At first, we had only planned to go visit the Sola Showroom
in New York City back in April to check out what designers they represented that we could write about and introduce to our readers. What we did not expect was that we'd be crossing paths with a lady that was sitting at the table in the showroom. She was chatting it up with the PR girls while petting her chihuahua. As it turned out, this lady was the successful handbag designer whose bags represented nearly a quarter of the entire showroom floor. We arranged another meeting and a few days later we sat down with Jane August
and got to know the confident, business-savvy designer that we had only read about previously in fashion magazines. Jane was a blast, very outspoken and she allowed us to learn intimate insights into the intricate business aspects of what it means to be an independent fashion designer these days. Enjoy!
Purse Blog: Tell us about Jane August's beginnings.
I started at Macy's, California, in a trading program. It was learning how to do retail map and retail sales. After 5 years, I became a buyer. I was a petite dress buyer, I did a lot of private label and development for them overseas. Taiwan, Korea, Hong-Kong. From there I moved into different areas of wholesale and retail. I worked for Liz Claiborne and Limited, in 1999 I decided I wanted to take a year off and figure out what I wanted to do. I decided that to me clothing was - not boring - but too pedantic and that I wanted to do something much more exciting. I looked in my closet and realized that I had hundreds of vintage bags and shoes. I thought handbags would be a little easier; from my background I developed a lot of relationships in Italy and I wanted to do a luxury business for numerous reasons. What better place? I called a few people, went to Italy and my first order was with an Internet company. They wrote a $70,000 order, I thought 'this is great, this is easy!' - phenomenal. It was much more of an artisan project, we worked with a cabinet maker who made the wooden boxes for the bags. On their second order they went bust and left me with their holiday order;
PB: You mentioned that you like to visit European flea markets . Can you tell us about something especially memorable?
I can remember getting robbed... it's an experience! I can tell you about the King's Road - which is one of my number one bags. In 1982, I was on a buying trip to London, I had all these bags but no one bag to put them in. So I went into a hardware store on King's Road and I saw this feeding bag. It was in linen and it had adjustable straps. I loved it from the minute I saw it. I must have left it at my mother's house. Three years ago, my mother came walking into my house, wearing the bag. I said to her 'Where'd you get that bag?' and she said 'It's yours! I've had it for the past 20 years'. I immediately sent it to Italy, and we did it in a linen version because it was a linen feed bag. It was no handbag! It was in a hardware store on King's Road. Today I've sold thousands of them and I sell them on King's Road now at a store called Charlie's and they do well selling them. It became a full circle for me.
PB: How do you sum up the brand Jane August?
Chic. Beautiful. I think that, in many ways, I don't necessarily like to be like other designers. I don't follow a trend. I don't copy anybody. I take inspiration from things that have been done in the past. My favorite is mid-20th century design from furniture, to clothing. It is sleek. I think when you sum up my designs, a lot of it is sleek. You don't see a lot of embellishment, you don't see a lot of clunky hardware. If there is hardware, it's very sleek and understated. I think that, for me, when somebody walks in with a bag, although you want your personality to shine, it should show the beauty of it and not so much the trend.
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PB: What was the biggest hurdle establishing yourself?
Getting the working capital to start my business. I think that it's tough when you start and you do not have a backer, or any kind of financing. Especially in this day and age, it is very difficult. As your business grows, you need to go back for additional financing. When you have orders for 2-3 million dollars, you need to be able to pay a certain amount up front. Your cash flow is a very, very intricate part of doing any business. You can have the most incredible, beautiful product, but if you do not have the ability financially to do it, it just doesn't happen. And there are so many talented people out there that can not get the financing that they need.
Also, you can have the most awesome product, but unless you have a showroom with sales people that really understand what your product is and what it's about, you can't make it happen. I will give you an example. I was with a very big showroom, we did well at the beginning, as well as we thought that I was doing. You don't really know what the capability is until you really reach the potential of knowing your sales people. I think that they almost put me out of business! I don't think that their sales people were bad, they had so much jewelry in their showroom that they didn't understand the other elements of what they had. I don't think they knew how to sell a handbag. It wasn't that they didn't have the customer or price point, because when I went to the next person, she was opening up her own business and she had the same sensibility as I did. She said to me 'I can take one item and I can make your entire season'. This happened to be with the King's Road bag. I gave her this one bag, I made 120 pieces of all-black linen to start it off. Within a month, she had sold them all. She started her own clothing line, she wanted her own people in accessories, she didn't want to compete with what she was starting. She needed somebody to help her pay her rent and help with commissions. She literally turned my business around in one year. When I met Lisa at Sola, it really was going to be the make-it-or-break-it for me. When I would do a bag and I'd repeat it and repeat it, they'd say 'When does this bag die?' and I say 'It doesn't have to!'. I see people sometimes buying 2 or 3 and they are open to that. A lot of other showrooms would say 'I need more newness, I need 8 more new!' Whatever the magic number of newness would be every season. But Sola was open enough to stay with that. We've had King's Road, the long shopping bag, we've had 57th Street, on which you can see the escalation of sales. A lot of times, a bag doesn't come into its own for a year or sometimes two years. When the designer doesn't believe in it enough to keep it on, you will never know. When you believe in something so strongly, and the sales people will get on that bandwagon, it will happen. It's like the movie, if you believe in it, it will come. I give a huge amount of credit to the showroom and the sales staff. If you don't have that behind you, it doesn't matter what you have.
So many times, because I have much more of a retail-math/buying/ store line/being on a selling floor, a more diverse background than most designers, I understand the whole process. I just don't think it's a sitting-back-looking-at-pretty-leathers and pretty things and making something. If you don't really understand what your product is, why you think it should be out there, then I don't think that you will ever be able to have growth in your business. Your showroom and sales personal also needs the stores behind them. It is a big investment, it is not "Made In China" and "Buy at Target for $19.99". I am not putting down that price point, it is not my market, but it's that much tougher to sell. I give the showroom a lot of credit, they have an incredible relationship with their stores. Their stores have a relationship with their customer. And that is really the chain. Established relationships are so important. You have to grow your business with new people as well, but if you don't have those sales people behind you, I don't think you'll go anywhere.
PB: The typical Jane August customer?
She is ageless. It has nothing to do with age, but with attitude. She is very self-assured. I do not think she wants to see herself coming and going. I think she is very understated. I go back to that word 'chic'. She could be a little opulent. I don't necessarily think that she is conservative. I know she is NOT conservative. She is not that Coach customer that is a little more traditional.
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PB: J.Lo was seen wearing your bag, did you see that have a great impact on sales?
Celebrity is huge. I don't know how long it lasts. It can be the flavor of the month, but I definitely saw a sales growth. The nice thing about it: It was one of my Number One bags, so it just made it that much stronger. In New York I see that bag a lot. Between Linda Dresner, Bergdorf Goodman and Kirna Zabete, I have probably sold about 1,500 pieces of that bag within a two-year period. Obviously it's not all sold in New York, there are travelers, but I see that bag all the time. People also started getting on the bandwagon before Jennifer Lopez, we would be getting a lot of calls to the showroom prior. Also internationally the interest spiked up, that is how I opened in the store on King's Road in central London.
Two and a half years ago, the New York Times ran it as the Bag Of The Century. The fashion editor wrote that this was chic and happening and they credited Linda Dresner because that is where they had found me. There was only 250 of these bags in a small store on Park Avenue at the time. 5 more big editorials picked it up and even with those you would see a spike in sales. Jennifer Lopez had an amazing impact.
PB: Speaking of celebrities, is there a particular one you would love to have wearing your bags?
I can see Gwyneth Paltrow wearing my bags because I think that she is very, very understated. Other than that I like Jennifer Lopez. I cannot really see young, trashy Hollywood wearing my bags because that's a really quick flash. It fades. Vanessa Carlton wears my bags, she seems very grounded, her music is great. I think anybody that's very classic. I wish that Jackie Kennedy was still alive. When I was young, I used to play that I was her. If she was alive today, I would love her to wear my bags. It's the iconic feel for me that I like.
PB: If someone could only carry one bag, what would be the perfect bag and why?
This is a tough one. Nobody only has one personality; but I think I am going to go with ; can I give you two? The 57th Street, it can be very hip, it can be uptown, it can be downtown, especially if it's in black patent. It's an "anybody bag". The other one, I would say, the King's Road. Jennifer Lopez wore it to hide her baby bump, she wore it hand-held and it completely changes its shape, character. When you wear this bag on your shoulder, it makes you look taller and thinner. I just think it's so pretty!
PB: What has been your most memorable moment as a designer?
Positive or negative? Most memorable time is getting into a factory to doing an inspection of 500 bags and nothing being there. That was pretty memorable. But then there are the memories of getting a huge order and opening up with Harvey Nichols Dubai. When you get your biggest order and it all grows from there. The nicest memory was probably getting into the Neiman Marcus Christmas Catalog with a bag that I loved. I had been in magazines and I don't love the photograph or I don't love the bag, but I did the catalog with Neiman's and I loved the way it turned out.
Basically, it always goes back to an order, an ad, a photo, a magazine editorial. Very recently I was sitting at an Italian airport as I received a phone call from my assistant saying that I may want to get a copy of the February Vogue because she thought there was a bag in there! So I got the magazine, saw my bag and I got up and did what I call my "book dance". I just wanted to go around to everybody saying "look, that's my bag!". It's just an incredible accomplishment.
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PB: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
In 10 year I hope I will be in a penthouse on 5th Avenue, which you can come visit at any time - and we will be outside with margaritas! In 5 years I see shoes, I see gloves, I see everything still in Italy though it's becoming tougher and tougher and I will tell you why. If you look at all of these artisans and factories, they go back to generations of manufacturing. The generation of now does not want to work that hard. Manufacturing is a very difficult task. If you were to take apart a handbag or a shoe or even a beautifully made garment, if it is made well, there is a lot that goes into it. Especially a handbag, the amount of pieces that go into that bag is probably around 20 to 25 pieces. With the explosion of the Internet, people want to do something differently, writing on a blog, for example.
When the Chinese come in and say "we'll buy your entire factory", what happens is that they pick up the whole factory and move it. They take the workers with them to have them train their own for a year. It is really what happened after the war with America. We sold all of our technology to the Japanese in textiles. This is what is happening in Italy right now. You find less and less real artisans and you do see an increasing Chinese presence in the area. These artisan families pass the craft on from generation to generation, but now you have the young ones run off to work as designers. They do not want to work in the factories. Will these factories in Italy still be there in a few years?
More and more people do their manufacturing in Romania. When the concept of the European Union came about, it was supposed to mirror the United States to some degree. However, people are much more nationalistic. They are not one country, we are not even one country, we are 50 States and we are all very different. From a monetary standpoint though, you had countries that had been in existence with labor laws for many years, like the Italians. They have something like 10 weeks off a year, they have 3 hours off during the day. If you are a manufacturer, you are paying for all of this at an hourly wage. In Florence, let's say, the hourly wage is EUR20 an hour. In Romania, it's EUR 8 an hour. It's a new-growing, prosperous country. Just like Poland. What will happen is that you will start seeing a shift within the other EU countries. It is not that the Italians or the French do not want to work harder, it is that these are new baby countries. They are going to grow and that's who it's going to be the limelight in manufacturing in 10-15 years.
See, even though I am a designer, I do think about all of these things because it's important if you are going to have substantial growth to your business. I see doing shoes and gloves in smaller factories, the price will go up some. Then again I see the dollar coming back in 5 to 10 years. If you can wait it out, it all comes back to full circle.
PB: Jane's advice to fashion newcomers?
Make sure that you are in for a lot of work. It's 24/7. If you do not have the stomach for it, don't do it. In order to start your own business, you are better off working for somebody, learning all the different aspects and then you are able to choose. Technically I wish I was 20 years younger and I'd have much more energy. In reality, I could not have done it without having learned all the different facets of business to understand it.
PB: If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?
New York City. I love it! I could live anywhere I want, I've lived in California for 18 years and I love it. But there is a personality of this city like no other. I think the people are amazing. They get a really bad rep, it's unbelievable. We also have beautiful museums, we have flea markets, just a very vibrant city. It also have the cross-pollination of so many different countries that come and stay here and work or come to visit. I just love NYC!
PB: What's your favorite TV show?
Project Runway. And Law and Order. I love PR, none of my people ever win though. Laura was my favorite of all of them.
PB: What's your favorite food?
Tofu. I love it, all the things you can do with it. I am a vegetarian, I do not eat anything that's ever walked. Obviously, I make leather; I became a vegetarian when I became 16. My favorite restaurant in New York City is Candle 79 and the Candle CafÃ©. The CafÃ© is on 3rd Ave and 75th, they have excellent food there. Candle 79 is on 79th and Lexington. It's all vegetarian and priced well. Most of the food comes from local farmers from Orange County, upstate New York. To me it's important to support local.
PB: Any websites you check daily?
I am a creature of habit. Mainly eBay, Jil Sander, I look for vintage sunglasses. I look at people.com because you never know what you're going to see. I do go to Lux Couture
because I like to see who Sari is carrying. I go to Paper Bag Princess
in L.A., I check Net-A-Porter
PB: What do you like to indulge in?
Clothes. Jewelry. Handbags. Shoes. Also my dog
, I like to dress her. She has beautiful sweaters, she does not like coats or boots. I also do not buy anything Made In China. Some things you can not get around buying it, like little hardware, stupid things. None of my clothing is from China, I strongly believe that everybody is entitled to being paid a decent wage and if I can afford it, I will rather buy one beautiful thing. I bought three beautiful dresses this season, all Made In Australia. If I could really indulge - like in 10 years with the margaritas - driving around with a driver in my Bentley Convertible. I would really love to indulge in a fabulous car. Not sure why. Navy-Blue with caramel-colored top. That's the type of dreams that help you keep going back to work the next morning.