Today I am launching a new series — Behind the Biz. This series will feature business owners and dig deep into the real side of business. First up is Blair Ritchey, a handbag and leather goods designer.
BLAIR RITCHEY // HANDBAG DESIGNER
Blair is the owner and designer behind the self-titled line Blair Ritchey — Simple. Functional. Luxury.
Once you knew you wanted to have your own line, what steps did you take to make that a reality? (the gritty details here)
This is something I knew I wanted to do ever since I was a teenager, but I literally took the longest route possible. After two degrees, multiple internships, and a half dozen jobs outside the industry I realized that it really just took me sitting down at my sewing machine and making my first bag, if you could even call it that. Over the next several months my design studio (spare bedroom) became a handbag cemetery. I spent my mornings before work and my evenings after work perfecting my patterns, improving my stiches, and sourcing the best quality hardware and leather I could find. I was consumed with learning everything there was to know about running my own business. Once I had a product that I was proud of I began selling them online; actually it was more like I listed them online and waited patiently for them to sell. It wasn’t until a blogger took notice of my handbags and did a post on them that things started to get rolling. With each blogger my sales increased, my customer base grew, and I began to feel like I had a real chance at this whole handbag designer thing.
What lessons have you learned along the way?
I have learned the importance of starting small and growing organically. This has kept me mindful of my bottom line and allowed me to build a business that is thoughtfully planned and strong. I have had to pass up on some great opportunities because I knew that I wouldn’t be able to handle the volume while delivering the same high quality pieces that I have committed to. My story is not about overnight success, which is something I constantly remind myself when making big decisions.
What has surprised you about owning your own business?
It’s hard! Like any naive hopeful I imagined all the wonderful things about working for myself. Little did I know it would be a one woman show for so long. It is amazing what you are capable of when you let go of your fears and limitations. I learned the importance of being a tenacious and industrious entrepreneur from my dad. If you know how to do it yourself, you’ll know what to look for in a future employee when the time comes.
What (if any) hardships have you had along the way?
I fortunately haven’t had any real hardships. Manufacturing has been my biggest obstacle. My plan was never to make the bags myself, but it’s funny how things rarely work out as planned! Looking back, not immediately finding the right manufacturer has been a total blessing. It forced me to grow slowly and learn a trade that I take such pride in. I love that my customers can tell not a single detail was overlooked in making their bag.
What do you wish you would have known going into this?
What works for one company might not make sense for you. It is so easy to get caught up in what other people are doing. Very shortly after I began, I was contacted by a boutique that wanted to carry my line. I was so excited I could barely think straight. I created a line sheet with my wholesale prices and other information based on what I found to be the industry standard. After weeks of preparing the order I came to realize that I was going to make just enough to cover cost. I laugh now, but I felt like such an idiot at the time. I simply wasn’t ready for wholesale; it took me an incredibly long time to make each bag and my cost was too high to be able to give any type of discount. In the beginning I was convinced there was a ‘how to’ handbook that everyone was privy to but me. Nothing was clear and everything looked so darn simple from the outside. As time passed and many mistakes were made, I came to rely on my gut instinct, if it doesn’t feel quite right it most likely isn’t.
What is your process for deciding on inspiration for each collection?
Designing is what I love most. I carry a book that I am constantly sketching new ideas in. Whenever possible I try to spend time reading WWD, magazines, blogs, and other fashion sites. I also do a lot of people watching – I love watching people. It is especially interesting at parties or social events to observe how women interact with their bags; do they toss it in the corner and hope no one steals it, do they tuck it under their arm to keep it close, or is it clear that they planned their entire outfit with that particular bag in mind making sure it is front and center in every picture. Of course I want my bags to look and feel great, but to me it is just as important that women find them to be functional. This is why the Lulu Foldover has a strap and the belt bag is being added to the line. I love creating bags that make a woman feel beautiful while making her life a little easier.
In addition to the design, the sourcing of the leather and hardware play a huge part. I spend a large part of my time sourcing. I may really want to add a particular color to the line, but if I can’t find it in high quality leather that not only looks amazing but feels amazing than I have to hold off on adding it.
I tend to be pretty selective on what trends I incorporate into the line. I want to create bags that are fashion forward and timeless. I may personally love floral or polka dots, but if I can’t see people still loving it a year or more from now then it’s a trend I skip.
What have you found works for you as far as organizing your business and time?
I am someone who has to write everything down, often times in multiple places. I write down what I need to do for the week in my agenda on Sundays. Then every morning I write on a post-it note what needs to be accomplished by the end of that day, and I carry it around with me so I can cross things off. It is a good day when I can go to bed with a completed list, but I am always looking for new ways to be more organized and productive. It is not something that comes easily to me, always a work in progress.
Highlight of your career so far?
Sometimes in the busyness of it all it is easy to overlook personal milestones and accomplishments. There are so many days when I’m dirty and covered in leather scraps, I have shooting pain in my fingers from cutting tassels, and the labor that goes in to the completion of each bag can sometimes distract me from the big picture and why I love what I do. However, the daily strains dissipate when I receive an email from a customer who just purchased her fifth bag and loves how special she feels carrying them, often several at once inside one another. Or the email from a woman who finds herself applying lipstick more often just so she can pull out her Mini Lulu. I also love hearing from the first time customer who saved up for her first bag and felt like a million bucks unwrapping the package. These moments never get old, and are constant highlights.
Ritchey’s dog Monroe, a Bouvier, follows her around while she works, and is always sitting nearby.
Photos by Meg Biram