“Say thank you to everyone who takes the time to speak with you.” It’s the most underrated point but I make my students write thank you notes to every guest speaker we have in class as a reminder that those are the people who are remembered and have access to a follow up email, call, meeting since you took the time to appreciate that someone else took the time out of their day to talk to you. It’s a little that goes a long way. (I take points off grades if it doesn’t happen too…)
I had the pleasure to interview author Emily Blumenthal. Known as the “Handbag Fairy Godmother,” creator of the Independent Handbag Designer Awards, Emily is a handbag and small business expert, and author of Handbag Designer 101: Everything You Need to Know About Designing, Making, and Marketing Handbags . She, as well as the The Handbag Awards, have been featured on CBS The Early Show and NBC’s The Today Show, as well as InStyle magazine, the BBC, and the New York Times. Emily has worked closely with the likes of QVC, Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s and is responsible for discovering countless handbag designers from across the globe. Emily has been teaching at the university level for over 15 years and is currently a Professor of Entrepreneurship at the Fashion Institute of Technology. She has a nationwide handbag craft program in the works, a fiction book for kids about entrepreneurship, recently launched a tween brand called “The Charmsters” and is working on a handbag designer competition show with a major network. For more information about Emily, you can visit her website at http://www.thehandbagawards.com. Social; @HandbagDesigner
Thank you so much for doing this with us Emily! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I fell into designing handbags right when I started business school. Being “garmento” offspring, it was strongly recommended that I stay out anything remotely relating to fashion (especially when you grow up hearing about markup on labels…) However, when I was in my 20s and determined to push forward with my idea on a handbag which I bootstrapped, patented, sold into every major department store, went cross country selling it to boutiques and licensed it out. It’s funny because for all of the handbag consulting I have done since then, I would have told myself it wasn’t a good idea either. However, this turn of events lead me into adjunct teaching at LIM College, Parsons The New School for Design and most recently, FIT. I wrote a book called Handbag Designer 101, which has sold about 50,000 copies, which was translated into a few languages, and while I was waiting for this book to be picked up by a publisher, I came up with the idea for The Handbag Awards. Because of my media background, I knew how to create sponsorship packages that would beneficial to brands and I knew first-hand that there is never a shortage of handbag designers waiting to be discovered. This is now our thirteenth year, my daughter (now almost twelve) works the event, I am known as the “Handbag Fairy Godmother” and so many lives have been impacted as well as well as the handbag industry because of this event. The Independent Handbag Designer Awards was created to celebrate handbag design and creativity from the United States and around the world. Now in its thirteenth year, it is an industry staple and is the only international design competition to discover, recognize and create brand awareness for independent handbag designers. At this point in time, it is a valuable platform for not only handbag designers but also for handbags in terms of newness and innovation. The market is so oversaturated so we bring something that is missing and needed.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I can reflect on insane moments of hustle that helped me get into the New York Times, twice. However, the first was when my handbag was on Sex & The City in 2003 (the episode where Carrie goes to the Black and White Ball and breaks up with Aidan the second time…) The second was this past September in 2018. The thing that most people don’t realize when it comes to press or media coverage that you might evolve, your brand might grow but your perceived narrative may not. I have been known as “Handbag Emily” for so many years now that I sent at least ten different pitch angels every year after that. The ironic point is that the first story I cold called Ruth La Ferla and said I would do whatever she wanted to get this story and even give her my first born (obviously I didn’t have kids then and she told me she had her own, no thank you.) The second was when I pitched The Handbag Awards to Jason Feifer of Entrepreneur Magazine. He responded and said his wife, Jennifer Miller, was a freelance writer for the New York Times and this might be more interesting for her to cover. The rest is print history.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
There are so many. When you start a business, you don’t realize how fearless you are until you look back. In order to secure partnerships, you have to cold-call people and with that comes some serious armor of people telling you they aren’t interested or call back next year or “we’d like to attend and see what it’s about before we invest” — which is all fine but anyone who is working on a time sensitive event, you just can’t wait a year. Many years ago though I was trying to get in touch with Sam Edelman and my friend and publicist was with me. I said I was tired of leaving messages with other people so finally I rang and asked to have him paged. She still teases me to till this day because he picked up and asked “why is this so important because I see you have called ‘a few’ times.”
What do you think makes this event stand out? Can you share a story?
We have a very unique process that is very hands-on which definitely differentiates us from what else is out there in terms of talent discovery or even awards or competitions. We have an Influencer Preliminary Judging Panel that goes through each and every applicants. They loon though the hundreds of new designers from all over and narrow it down to five per category. Our judges are gracious and excited and come on their own volition because they are supporters of the IHDA and they themselves want to find the next it bag as well. The next day, I call these designers with our “Handbag Idol” moment telling the designers they are finalists and coming to New York, it’s at a minimum 40 phone calls of tears, screams and even finding a family member who can speak in English so that in itself is emotional (for me!) Our Esteemed Judging Panel comes and votes after that where we actually see the bags and watch the judges from our brands and our Iconoclast Recipient, seeing, feeling and touching the bags for the first time. It’s so important because now we have buyers, marketers, and the media as an integral part of the final selection process. And then of course — the night of watching the designers in action seeing them accept their prize on stage. I cry with them because we show their video that they submitted as a Finalist literally as they are walking up to accept their plaque so it’s a moment for the 400 plus people in the audience who don’t know this person, are now weeping uncontrollably with them. We actually organize a cocktail party meet-and-greet for them the night before the Awards. There are at least 40 Finalists every year and it’s their chance to meet each other and develop their own community and for so many it’s their first major trip out of their city, state, or even country — this way they go to the Awards the next day with friends that become something even more special because they shared one magical night together that will forever change their lives, winning or not. Every year it’s the same process but it’s the same emotion but it still hits me hard.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Be kind and find what your team members want to do so they will be as passionate about what they are doing as you are. Much like anything, you have to lead by example. I have the same people coming back year after year to work our event purely because they appreciate the experience and they know what they are doing makes a difference.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
As a working mom of three, it’s impossible to do anything without the support of those around you. My daughter for the past four years has worked the IHDA from the Prelim Panel through the actual Awards. My husband and older son come. My parents and sister come. It’s kind of like every year I get to thank them on stage for allowing me to do what I do since it isn’t easy for anyone especially during our “Awards’ season.” I strongly recommend creating something where you can give shout outs like this to remind them of how much they have given you and how far you have gone with it.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
At this point, I am known as the “Handbag Fairy Godmother” which I think is pretty cool. I can look at a bag and see what works and what doesn’t because I have been through the process so many times. I think having been through this step by step in the trenches allows me to have a different perspective and 13 years later with the Handbag Awards — it’s that experience that allows me to know which designer is in it for the right reasons and will be a real success and who won’t. The fact that we are able to discover these talented designers at any level in their career who are making a difference is just so important. It’s so on point now with what’s going on in the industry that I am thrilled that is a part of what’s coming. That’s what makes the IHDA unique is that there is no pay-for-play and the talent we find literally could not be found anywhere else. There is a philanthropic element of what we do with the IHDA from giving these priceless opportunities to these designers to having them create product that helps keep a local community feed their families. It’s needed and we are doing it.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
“Passion sells only if you have a viable tested product behind it.”
I am constantly promoting, selling and talking about an awards show for handbags and the designers that make them. To some brands that have nothing to do with handbags, I have to be able to explain that there is ROI in this event for the coverage, the impact and that they will have a kick-ass out-of-the-box sticky promotional opportunity as a result of being part of it.
“Yes, people do really still want to buy handbags.”
I hear all the time that sales are down, retail is down, handbags are down but guess what — people are still very much shopping but just differently. We supply something with newness and innovation that hits both B2B and B2C and once this is realized, then it makes sense.
“People always root for the underdog because now it will bring followers.”
Show something that hasn’t been done or seen that can be used to turnkey into social posts, then you have a way to utilize your unknown brand or product into “brands with fans.”
“Avoid those who go from basement to Beyonce too fast.”
We have come across many designers who win and then think they are creating a Van Gogh and cannot be reasoned with or they are they are doing something that has never been done. In the handbag business, brands come and go in a blink and if that ego gets in the way, then you need to realize this person probably will get in their own way first, and then you next.
“Say ‘thank you to everyone who takes the time to speak with you.”
It’s the most underrated point but I make my students write thank you notes to every guest speaker we have in class as a reminder that those are the people who are remembered and have access to a follow up email, call, meeting since you took the time to appreciate that someone else took the time out of their day to talk to you. It’s a little that goes a long way. (I take points off grades if it doesn’t happen too…)
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I think 13 years into the Handbag Awards and having worked personally with almost 500 designers, I think we are well into that already. People tend to forget that independent designers eare where the hunger and hustle are. Once you had talent into the mix, then you have a recipe for success, especially with a piece of the handbag market that every second person can’t live without.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Hustle forward.” because if something doesn’t work, reflect, pivot and move on.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Reese Witherspoon. There are few people who can start a media property, a fashion brand and just be awesome and still being a mom of an older daughter, an older son and a little boy. I can relate. And also Pink because she sees girl empowerment as a platform which I love and I know she is going to be investing in something soon and I hope I am a part of it.