In our long-running series "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
"My mom always told me to write down all the moments, and I don't do it. I need to."
Brandon Blackwood is reflecting on what's almost been a decade of his namesake brand, which officially launched in 2015 but has been in the works since 2013, when he secured the LLC. Best known for his beloved handbags, the designer's capping off a particularly momentous year, which saw his brand go even more viral, open a new office, dress "Abbot Elementary" star Sheryl Lee Ralph on the night of her first-ever Emmys win and receive its first-ever CFDA Award nomination for American Accessory Designer of the Year. (Blackwood's not even done: Shoes are coming next — and soon.)
His path may not have been conventional, but it's been driven by passion and fueled by community at every step of the way. Ahead, read how Blackwood went from carrying his mom's purses, to getting a degree in neuroscience (and sneakily adding a second major, but having his cover blown at graduation), to building one of the most exciting fashion brands in New York today.
Where does your interest in fashion come from?
I was a neuroscience major in college — literally on a science scholarship — but I always loved fashion. I wanted to go to FIT, but my parents were like, 'You cannot work in fashion.' I listened to them at the time and got my degree, but every summer and winter break, when you should be interning in your interest, I was in the fashion closet at Nylon and Elle, trying to work with any stylist I could, get that fashion experience and feed that part of myself. I would totally lie to my parents — like, 'I got this science internship,' so I'd be gone most of the day, but they didn't know I was at Nylon, doing drop offs and returns.
Bard is a small liberal arts school in the middle of the forest. I would always dress up for all my bio classes and labs. That was my outlet. Everyone else is in Tevas and cut-off shorts, and I'm trying to recreate a look of the moment that was budget-friendly. Professor Donna Grover [told me,] 'You have a lot of American Studies credits. You could make a major, and if you're into fashion, try to do something around that.' I still keep in contact with her. She's like my fair god mom... I didn't tell my family.
During graduation, my understanding was that they just say your name and you walk across the stage — that's it. But Bard reads your major and your thesis out loud, so they were like, 'Brandon Blackwood. Diane Von Furstenberg: Feel Like a Woman, Wear a Dress.' I didn't turn around and look at my family. You're supposed to smile with your degree — there's no photo of that. I walked across the stage and looked at the ground the rest of the ceremony. It was a very quiet ride home.
I told myself, 'I'm gonna do fashion.' And where do you work when you don't have any fashion experience but want to work in fashion? Retail. During that time, I was home bored and I looked at handbag factories, because I was like, 'I'm gonna make myself a backpack.' I had this sample made just for myself — I lied to the factory, like, 'Yeah, I'm gonna start a brand,' just so they would make it — and it came out beautifully. It was the first bag I made. People would stop me on the train, like, 'Hey, where's that from?' It got to a point where I was like, 'Okay, I have to sell this.' I still sell that backpack, the Portmore.
How did you decide what route you wanted to take within the fashion industry?
I wanted to be an editor. I really looked up to all the editors at the magazines. It was hard work, but they were all great, fun and awesome. I said, 'I don't care what I end up doing in fashion — I will never be a designer. It seems so stressful. I couldn't deal with collections. I'd rather be the one commenting on and curating it.'
What did your experience working retail teach you about the industry that you didn't know previously, and what learnings from that do you carry with you as you build your brand now?
I honestly tell everyone: Working those retail jobs, even though it could be pretty shitty at times, changed everything — how I saw brands, businesses, things like that. I was working at Crossroads Trading, and I would end up making friends with a lot of stylists and editors because they would sell stuff. I would know who they were, so I would price it really well for them, so they liked me.
I showed one of them the bag I made, and she was like, 'I'm gonna write something about this.' That was my first article, while I was at Crossroads. It felt life-changing, like, 'Oh my God. I have an article.' The strongest part wasn't even those connections, but seeing people's reactions to something you thought up in your head and them liking it. I don't know if that sounds narcissistic or weird, but I just felt so proud, like, 'Someone complimented me again. Okay, I have to do it.' Especially in New York, no one comes up and talks to you, so someone going out of their way ask you where something's from or compliment something, that's major. That was the biggest confidence-booster for me.
When I started developing the brand, too, I would take pictures of invoices and stuff because I didn't know how to do that. I replicated them with my first stores. I learned so much about wholesale, when it's time to discount something, when you start buying for spring — all of that through retail. That really set me up for success.
What drew you to accessories and handbags, specifically?
I always loved handbags. My mom's nickname for me when I was younger was her 'little purse,' because whenever we went shopping — no kid wants to go shopping with their parents — my number one rule was: I won't complain as long as I hold your purse. So I was like, this little kid carrying her purse.
Tell me a little bit about how you prepared to launch the Brandon Blackwood brand in 2015.
I told all my friends in 2015, 'I'm gonna make this brand.' But I didn't realize how expensive it was. And obviously, no one wants to invest in a kid from Crossroads with a dream. I had to fund it myself.
It was kind of wild — I remember my first order was, like, $6,000, and I think I made $10.40 at Crossroads then, so I literally had to walk from Bed Stuy to Williamsburg, because spending $2-something on the MTA was gonna hit the budget. I saved up for so long. When I got the $6,000, I went to the factory and I was like, 'The collection's going to launch, I'm going to sell out' — then they were like, 'Oh, the shipping fees.' The shipping was $2,000. I was like, 'No!' They sat in the factory for minute until I could save that.
I remember launching with these crazy, exuberant prices, and in my head, I was like, 'This is all gonna sell out.' I didn't get one order. My little brother ordered a wallet. I was like, 'I need to restructure everything.' I made it more affordable — still not a lot of sales, but I was getting a lot of trunk shows. I would take the collection, walk into stores and be like, 'Can I have a trunk show here?' A lot said no, but some said yes. There's a store called Quinn on Orchard Street, and that was my biggest one, with a lot of people coming through and shopping. I was so proud.
When it comes to pricing, the smartest thing to do is make your stuff so that the people who support you and are actively there can afford it. That was the biggest lesson that I learned in the earlier years. You see a lot of designers that are super new charging these prices that compete with bigger, more well-known brands, and I'm like, 'I don't know how you think that's gonna work.' If you know you can get a dress from another brand that's very established, you're probably gonna go with that option.
What have been the biggest milestones for the business, from 2015 to now?
My first Essence article. Then I had another months after in Elle, which showed my bag with like Margiela and Proenza; that was my first time seeing my stuff next to brands like this, and it looked like it belonged.
When I got my first PR person. Drew Hunter took me on. He was the one who really introduced me to a lot of editors. I had a lot of magazine meetings with Drew, so he was a big part in the beginning. Fast-forward to Amandla Stenberg and Lupita Nyong'o [carrying my bags]; Lupita was the first public moment, leaving LAX with a backpack.
I had just quit my job to do the brand full-time, then a year later, Covid happened. That put a halt on everything. I wasn't inspired at that time — no one was doing anything, and no one needed a bag. With the Black Lives Matter movement and George Floyd, I remember telling my boyfriend, the stylist Roberto Johnson, 'I'm gonna make a bag. I need to make something.' That was the ESR [End Systemic Racism] tote.
We donated [proceeds] to Black Girls Code, the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Door, Stop AAPI Hate, a lot of things helping POC youth — anything we could do to do something with the bag.
[Later on] maybe three glasses of wine in, and I was like, 'I'm gonna DM Kim Kardashian and see if she'll post this.' And [Johnson] was like, 'Okay, go for it.' He's very supportive, but I'm sure in his head he was like, 'Yeah, okay.' I went to bed, and I woke up the next day and looked; it said, 'Kim Kardashian wrote you.' She had responded 10 minutes after I'd sent it, but I'd fallen asleep. I was like, 'Oh my God, she's never gonna do this.' But sure enough, she was like, 'Send it over.' She posted about the ESR tote, and then it went really crazy. It was interesting because I had reached out to a lot of celebs that had already worn my bags, and no one wanted to touch the ESR tote, because it's like, kind of controversial. I don't think it's that controversial... [Kardashian] without second guessing was like, 'Cool.'
When it was blowing up, we had like, 100,000 followers. I was like, 'I need to be able to show the stuff that we actually make.' So we ordered a bunch of trunks and we sold out. That's when we just kept doing collection, collection, collection.
Thinking about the growth of your offering — in addition to bags, you do outerwear and sunglasses, and soon you're introducing shoes — what do you think are the design tenets of Brandon Blackwood? What are the threads that tie all these different parts of the collection together?
I don't do huge mood boards or have a theme for the season. Sometimes I draw up collections and there will be two very different-looking things. I always make things that I like and personally want to see, and I always listen to the customer. They want a Kendrick Trunk in yellow — yellow's not my favorite color, but we'll find a middle ground, and it sells out.
The brand has now become my baby with a lot of godparents. You see that throughout — through the tagged posts, through who's buying our stuff, through everything. The fact that I have celebrities DMing about a $250 bag because they want it is a big deal. We've built a little community around the brand, and that's the really beautiful thing.
The brand survives and thrives off of authenticity. We do the fancier photo shoots, but I'll also be in my kitchen and do a whole video — 'This is what's available. This one's not selling too well, y'all, what's going on?' You just have to be real about it. I do all my Instagram; all the captions, it's like my language. Sometimes, when I'm really emotional, I'll make an Insta like, 'I love y'all. I can't believe how you love the brand so much.' We're talking to each other. They're talking to me, I'm talking to them, and it's real and I love that. I feel like some brands almost position themselves where they're too cool for their customers — it'll be a one-line caption and that's it. My page, it's like, 'It's time to overshare!'
I post swatches before bags are made — brands do not do that. I do because I'm like, 'What shade of pink is better? What color denim? I can't decide.' I'm a Libra, which doesn't help. I'll do polls and stuff. It works. There are definitely colorways or patterns that customers have suggested, and they've been like, 'Oh, y'all really listened.' I'm not asking for no reason.
Speaking of your community... You dressed Sheryl Lee Ralph for the 2022 Emmys, and she was the winner of the night. How did that come together?
The brand is doing really well in Tokyo, which is great, so I was doing a show and talking to retailers there. It was supposed to be a week — it turned out to be two. Roberto calls me at like 3:00 a.m. Tokyo time, and I'm like, 'What's going on? Who's dead, because why are you calling this late?' He had styled Sheryl for a photo shoot, and they got along — he goes: 'Sheryl asked me to style her for the Emmys.'
He called me about bags. At this point, it's seven days until the Emmys. It's Sheryl, so you can definitely find a brand to do something custom — but we have to match it, we have to accessorize, we have to do shoes. I was doing the outerwear at the time, and she had worn a piece in an editorial. I don't know why, but I was like: 'I'll make the dress. We have the team. Everybody in my office loves you, so they're gonna go overboard if we have to.' He was like, 'Okay, but this is your first gown, and this is my first carpet — we can't eff this up.'
I made two dresses, because I'm always prepared — two completely different dresses. At first, Sheryl was like, 'I want a loud color. I want something bright, something vibrant. Absolutely no black.' That was her one rule.
My VP's uncle — I call him Uncle Ronnie — is part of CD Greene. I was calling him every step of the way, like, 'What is important in a gown?' He was walking me through it while we're FaceTime-ing everybody making this dress possible. He's the one who told me, 'Drape across the hip. It's going to be so elegant.'
I flew straight from Japan to L.A., and I hadn't seen the dresses yet in person. Ece from my design team came the next day, when the fitting was. Sheryl walked in the room, and she's like a goddess. She has this confidence and this voice — I was like, 'Wow, you're everything I've always wanted to be. But also, I'm so terrified.' That's when I felt like, 'Oh, this is for real. You're about to step in this dress, and if this doesn't work, I'm toast.' She FaceTimed her daughter, and that made it even scarier; her daughter normally styles her, and she liked the brand, so I was like, 'I don't wanna let anyone down.'
We try on the first dress, which was orange, and Sheryl liked it. Then I told her, 'Don't hate me, but I made one more dress, just for you to try on. We'll see if you like it. If you don't, I won't cry about it.' She's like, 'Well, let's do it.' Roberto had yelled at me the day before, because I didn't tell him that I made the second dress until I got to L.A., because he was already stressed... He was like, 'She specifically said no black. Why would you do this? You have to run this by me. Blah, blah, blah.' I was like, 'Eh, whatever. Who listens to men in 2022?' It was a surprise for everyone.
She came out in it, and her daughter screamed, like, 'That's the one.' We were all in agreement. It barely needed any tweaking at all. Right when she stepped in front of the mirror, the orange dress was a memory of the past. We got champagne, we toasted, and she told me her life motto, which is: 'It always works out in the end.' That's what we cheers'ed to. The next time I saw it was on the carpet.
And then on the Emmy's stage.
I posted on Twitter and Instagram live, as I'm getting all these images and being tagged. I was like, 'Emmy nominee, blah, blah, blah.' I put my phone down because I was at dinner for Essence, so I couldn't even watch the Emmys live.
All of a sudden, my phone looked like a freaking firework, with people like, 'Correction: Emmy winner.' I'm like, 'No way.' We have a group chat for my team, and all you see is, 'She won! She won!' I left the dinner. Damn, I should've apologized, but I went straight in an Uber home, fell on the floor and started crying.
Roberto was out on another job, so I couldn't even be with him. I just remember going home — because I couldn't be at that dinner and pay attention anymore — opening my door and bawling my eyes out. I DM'd her daughter right away, like, 'Give her the biggest hug. Tell her I love her.' We were sending voice texts back and forth, crying.
You've spoken about the importance of having people and peers that you can lean on for support. How has mentorship and having mentors shaped you into the designer and business person you are today?
I had people like my mom, who used to have a café and contracting business, so I would ask her stuff. I would ask my Aunt Camille and my Aunt Karen for my non-profit stuff. I have other designers in my life, Raul Lopez of Luar, who would give me gems and things to look out for.
I see a lot of young handbag designers coming out, and whenever I see, especially, a new Black handbag designer, I always DM them and say, 'Hey, what's up? If you ever want to go to lunch, if you ever wanna talk about anything, I'm here.' Because I know how that felt when people would reach out to me. Anima Iris, for instance — we met once, but we would talk all the time, like, 'Hey, I'm thinking about doing this. Do you think this is a good idea?' Whatever she needs, I'm always there for her. I always try to make a mission now, like, 'All of us have to be friends! Let's all get to know each other.' That's the coolest part.
You're culminating what has already been an incredible year with your first CFDA Award nomination. Where were you when you heard the news?
I was walking into the Theophilio show. I love Edvin [Thompson, designer of Theophilio.] He's just the greatest. I see CaSandra [Diggs, President of the CFDA] and Steven Kolb [CFDA's CEO], and they're like, 'Oh, congratulations!' I thought they were talking about Sheryl, so I'm like, 'Thank you so much.' All my team members are calling me, and I'm like, 'I'll call you after.' I didn't want to be rude on the phone walking into Edvin's show. This was about Edvin. I'm getting texts, like, 'Check your email. Check your email.' I thought a shipment was late or something.
I sit down, check my e-mail and it was the CFDA Award nominee notification. The show's about to start, so I can't go anywhere, and I'm like, 'Oh shit. Oh shit. Oh shit.' Roberto was at the show, but he was with the publication he's with, so I can't even turn to him. I look up at Steven, who's sitting across from me, and I point to my phone. He's like, 'Yeah! You didn't know?'
What does this nomination mean to you and your team?
The whole team cried. When we all got together, we all were freaking out. I had applied to the CFDA before and gotten rejected, and I get it — it is what it is — and I've always said, 'Whatever happens, happens.' Getting this was crazy to me, because it really just showed that — and it sounds so corny to say — you can't give up. I felt overlooked at times, because a lot of people are like, 'You're a Black designer, talk about that experience and only that experience.' Or they'll just talk about you and other Black designers, no one else. I was like, 'Am I being pigeon-holed into this thing?' I have the content. I have the designs. I have everything there. I know I have customers. I know the brand can survive. This nomination, win or lose, made me finally feel that people see me and the brand.
What's making you excited in fashion right now?
Fashion is about disrupting the norm. A lot of the younger brands are really doing things their way. They're really not too concerned about what anyone else may think. American fashion, especially, has had kind of a dull moment, but I think everyone, especially 2020, was like, 'Oh, we can go back outside? Crystals, cut-outs, ruched everything.' It's the most powerful moment we've had in a really long time.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Please note: Occasionally, we use affiliate links on our site. This in no way affects our editorial decision-making.