There's nothing like a good bag. You change your outfit at least once a day, and your shoes almost as often. But a handbag needs to be a workhorse; otherwise it feels like a waste of money.
Former Marc Jacobs accessories designer Meredith German understands the value of a good bag. That's why she launched Meredith Wendell in 2008 with husband/business partner Wendell "Ross" German. I've long admired German's graphic, sporty take on this oh-so-necessary accessory, so it was fun to talk to her last week about how she's making it work in such a crowded category.
Fashionista: Tell me a little about how Meredith Wendell came to be. Meredith German: My first job in New York was working in the windows at Saks Fifth Avenue, a great first fashion job. After that, I did an internship at Marc Jacobs. I worked there in accessories and shoe design for five and a half years.
Having my own collection was something that I had always wanted to do. I grew up with my grandparents--they were always very supportive and encouraging. My grandpa would always say, “When are you gonna start your own line?” When he passed away, I thought, “When am I gonna start my own line?”
Ross, who is the Wendell in Meredith Wendell, is a graphic designer. So we took the leap together. I guess it was kind of a 'life’s too short' sort of thing. We started five years ago this May.
How did you come up with the money to launch? Did you seek outside investors? Oh no, it was super small. We’ve always been pretty small and running as lean as possible. We started working out of my apartment, then we found a little studio, worked as small as we could, basing things off of some savings. We’ve always tried to do things very minimally. And we also have always had outside freelance jobs, too.
How hard it is to have your own brand--designing four collections a year--and also consult on other lines? I find it helpful to still work with other designers. If I sat here all day long in our studio... My husband and I work together. It's good to not be together exactly 100% of the time.
You received a ton of press attention as soon as you launched. I'm sure being a Marc Jacobs alum helped, but it was still impressive. How did you pull that off? At the very beginning we had an acquaintance working with us; he had worked in press and marketing in the past. You just put all of your lists together of whom you want to contact. I think anyone who was starting in the middle of the recession... we also got a lot of initial feedback because of that. There just weren’t that many brands launching.
With good reason, I guess. Right, exactly. Who in the world would start right then? But I'm really glad that we started when we started. It's been a blessing. We heard of people who had huge orders the season before, and then everything just crashed. It's taken off slowly, giving us some time to work into it. Coming from a big company, you have big ideas of how much you sample, how much you do this, how much you do that. We made some mistakes, and realized, oh no, we can't do that. We don't have the resources, money, or name to get everything made the way we want to.
How hard was finding good suppliers? That’s been our biggest struggle. At the very beginning, I wanted to work with glass, and we worked with the oldest American glass company--they had 22,000 different color combinations. But it's glass, it's not always so consistent. It was really difficult to use. Finding the correct people, the correct manufacturing, is a very lengthy process. We try to produce things in the U.S., but it's difficult. We produce all of our belts in Italy, and we're making things in China as well. And we've done some things in Peru. We really love our factory in Asia. We still use all-Italian leather, but the quality at this factory is crazy-better than what we were finding in Italy at prices we could actually afford.
Bags, shoes, everything luxury really, has gotten so expensive over the past few years. How do you keep your prices fairly reasonable? At the very beginning, when we were manufacturing things in Italy, that was crazy. The bags were over $1,000 at that point. I don't know how anybody makes anything in Italy for under $2,000 a bag. But I wanted the bags to be at a lower price point. For what I wanted in my life, the bags I carry--I spend more money on shoes. I'd actually like to get the price down a little bit lower than it is now.
Would you ever add shoes to the collection? I’d love to do shoes. It would be cool to do sunglasses. All of those categories have always been interesting to me. When you’re born with a bit of ADD as I was, you can focus on a bunch of different categories at once.
Now that you've been around for a while, would you ever consider raising some money to expand? Oh yeah, sure, I think so. There's only enough hours in the day for us to reach to the amount of stores we need to reach. At department stores, you’re up against really great brands. How do you manage when it’s the three of us and then there's Tory Burch, who's doing product knowledge seminars at Bloomingdale's? We're really excited because we just started working with a new showroom in Japan. The right partner in Japan is really important.
Shop German's latest collections at MeredithWendell.com.