been interested in vintage clothing, shopping and accessories. I was in fashion and she had the idea that we should start handbags in a way that was sort of organic. I don't think we really thought about building this empire, but we were in the market. We always said how everything sort of looked the same, there wasn't that much out there that was contemporary and interesting looking so we started the handbags. We opened up with Scoop and Bergdorf Goodman. Right when we shipped it, they sold and did well so the stores wanted to come and see the next collection. We were like "there is no collection", so we then just begun designing for the next season, next season and it just grew. It kept doubling and tripling, then we opened up with Barneys. We were lucky because we were with some really great stores from the beginning and everything just kept escalating. Then the bags started getting picked up by celebrities and everything kept growing. It all happened very organically. We worked hard, but it all just came together. Sort of similar to you guys. We just kept learning as we went along. Now we are in a place where we can plot and plan. But there was a lot of catch up in the early stages.
PB: Your first collection was bought by Bergdorf? Was that really surprising?
AH: It was surprising. I was in sales before, so I knew the stores, and said, "we have this new collection, take a look" and they bought it. It was exciting. But seeing someone wearing your bag was even more exciting.
PB: Who was the first person you saw wearing your bag?
AH: It was a person on the street. I was actually in Paris.
PB: Really? Did you stop them?
AH: Ahh, no I didn't.
PB: I probably would have! And told them it was my bag. That's really exciting though. And what's been the best part or challenges of working with your mom? I mean, we (Megs and Vlad) work together so, we kinda know what it is like.
AH: I actually work with my mom and one of my best friends from 5th grade, she became a partner after the second year, so it is sort of like a family. I think we work really well together, so as much as we fight one minute, the next minute it is like "ok, what do you want for lunch". I think we know, we'll never hurt each other because at the end of the day, we are all after the same goal. At the same time, when we do fight, we know we don't have any boundaries, because you can speak to your best friend and mother in a way you could never speak to another employer - so that's the worst. I think the best is that, in no time at all everything is fine and we are asking each other what you want to eat.
Slide 2 / 4
PB: We're smiling because we know exactly what you are talking about, it's just like our office! After an argument, in no time, we are like, "ok, want to watch a show and get something to eat?"
AH: You are exactly right. And you couldn't have that with someone you aren't that intimate with. It is a huge plus.
PB: Now, Kooba, was your mother Bonnie's maiden name? Is that right? Where is that from?
AH: Where is that from? I don't know - good question. I don't know for sure, but I would think it was shortened and it is a Russian name, but don't quote me on that.
PB: It seems so fitting, such a great name for a brand.
AH: Ya, it is catching.
PB: So, your background was in fashion, where did you go to school?
AH: I studied Business at Boston University. We really learned on the go. But, I've been an avid shopper, I have been into fashion from early on. But really no trained fashion background. We've always had an eclectic mix: vintage with new, high and low. That gave us a lot of inspiration from a lot of places.
PB: When you do your collections, where do you gather your inspiration from?
AH: Really from all over. I can see a piece of hardware on a piece of furniture and it will give us an idea, or a handle on a car that has a cool lever and it gives us a cool idea, old magazines or a movie - you see a bag and like the shape. Also, a lot of inspiration comes from the leather and the feel of it. You can think how it will drape on a bag so you can envision it. We go forwards and go backwards.
PB: Speaking of the leathers, how do you decide on them? Which you will use for a given collection?
AH: We work with predominantly leather. 85-95% leather. We started with fabrics initially and moved to leather but we are starting to do more fabrics now. We think it is time and we are ready to use fabrics a little more. The leather we gravitate towards always usually has something interesting about it. We try to change around the color palates each season but we stay true to who we are. We work with the trends but we incorporate the basics. We'll take a leather and the next season we will make it shinnier or crackly.
PB: How do you remember your inspirations? Do you carry a sketch pad with you? How do you remember what you see?
AH: Actually, no sketch pad, I just remember everything in my head. I sometimes leave myself a message. That way when I am like "what did I like that I saw" I can just check the message I sent myself. But it is all a visual memory. I take a lot of tear sheets - things I am always working with my design team on. I kind of like the experience of having it develop. From where we start and where we finish - there are lots of revisions. I like the experience of playing with and creating it as we go along.
Slide 3 / 4
PB: When you started with just your mom and you, do you have a similar style?
AH: Very similar. So similar it is scary. We will go to fabric shows and break up and we will meet and we will both have the same thing. Or we will show up and be wearing the same outfit. We have similar clothes and we have some of the same jackets.
PB: So, it works out well.
AH: Ya, we have a similar style and don't but heads too much. But now we have a design team so there is inspiration from 4-5 people who brainstorm together. And the bags have evolved a lot. They aren't just about us anymore. Much more for everyone.
PB: How did you decide to tackle this price point or market as opposed to going into the high end luxury.
AH: Well, I think that was the idea. When we started it was like there was just Prada and Kate Spade and not a whole lot in between. There really wasn't a lot to buy that was cool - looked high end but wasn't quite so expensive. We are at a good place where we are accessible to enough people, we are growing so we can have higher and lower end bags, something for a lot of people to choose from.
PB: With the economy being the way it is, do you see a correlation between the economy and how many people come to your brand.
AH: I mean, we are doing well. But I think we've always crossed over because of the style. We have women who have so much money they can buy whatever they want when they want so price isn't an option and we have women who save up for our bags. I don't think the concept has been about price. But I do think we are picking up people who think it is crazy to spend $2K on a bag in this economy. With a handbag, you can always get your money's worth.
PB: You are exactly right. I think handbags are the perfect accessory and you can carry them for a while. In fact, handbags are an even better accessory than shoes because of all the ware they can get.
AH: Exactly. The bags last. I even see some bags still being carried that we designed during the first couple years. It just shows that people go into their closets and really pull out their bags and continue to use them.
PB: Where do you come up with the names for your bags?
AH: That's a big, big discussion around the office. Some names get started because we attach a personality to it, some we say that's what we are going after, and others we look at and try and discuss who or what the bag reminds us of. It's almost like we all share stories and fight about the names around the office.
PB: Do you have any names that have ben favorite or that have stuck out?
AH: Ha, no, I'm kind of fickle. Nothing that really stands out specifically.
Slide 4 / 4
PB: I remember I saw you did some jackets, are you still doing that?
AH: No, we are sticking to handbags and are using our resources that are much more related to bags. I think down the line we will do it, but I think we need to focus on creating the lifestyle of us first before we expand more.
PB: That is sort of like us, for right now, we are sticking to what we are good at.
AH: Right, stick to your core and then work on other things after wards.
PB: You have daughters as well? Are they big into handbags?
AH: Right, I have two daughters, but they aren't big into handbags and hopefully they won't be for a long time. They are 7 and 3 and they are funny because they are very particular, they like to pick out their own clothes. They will not wear anything I buy for them. Our babysitter even says how funny it is to see what the girls wear and what I wear because she says to me jokingly, "those are not your daughters"! They are anti-mom and anti-fashion!
PB: What do you feel is a perk of being an established designer? Do you meet any cool people?
AH: Well, there are tons of cool people out there I work with, so that is cool. Having my own business and enjoying what you do and you are successful at what you do is a perk for sure. Making up my own schedule and kind of doing things my way is fabulous. Being in a creative field is great. When we started we didn't really have any rules, so being free to doing things the way you want and figure things out as you go is a great experience.
PB: With NYC being such a fashion mecca do you find yourself going to a lot of events?
AH: I go out a lot, but I don't really consider myself to be a "sceney" kind of person. I don't need to be where "the scene" is. I am more of a behind the scenes person. I just don't really want to mix my work with my personal life. But i love being a part of fashion.
PB: Could you ever imagine living anywhere else?
AH: No, no way. I love NYC, I was born and raised here, there is nowhere else I'd rather be.
PB: And if you weren't a handbag designer, what would you be?
AH: It is a tough one. I studied business, but I had no interest in going into a corporate environment. I always liked architecture, even though I have no training in it. But, I'd probably go into something in the design field, something creative. But, I am more creative with a business and that side of it. I'm not ultra creative, I like the fact that we run a business. I don't think I could only do the creative side without the business side of it.
PB: So, what is your weekend like? What do you do?
AH: We are up early, make breakfast, have a family dance party in the kitchen. Sunday family dance party and pancakes is a tradition! We like going out to lunch, walk around, some shopping and maybe dinner and a movie. That's our weekend.
PB: What are the spots in NYC you love? That you are drawn to?
AH: I love this place called La Esquina, this Mexican place that I love. I also love this coffee place called the Grey Dog Coffee which plays amazing music that makes me feel like I am in college again. I love going to the places we've been going to for years. At the same time, I love finding new places and restaurants - I like seeing the decor, the design, etc.
PB: What does your house like?
AH: Actually, it was just featured in New York Post's Page Six, they just featured it. The house is very mixed, very eclectic. There are lots of leathers, textures, and metallics.
PB: Do you only carry your own bags?
AH: Yeah, I only carry my own bags. What are your favorite handbags?
PB: I have been big into slouchy bags. I'm casual though, so I really like casual bags. I like structured, but bohemian and a bit girlie. I try to switch my bags but I tend to stick to one for a while.
PB: Is there one (handbag) that you really like the most?
AH: I don't think so. I like to switch them up and sometimes it can depend on my mood. There are so many different styles within sensibility.
PB: What about colors? Is there a certain color you are drawn to?
AH: I like neutral colors, I am a neutral girl, browns, camels and off whites. A little black. But more than anything really rich, deep tones.
We ended our interview with Abbe here and browsed her showroom, Vlad shot bags, and we chatted a bit. The Kooba bags
we were able to preview in the showroom are amazing and so many of them are just my style. My favorite is the Kooba Lauren, featured at the top of this page, which pairs the perfect slouchy appeal that I am drawn to with the feminine added touch of a bow in the perfect neutral color. Stay tuned for much more from this designer and the fabulous bags that Kooba has to offer! A special thank you again to Abbe Held and the gals from Kooba.