An Interview with Paige Hamilton Internationally Recognized Handbag Designer
Paige Hamilton was repeatedly told she would ‘never make it’ in the ‘brutal’ design industry full of ‘miserable people trying to rip you off’. Paige listened to them – a few times. Then Paige decided she was going to do it anyway. Today Paige designs and sells handbags, manufactured in the United States, which are sought after by celebrities, the world’s royalty and the finest stores in the nation.
Here is a bit of her story.
I believed purses were fairly risk-free because I never received a formal education in apparel fit and construction. I know how to design from “draping” fabric on a mannequin, but I did not know the technical side of clothing design. I thought if I could get my feet wet with designing purses and that venture was successful, I would then branch out into clothing design. At the same time I was obsessed with bags because I was living in big cities – New York, Boston, London and San Francisco and I didn’t have a car. In that way, your bag becomes like the trunk of your car and it better work for you because you are carrying it around all day long. I longed for the perfect bag that would take me from a professional work engagement to drinks at night to the gym without carrying three bags with me on the bus or train.
How would you describe your bags?
They are extremely lightweight, made from imported Italian nylon and trimmed in leather. I searched the ends of the earth to find the exact right fabric and found it in Italy. I wanted my bags to be indestructible, easy to clean and look luxurious. I worked hard to find the perfect strap length and make sure my bags had “good elbow clearance” so you could swing it onto your shoulder without it getting stuck. It was also important to me that the strap doesn’t fall off your shoulder. I also focused on the pockets. I am all about organization. At the same time, I didn’t want the usual utilitarian “look” of an organized bag. I would challenge myself to incorporate hidden exterior pockets within a design feature, such as ruching or pleats. I wanted to provide a pocket where you could not quite tell it was a pocket.
I believe a key issue for most handbags is what I call “the bottomless pit” or “black hole” where everything falls into the bottom of the bag. People waste so much time repeatedly digging for keys, cell phone, lipstick, etc. Today’s on-to-go culture demands that products be efficient and practical. Personally, I don’t want my clothing or accessory choices to waste my time. If you are digging for your keys twice a day for 30 seconds in that black hole it adds up over time. And, one must be able to quickly access her phone without opening up her bag. I was really determined to save time for people. I wanted the bag to be a tool that would help the wearer get through the day. And at the same time, my bags must be sophisticated and elegant looking so my customers would look and feel good carrying them.
How long ago did you start doing this?
I launched the business in May 2005. I was on the marketplace in May 2007.
What were you doing in those two years before you launched?
It took six months to find the fabric. I also went through four different manufacturers until I found the one I currently work with today. I would provide a technical drawing or pattern and the manufacturer would make a distant version of what I designed or they would sew up a terrible looking prototype. More often, they would just drag their feet. I would have to drive 45-90 minutes everyday to the factory to insist they make my prototypes. It became a three or four or five month ordeal and then I would give up and have to start again with a different manufacturer. The manufacturer is such a key element in a product-based business. And finding the right manufacturer was my biggest challenge. I missed so many deadlines because these first few manufacturers would not do what they agreed to do in the time agreed upon.
During these two years are you also working or are you solely working on the bags?
I was working a little bit as a freelance archivist, but in order to launch a business of this kind, I had to give it my 100% focus. I had a good situation where I was able to stay in my parent’s home and save a lot of money and then I moved into another place and was able to work from home. I had virtually no overhead, so it worked for a time. It was tight, but I was very careful with my spending. It is what you do when you are starting a business. You put your head down and keep going forward. It would not have happened if I had a full time job as in my case, I had to spend my days sourcing materials and hounding manufacturers every day to make sure they knew I was serious.
How many bags did you launch with?
The first collection was eight styles in seven colors.
What were the hurdles in the beginning days, after the manufacturing issues, versus what the hurdles of today?
Today, my biggest challenge is to allot “creative/design” time during the workday. When I first started, I had a lot of free time to be creative, but not a lot of sales. Now I have much more of a business to run and the sales relationships to maintain. I’ve recently realized that now I must hire Sales Reps. It is too much for me to do all the sales and all the designing. It is hard to find design time that is not on the weekends or at 5 am. I am [also] now challenged with stepping away and letting go of the minutia and trusting that everything will work. I have to trust that I have good staff and contractors around me to be able to let go of some of that control, which for me is not easy. In a sense, this is my baby and I want to nurture it along, but I have to now delegate more so I can focus on designing and expansion. Currently, I have an assistant and I contract out most everything else to a great network of people. I think it is a great way to do business these days. I can keep my overhead low and still get to work with talented people who are experts in their field, doing what they love.
What about things that happened along the way that you didn’t expect or plan for? Was there
anything that really surprised you along the way?
For one, I did not realize I would be traveling as much as I do. I love to travel and, at the same time, it takes some effort to “re-enter” and get back into my routine each time. Another pleasant surprise is that I have been able to maintain a luxury brand business during a contracted economy. I realized that handbags are a low priority for a woman to buy during a recession during a sales trip to the Bay Area in 2008. Most every boutique I visited had marked their handbags 85% off. I thought, ‘OH NO!’ Oprah and Suzy Orman were telling us, ‘Stop buying! Stop buying!’ And, consumers listened. Many fellow designers and specialty boutiques went out of business. I was very fortunate that I had a low overhead and low production minimums. I knew I was going to make it if I spent money wisely and incorporated other revenue streams such as trunk shows into my business plan. If I would have maintained the traditional way doing business, by attending trade shows and hoping retail buyers were going to buy my product for their stores, I may not have made it. What kept me going was knowing that my customers were still out there. The buyers of the stores were just obviously much more cautious.
How did you decide on prices?
I base them off a strict costing formula. The rule of thumb is that you take your raw costs and multiple that times 2.5 and that becomes your wholesale price. If you only double your raw cost you are probably not going to stay in business. Because I produce all my goods in the USA my raw costs are extremely high, compared to most other brands. I am also quite determined to work with only high quality materials. So high labor costs and high material costs equals top end of the market. I figure 1 – 2% of the population can afford to buy my bags which is plenty enough for a profitable business. I know my bags are not for everybody. I would often hear that, ‘No one would want a bag at that price.’ It wasn’t true that no one would. It was just true that those people wouldn’t and I had to remind myself of that. I did not want to put myself out of business to cater to what many people were saying. I actually do not even make the margin I should be making on most of my bags at this point, but I feel like I am in a pretty good place. I believe my prices are very fair considering all of the factors. It costs about $10 hour to get products made in the USA and costs .33 cents an hour, on the high side, to get things made in China.
Good for you.
I had some mentors that routinely suggested I produce my goods overseas. I said ‘no’ for a number of reasons. One, it was really important to me to watch production quality and timing closely, which is virtually impossible to do overseas unless you employ a full-time agent. Next, there is a wide range of environmental standards for different countries, especially in developing nations. And most importantly, the way workers are treated is very different and I did not want my business to be involved with unfair treatment of workers. There are only three or four companies that make their bags in the US. There are hardly any accessories factories left in the US because the competition is so fierce with China.
So many people start off idealistically and then all of the sudden they start seeing dollar signs and they are like, ‘Screw it we are going to China.’
Oh yeah. I once took a design I wanted to make to my factory and we looked at a similar bag that was made in China. My contractor showed me all of the things that went into that bag I brought to her that are illegal in the USA. Certain glues and materials used to save production time and make stitches perfect are so toxic that they can’t be used in this country. I just couldn’t have that be a part of my company in anyway.
How did you start off distributing your bags?
I was mentored by a friend who was a jewelry designer. I learned that high-end fashion goods were most commonly distributed via trade shows. I attended these shows and saw women selling their designs to very high profile stores and thought, ‘They are doing. I can do it.’
My first shows include the Accessories The Show in New York, an apparel trade show in San Francisco, and a gift show in Dallas. Apparently, I have an “apparel driven” line and I sell more at the apparel shows than the gift shows. Typically, the retail store buyers find you, you write orders together and then ship the goods within 2-6 months. I am fortunate because I make all of my goods in the US which allows me to keep my minimums really low with a quick turn-around time. I do not have to guesstimate and order my goods before I know what sells which is the case for most designers producing overseas. They must order their goods six months before their collection is initially seen and then they don’t even know if they are going to sell through their inventory. This is why Marshalls and TJ Maxx are in business — because manufacturers have to order large quantities ahead of time and they do not know what will sell. Quite often they have a lot they must sell to the off-price stores.
All of your distribution is through trade shows?
No, but that is how I started. I made contacts at trade shows and I learned about trunk shows. Trunk shows are a great part of my business and they helped me through the recession era. I determined my demographic, the cities and the stores within those cities to target. I asked a lot of my customers where they shop elsewhere in the country. My bags are for the higher price point customer, so I know the best one or two boutiques in a given city has my customer.Narrowing my demographic has made it easy to determine who to approach.
Trunk shows are highly successful as it puts me directly in front of the end-consumer and takes the retail buyer out of the equation. As a designer I show up with everything we are currently selling. Then the store customer chooses what she wants. It’s virtually risk-free for the store as I don’t require the store to buy inventory from me. I can sell 40 or 60 bags in two days where perhaps I would sell 18 to 20 bags to a boutique in a season through a traditional trade show channel.
I am assuming the store takes a certain percentage of your sales from the trunk show, correct?
And you do private trunk shows at homes?
I do private home shows if I do not have a store in that particular region or if I have a prior agreement with the store in that region. I will come in and do a trunk show and I charge retail, so I do not cause any problems with any online stores or local stores that carry my bags. By charging retail prices, I make a higher margin so I either donate a portion of the sales to charity or I give a portion of the sales to the host. It works out really well. I am doing a trunk show in Santa Fe at the end of the month and the money goes to helping students in local schools.
How do these people for private trunk shows find you?
Mostly through word of mouth. Typically I have prior relationship with the stores when we meet at a trade show and then agree to do a trunk show. In this situation the store gets the retail price and I earn the wholesale plus the store pays my travel expenses.
How else do you market yourself?
I do not do any traditional advertising. I have a website and we do Facebook and Twitter posts every day. I hired a PR agency last year to get product features in magazines. I found that either one has an in-house PR person or you have to hire an agency to do it. Magazines do not come to you. I also do thoughtful email newsletters that don’t scream, ‘Here are our bags. Buy them.’ I don’t work with discounters at this point.
I am interested in what you mean by thoughtful emails.
I do “cause-related” emails, thought provoking emails, emails that push your comfort zone. On Facebook we try to talk about things that inspire us. For example, when we are designing the spring collection, we take photos of the process, so people better understand how the design process works. We will do something totally unrelated to fashion such as feature a story on a house we love and how that contributed to our life in some way or, perhaps a dog rescue or a great restaurant. It is just a way to start a conversation to connect with like-minded people.
Where do you find your inspiration for your designs?
They come from a lot of different places, but they typically do not come from bags. For instance, I was in Japan and I saw this beautiful rock garden and that became the inspiration for a pocket for one of my bags. People kept saying my first collection looked like a corset. My undergraduate thesis was on why the corset rapidly disappeared after 400 years of use. I am interested in fluid forms and not such boxy shapes. I look at shapes in nature. I do a lot of meditation and I draw right afterwards. After clearing the cobwebs, I draw whatever comes to mind for about 20 minutes. So a lot of times I don’t know where the designs come from, they just sort of show up in my drawing time. Perhaps a great pocket on garment will inspire a design.
I am interested in what you see as the social influences in purse design.
It boils down to our current lifestyle. Men never needed bags before all the gismos came out. They never carried anything but their wallet and now they have a messenger bag to carry their computer and all their things with them. The murse, men’s purse, has really become a thing that was not here awhile ago. Across the board guys are now carrying bags.
With women it depends on their age. Typically, 20 to 30 year olds want a “label” bag. The Louis Vuitton or Dior bag is very important to them. My market is 30s & up with a more practical mind-set. They are moms, and/or working professionals. They often go out after work. They may want to go to the gym before work. My market is the on-the-go woman. I believe the trend is providing a solution for the woman who is on-the-go and every woman is a woman on-the-go. It has to be easy and comfortable. It can’t be a hindrance.
I have seen a lot of people start off making bags or jewelry, but I don’t believe I have seen anyone make it. What do you think is the difference between those that succeed, such as yourself, and those that do not?
I think it is passion. When I was struggling in the first year and a half I would call manufacturers and they would say, ‘Ugh, another young girl that wants to design handbags.’
A lot of people want to be designers, but they do not know the nuts and bolts of the business. When people are doing something they love they find a way to make ends meet. They will find the solution if they really want to make it happen. If it is your dream you will find the money. You will find the time. You will find the people who can help you. You just have to stick with it.
You must be a good sales person.
I think if you love something, it is easy to sell it. At the same time, I am not as comfortable with sales as I am with designing. I can whip out a collection in a couple of hours. But learning about sales took some time. I watched a lot of people and learned how to connect with people. It is not about making the sale. It is about listening and then finding common ground and connecting. If you can build trust and rapport with someone you will have that relationship forever.
Is there anything else you have learned along the way about sales?
It is so much more about sharing than it is about selling. If I have to call stores that might seem daunting, I sit down and set an intention. I remind myself that I am “sharing” this information and that I am not trying to “sell” something. I check in with them to see if they would be interested in learning more about working together. I have also learned to let go of expectation to outcome. If I have an expectation ahead of time, it never works. If I let go and I trust that it will all work out, even if I don’t know the how of it, it often comes back so much better than I would ever have even anticipated. It’s also about being real. Some people will say no and it is not for them and that is fine. It is about handling that rejection without taking it personally. People who do well in sales typically do well in anything because they understand human interaction.
I am curious if you find anything with social media that does or does not help with growing your business.
I think the jury is still out. We started late because I fought spending time and resources on it. A big chunk of my demographic is in their 50s, 60s or 70s and there is a reluctance to learn about computers. A lot of my customers were not and probably still are not on Facebook. One of my mentors said, ‘Paige get on Facebook. It’s a free way to establish your brand.’ So we’re on Facebook to spread our brand and connect. I have no direct sales expectations from Facebook. It’s funny because I often have conversation with people who say, ‘I loved your Facebook posting.’ And my response is, ‘Then why didn’t you ‘like’ or comment on the posting?’ [Laughing] I think it is just so new and people are just trying to figure it out.
Twitter is another thing I do. I think there is a lot of dross such as ‘I just changed my baby’s diaper.’ I prefer to hear what people have to say and think. More thoughtful tweets keep me engaged. I do not want postings to be always focused on buying a product, I often hear complaints that certain Facebook pages only post about buying their product. Also I used to receive marketing emails once a month from, then twice a month, then every day, and now it’s often four times a day from the same business. I send personalized emails and postcards in mail and that is a productive marketing tool now because nobody does uses snail mail anymore. People often thank me for the personal hand-written note. I am all for personal interaction.
At what point did you think, ‘Ok I did it. This is a success. I am successful.’
To be honest, I often wake up and think, ‘Oh my god am I really going to make it in the long run?’ I set such high standards for myself and of course I always want to do better. But, I think it is fair to step back and say, ‘Do I have a sustainable business? Am I at the tipping point? Am I in a groove? Do I have a good core customer base?’ Sometimes I read the testimonials and think, ‘Ok I am doing a good thing here.’ But I think any entrepreneur wants to do better next year. Our economy is cyclical. We will have good years and slow years. We will have good quarters and tough quarters. I think that I am successful because I am still here, still designing and still doing what I want. I really try to stay present every day. I have good intentions and plans for what I am going to be doing in the near future. I don’t think I have ever thought, ‘Oh I have made it!’ I just think, ‘I am still here and I am still doing what I want to be doing.’
Anything else you would like to add?
I love your blog and your focus on people leaving their standardized 9 to 5 jobs to pursue what makes them happy. I connected to the stories on the woman who became the nanny, the woman who got her PhD, the guy who makes the pretzels, etc. Your blog reminds me that a key to happiness is for people to pursue their dreams, even if it means taking risks for what may not look like a “safe-bet” or traditional business structure. Yes, it is work, but it does not feel like work to me. I think if more people would pursue their dreams, there would be greater all around happiness, people would feel more purposeful and they would enjoy their day jobs.
To learn more about Paige and Paige Hamilton Design see http://www.paigehamiltondesign.com/ or follow Paige Hamilton Design on Facebook or Twitter.