In my interview with Spire's Cory Barnes lately, I learned of his wife's new line of women's bags, bearing her own name, Lexie Barnes. Drawing from her own experience as the mother of three young sons, she has a line of diaper bags and minis that come in a variety of stylish patterns while all being waterproof, easy to clean, and durable. Lexie also has a line of knitting bags that has created quite a bit of media buzz, because of their pretty patterns, protective padding, reinforced pockets and convenient shoulder straps.
I had a chance to talk to Lexie in person when I visited Cory in East Hampton, MA. In this interview she shares with us her story of starting a new line of women's bag, with an entirely different approach as they did with Spire's laptop bags, and also her experience in working with her husband day in and day out for ten years.
I. "I was pregnant for the third time..."
Hear, Hear: When, and how did you create the Lexie Barnes line of women's bags?
Lexie Barnes: We launched our line last summer, but it was the year before that we started working on it, when I was pregnant for the third time. It became clear to me then that I wasn't going to go back to my field [laughs]. I have a background in theatre and film, I started acting when I was a kid and later did production work for film and theatre in Chicago, then in LA, NY for a while. And when we moved here (East Hampton, MA), I started a theatre company. We did a few shows, and I got pregnant again and said this is just crazy. I wanted to be able to be with my family, and I've been working with Cory since 1998, on Spire, and it seemed like a natural transition.
HH: Did you give a lot of thought to this line before?
LB: Oh definitely, we had talked for years about doing women's bags. I've always said, "oh this backpack would be great, but it doesn't fit women that well". I wanted to improve this for women and change this, but he (Cory) would say "that's not what Spire is about, we'll talk about it later...", you know, husband and wife kind of thing. Eventually I said, I want to have my line. The laptop bags were secondary at first, I just wanted to make women's bags for different types of use. I thought about making diaper bags, and then somebody came up with the idea of knitting bags. I sent out emails to all my women friends and asked them, what are your favorite bags? What do you like and what do you not like about them? I did a lot of research that way.
I wanted to make bags for women that suited different needs. In terms of the look and feel of them, there's sort of this funky middle range of women that have not been addressed yet. The women who don't buy Kate Spade or Vera Bradley, and who don't want to buy bags from Old Navy. So there needs to be something in the middle that's funky and cool, that's affordable and stylish... Such as my latest skull pattern. Every time I take it somewhere, people ask me if I make belts or wallets.
HH: Yeah, I thought this would be perfect for snowboard gear...
LB: It's funny you say that... we just did a children's show, with the diaper bags. And the people in the booth next to us were Hurley, they make surf wear for kids, and she told us that, you guys need to do the ASR show, which is the action sports retailer show. The irony of that is when we last did the knitting show, we were in San Diego, and the show was running the same time as the ASR. There were all these ladies in the knitting world, with needle point and all that, and we were over there, my interns were there, you know, we're young and hip for that kind of thing, and the surf and skate show was right next to us, and there were all these cute boys and girls in bikinis everywhere, and we were thinking, we want to be in that show! [laughs] But that's something we definitely think is interesting, that look and feel. We have some fabric coming up that is surf and skate inspired...
II. Selling in physical stores versus online
HH: With Cory's experience, and now your own line... did you guys do anything different to launch the product?
LB: Oh totally. Cory, until recently, has sold exclusively online, and I sell mine in stores. So we're very different. It's been interesting for both of us to see that very little of my sale is through the website. Part of it is that I do trade shows, so boutiques, stores and department stores can see my bags.
HH: So let's say if I were to start a product, which way would you recommend? To sell entirely online or through stores?
LB: I think the major factor is price, depends on how much it takes to manufacture them, and if you can afford to sell them wholesale price.
Cory Barnes: I would say most people should sell through stores.
LB: Not that they shouldn't sell online as well, but if you get them in stores, people can see them, touch them, they can get to know them, bump into them more often.
HH: Seems that you lose a lot of money by selling to stores...
CB: But then you don't worry about the expenses of customer service, shipping, and everything else. A lot of companies don't want to deal with interacting with each and every customer, or shipping the boxes out one by one. They would rather just go through a volume order.
HH: But if you were to go through stores, you need to do trade shows, which can be very expensive.
LB: Extremely. You can drop ten grand for a simple show. Cory's stuff is different, it's laptop bags. Mine is all over the place, it's broader, so instead of one generic show, such as the gift show, we find that it's better to target the market directly, such as a knitting show or a baby show. I would say that for someone who's starting a business, make sure you can afford it.
When I started the line, I knew I wanted to go through stores. And I got lucky. We were ready to launch them, we had a few bags in stock, and the website was almost ready. I was hoping that there was a knitting show, so I could take the knitting bags somewhere, and sure enough, two weeks later, I got in at the last minute. I got in at the right time, and a year later, we did a double booth and a larger presence.
III. "Knitting is so big that it might not be big anymore."
HH: Knitting has its own show?
LB: Knitting is huge. Knitting is so big that it might not be big anymore. Knitting is massive.
CB: you wouldn't believe how big it is. It's crazy.
LB: We do better at the knitting show than at any other show. We did huge.
HH: I would think that baby is a bigger field.
LB: Yeah, but there's a lot more competition. Everybody buys a diaper bag. And everybody makes one. From Walmart to Vuitton. But for knitting, it's a recent phenomenon - not that's it's hip - it's been hip for awhile, but that it's become so hip that everyone wants it, and you can buy bags specifically for it. When we did the first show there were four knitting bag companies, and in the last show there were a lot more.
We find that very early with my stuff, in the beginning, I had different categories of bags, and each one was going to be made of a different material - vinyl, corduroy, ballistic. And what I found is that the material could be ripped off very easily. Even within the first year I was ripped off. So that's something to anyone starting a business, to make sure it's original and can stay original. What we did was that we think the prints (fabric designs) did very well. We found fabric initially and used it, but things got knocked off so much, like people would make things that match my diaper bags, they would find where I got the fabric and make accessories and sell them. So we started doing exclusive designs. Now we find or commission the designs, do a run of bags, retire the fabric, and get a new one. So it's all limited edition, and when they're sold out, they're sold out.
IV. "We've been together, mostly 24/7, for ten years."
HH: How long have you guys been working together?
LB: We've been together for 10 years now, and how many days have we been apart? (CB: you mean full days?) Full days. (CB: Couple of weeks.) Couple of weeks, and that's all been in the past year. We've been together, mostly 24/7, for ten years.
HH: You don't get sick of each other?
LB: Not yet (both laugh). It's not for everyone... I wouldn't recommend it for everyone.
CB: The main problem is, you bring work home all the time. That can be difficult sometimes.
LB: That's the funny thing now. Because five years ago, he's constantly bringing work home. It'd be Christmas Eve and he's tweaking the website. "Would you put that away, dear?" But now my company is growing, and I'm the one who can't stop thinking about it. That's hard, to separate work from... you know, you go out to dinner and you can't stop talking about that damn handle on the bag.
HH: So how do you do it? Or how do you not do it, to stop thinking about work?
LB: I take a day off.
CB: I go and spend time with my kids, play with my kids. We've tried to have kids here, in the office, in the past, but it doesn't work out (LB: As you can see now). Because you can't concentrate on you work, and you can't pay attention to them. You can't do both at the same time. And it's not fair to them, to be in an environment where you're near them but they can't receive any attention from you.
LB: And they need the attention. Some kids can busy themselves, but as a mom, it's really difficult to have the kids here at work. Even if you're not playing with them, interacting with them, you feel guilty. If you're with them, you should be with them.
CB: Lexie and I get along pretty well... we're used to each others personality, or personalities.
LB: He knows what I'm thinking before I say it... so I don't have to say much. I mean, I talk non-stop, but I don't have to say it to him.
HH: Thanks so much for your time, Lexie!