Emily Blumenthal, or the Handbag Designer Fairy Godmother as she’s known in some circles, has made it her professional life’s work to discover – as well as nurture and mentor – designers who are producing what’s new and what’s next in the handbag world. Chances are if you’re a fashion or handbag devotee you’ve seen the fruits of her labor in InStyle Magazine, as every year they showcase the winners of the Independent Handbag Designer Awards (now accepting applications) which she grew from a seed of an idea into an 11-year-old international competition! The Awards have also garnered the support and participation of countless household names including Saks, Kate Spade, Kenneth Cole, Guess, FujiFilm, and InStyle Magazine itself over it’s decades plus run. Most importantly, however, is the fact that this project born from Emily’s blood, sweat, tears, and tenacity has served and continues to serve as a springboard for several handbag designers who are now making a name for themselves and growing a handbag business of their own.
Emily, an “accidental” yet successful handbag designer herself, is also the founder of HandbagDesigner101.c0m (the place for all things independent handbag design, from trends to shopping), an entrepreneurship teacher at the Fashion Institute of Technology, the author of the Handbag Designer 101 book – a bible for aspiring designers – and let’s just say she has a laundry list of upcoming projects you’ll see unfold in the coming year.
SH: Eleven years! You created your own industry awards event from scratch, you bootstrapped the entire thing, you’ve aligned with brands from InStyle to Kenneth Cole, and you’ve reached thousands of designers. And you’ve done it for eleven years. Give us some insight on how you maintain the business and mental stamina as an entrepreneur to do just that.
EB: It’s what I am known for now. Too many designers depend on this as a platform to be discovered and if we stopped, then what would happen to the talent? Or even the industry? We have a responsibility to continue to bring the unknowns out of the sea of sameness – that in itself is enough to keep going.
SH: What is your biggest joy when it comes to producing an independent design competition?
EB: It’s wonderful to make the phone calls to the designers to let them know they are finalists. As exhausted as I am in planning this event, hearing the screams, tears and “are you joking – I was praying this would happen,” you can’t help to be swept into the emotion. This is almost as exciting as seeing someone’s name being called and their friends and family jumping to their feet calling out their name. We are truly changing lives and that is what it’s all about.
SH: What’s the biggest challenge of your work?
EB: We work on this 11 months of the year so it’s an arduous task after we close one event – we start working on the next. We have to keep the stamina to do a push leading up to the application process opening on January 1st – I have spent more New Year’s than I can remember watching the site go live and making sure it’s working. So though the event is in June, there are months of work surrounding that one, special night.
SH: What drew you to the handbag industry and why do you love it so much that you dedicate much of your life to it?
EB: I fell into it when when I had just started my MBA. I had a DJ boyfriend at the time so I was going to work, going to school and then going out to help support and promote him. (This seems like 100 lifetimes ago…) I noticed that women were doing a ceremonial dance around their handbags and I thought, “How come no one created a little bag to hold your essentials when you go out?” This was in 2000. After 3 licensing deals, 2 runs on 2 different shopping channels, teaching at 3 different design schools, 1 book, 11 years of this show and 3 kids later – the rest is history.
SH: You and I have worked together in the past, so I’ve seen some of the, well, ballsy, things you’ve done to grow this business. I remember you once paging a very well known shoe company founder – who you’d never met – at his offices and cold pitching him (successfully) to sponsor an Awards category. It was bold and fearless, and is etched into my memory. What do you attribute your drive to go for “the ask” to, and please lay down some advice for others who may need to raise the bar in terms of “the ask” in their own life:
Having good people to work with certainly makes a difference. (Hat tip to Sabina.) I strongly believe in failing forward. I had a handbag line and I had no choice but to make it work. I made it work until it couldn’t and I knew I had to have something else to transition to. I developed the Awards as a way to make money while I waiting for my book to come out. Then the Awards became what I did and what I was known for – you have to continue to be smart and strategic.
Not everything works out that you have tried to do so you have to always be ready to get your hustle on like there is no tomorrow. I have never been afraid of rejection – I don’t know why but as some wise people I know said “get into your place of discomfort and make it work” (second nod to Sabina) so I subscribe to that lifestyle. You have to as an entrepreneur.
SH: If you could say one thing to an aspiring handbag designer what would it be?
EB: Do your homework.
SH: How would you say social media, online education platforms and other technology innovations have impacted the handbag design industry? Has it lowered barriers to entry? Is it helping people like you source more talent?
EB: It’s definitely helping to source more talent but there are more out there than ever. You have to really stand out for people to find you and want to come back. Like anything, without having your own DNA, it can do more harm than good.
SH: I know your IHDA winners are like your children and you love them all equally, but do you have any Handbag Designer 101/ IHDA success stories that stand out as highlights to you?
EB: Clara Yoo was our Best Student Winner – any Cole Haan bag you know it’s from her; or Rachel Esswood who is at Calvin Klein Men’s bags. We have Danielle Diferdinando of Danielle Nicole, Aimee Kestenberg, and also Florian London – it’s an incredible brand that has taken over Europe. We are independent brands – that’s what we stand for.
SH: What would your younger self have to say about the woman and entrepreneur you have grown up to become? Would she be surprised?
EB: I was just thinking about this. Things take time. Start wearing eyelash extensions. That I would have 3 kids and not 2. And that I would never leave the Garment Center, no matter how hard you try to escape it – it’s apparently where you belong.
SH: What is one strategy, tip, or action step you use to bust through fear or mental obstacles?
EB: Just get over yourself and do it already.
SH: Besides yourself, what fashion designer/s inspire you?
EB: I look to those who haven’t been found. You wouldn’t have heard of them. Yet.
Apply to the 2017 Independent Handbag Designer Awards HERE!