House of Minkoff: An Interview with Designer Rebecca Minkoff
In many ways, Rebecca Minkoff is what you’d expect from a young, successful handbag designer—edgy, smart, and savvy. But she is also something less expected—accessible. She’s created a brand identity around that personality trait and it has proven to be a key element to her success in a market crowded with more-established brands.
Minkoff, 32, began her label with an apparel line in 2001, but the business didn’t really take off until 2005, when two very important things happened: 1) Her brother Uri Minkoff joined the company as CEO, and 2) Minkoff designed a leather satchel called the “Morning After Bag.” The popularity of Minkoff’s handbags eclipsed any previous success she had with her apparel line. The spark for its creation reflected Minkoff’s down-to-earth style. “I envisioned a bag that you’d want to take with you on late nights out when you weren’t sure where you’d wind up or when you’d come home the next morning,” she told Entrepreneur magazine.
During the recession, when most luxury brands kept their prices—and noses—held high, Minkoff’s company discounted their bags by about $100 an item. It was a big risk to take with a brand’s reputation, but the move worked. Luxury buyers still flocked to the product, and her handbags were now accessible to a whole other market of women. The business grew 546% in the three years between 2007 and 2010, and 86% in 2011 over 2010. According to reports in The Business of Fashion, Minkoff’s overall revenue projections for 2013 are $70 million, up from $52 million in 2012.
Rebecca Minkoff is one of the rare brands that doesn’t treat social media like a billboard. Staying accessible, Minkoff and her brother personally participate in blogs and forum discussions. Active on both Twitter and Instagram, Minkoff uses the media to interact directly with customers and style bloggers. Minnkoff’s blog, Minkette, is rich with photos, video and text on anything from play lists, to travel tips, to her latest dinner party. Minkette goes beyond pushing purses to engage her fellow “downtown romantics” in all aspects of their lifestyle.
The next frontier for the brand is opening more retail locations. There is currently a permanent Rebecca Minkoff “shop in shop” in Los Angeles and two freestanding stores in Japan. The first flag ship store will open in Soho later this year.
Recently, NYER executive editor Daria Meoli sat down with the wife of Gavin Bellour and mom of a one-year-old son to discuss her rookie mistakes, why balance is bull, and how an accessible brand strategy has been key to her success.
Daria Meoli: Why was it important for you to start your own line?
Rebecca Minkoff: I had worked for a designer for three years and I knew how hard she worked. If I was going to work that hard, I wanted it to be for me.
DM: You started your own line at 21. Did you know what you were doing?
RM: I used to do everything. I used to set up the trade shows, do the sales, collect the bills, design the bags, buy the leather, get them manufactured—everything. I was lucky. When I started out working for another designer and she had me work under everyone in the company. Of course, there were some things I was just thrown into when I went out on my own.
When I went to my first trade show and I had to make a booth. How the hell do you make a booth? I was resourceful and figured it out.
DM: What have you learned about transitioning from a one-woman company to being at the helm of 65 employees?
RM: I’ve learned a couple of things. First, thank God I had to do everything myself in the beginning, because while I can’t do every single role here today, I know what each entails. For example, I’m not going to program the website but, having done almost all the nitty gritty, I can feel very comfortable advising in that area.
Second, I think that I’ve learned to let go a little bit and know it’s not always going to be perfect but it will be all right. The world won’t end if all my samples don’t come back from the trade show because they weren’t packed. If someone stole something off the trade show cart or if someone doesn’t return something to the PR closet, it’s fine. They’re enjoying a bag, I guess. I used to get so anxious about all those little things.
DM: Your brother Uri is your CEO. What are the pros and cons of working with family?
RM: I think the pro is that I never question if he is as dedicated as I am. In our relationship, it goes without saying that we’re both working as hard as we possibly can in each of our areas of expertise. You can go to sleep at night and know that someone has your back.
I would say the only con is that we happen to be brother and sister, so we fight like brothers and sisters do. Office politics go right out the window when it’s your brother.
DM: What mistakes did you make early on that impacted the way you do business
RM: The factory that makes our bags also makes Kate Spade bags. Early on, they mixed up the hardware and shipped Rebecca Minkoff bags with Kate Spade hardware to customers. The blogs started calling me “Kebecca Spankoff.” I remember crying in my office on the phone with the factory, “Now they have a name for me!”
Our quality control process was not necessarily defined, because it was our first time working overseas. And the people in the factory didn’t know the difference. For them, it was like, “Oh, here are some rivets, let’s put them on the bags.” After that incident, we realized that we needed a quality control division.
The Reason for Retail
DM: Last year was the first time since launching Rebecca Minkoff that you took on an outside investor. Why?
RM: We wanted to be able to expand our retail footprint and really start aggressively making that a priority here in the States. Those funds are allowing us to do that.
DM: You opened a retail store in Tokyo. What opportunity did you see there for your brand?
RM: Japan was the first international country to embrace the brand. In 2005, the retailer who carried my first bag was interviewed in a Japanese magazine, and she named me as her favorite bag designer. Right away, orders from incredible Japanese stores started coming in. And so, when a distribution company came to us with the opportunity to partner, we decided it would be a great thing to launch there. We felt it was the right thing to do, because from day one, before we were selling in many of the stores in the US, the Japanese market had already said, “Okay, there’s something to this brand.”
DM: Why not just stick to wholesale? Why take on the challenge of dealing with retail?
RM: Retail is our goal, eventually. In Asia, they’re just ahead of the curve. We already have a partnership in the works in Korea. If we had found a space in New York City sooner, we would have opened a store here first. But, real estate here is insane. We were waiting for the right space on the right block to open up. We’ve been waiting for two years for the areas that we want to be in.
Growth During the Recession
DM: The recession was especially rough on luxury goods, but your company remained profitable. How did you weather that downturn?
RM: During the recession, we actually grew. We took down our prices by about 25 percent, which works out to about a hundred dollars at retail, but we didn’t change anything in the bag that you would ever notice. I didn’t change the leather or anything like that. We took a margin hit and we worked with our supply chain to lower costs.
I think that the customer appreciated the fact that we were taking the haircut at retail. None of our competitors did, and they aren’t really around anymore. Now we’re competing with people on the New York Stock Exchange. Or at least we’re competing with them in our minds.
I also think we were able to weather the recession by staying in touch with our very dedicated customers. I’ve been in touch directly with the customer since we started the line. When one of the first purse blogs launched, I was basically the first designers to write for them and say, “Hey, I’m here. I want to know what you’re thinking and feeling.” I’d hear things back from customers like, “I need a longer strap for winter season because I’m wearing a coat.” And we’d respond. For a designer to get down from her tower and to get out there to talk to her customer was a big deal. Now it’s more prevalent, but in 2005 you didn’t see that happening very much. I feel like the customer valued that relationship. We would listen to her, and she knew that.
DM: You have been active on several blogs and your brand is very active on social media. Is accessibility part of your brand strategy or part of your personality?
RM: I think it’s part of my personality. I feel like I’m down to earth. I meet some people who I’m shocked have such a huge ego. But I think we also saw that our customer really appreciated that. We’ve made [social media] one of the most important things that we do. I think, as a designer in today’s landscape, you have to have a media machine as part of your company. You have to be generating content that’s not just your design aesthetic. What are you Instagramming? What are you tweeting? What videos are you making? What contests are you doing? What’s on your blog? Thank God we have a great team, so I don’t have to necessarily worry about all those little details. I don’t know how new designers starting out contend with that.
Minkoff’s Other Jobs
DM: So, work/life balance; is that fact or fiction?
RM: It is totally fiction. Unless you decide that you don’t want to raise your kid or you have the type of company where you can come in and leave when you want. I don’t have either one, or don’t want either one.
DM: What gets sacrificed?
RM: Sleep and anything that you think you do for yourself.
DM: In what order would you put these titles: designer, entrepreneur, wife, mom?
RM: I’m going to put them all in one line with slashes.