How I Did It! Sondra Roberts

Glenn (left) and Robert Camche

Glenn (left) and Robert Camche

From department to specialty stores, shoe stores, bridal shops and yoga centers, Sondra Roberts will have a lot of guests if it throws a 30th anniversary party.

To clear things up: there was no Sondra Roberts. Well there  was, but her name was actually Sondra Camche—and her son’s name was Robert. And while Robert still deals with misguided buyer comments like: ‘Your mother named you Robert Roberts?’ at the end of the day, beautiful product   speaks for itself, whatever its name.
This year, the company is celebrating its 30th anniversary and it has a lot to be happy about. After practically instant recognition and growth, Sondra Roberts has since added the SR Squared non-leather diffusion line, launched evening bags and recently added a highly successful leather footwear line. Niche items like nylon yoga bags are helping the brand branch into specialty markets.
Sons Glenn and Robert Camche—who were involved in designing and production virtually from the outset—recount the beginning, the middle and the future of the Sondra Roberts brand.

Was there one particular style that put you on the map?

There was and it was our first bag! We began with genuine exotics—snake, lizard, etc.—and we had started with one unusual snakeskin sling shape [shown, top right]. We didn’t want to call it #1 so we started counting at 100. Bag #100 was an instant success. We were domestic then and this bag wholesaled for $150 back in 1981! We started with unusual shapes—such as that sling one—and also created a unique snakeskin ‘bubble’ bag and interesting wovens.

Was the line all exotics?

The line wholesaled from $85 to $250, and some genuine exotics could even retail for $1,500. Today, Sondra Roberts leather handbags wholesale from $85 to $250, with the bulk in the $85 to $150 range.

How has the business changed since you started?

Back when we started, we were just up against the branded handbag companies, not clothing or shoe licenses making handbags. Sondra Roberts as a brand was known just for handbags and we’ve been able to carry that clout forward to this day. A brand name isn’t enough, though. There’s so much competition now, but we watch our margins and are very conscious of what our bags can retail for. We’re always thinking of our retailers. It’s paid off as we’ve had one of our best leather years this year!

So SR Squared gets all the non-leather business?

We launched SR Squared 10 years ago with the intent of targeting stores that couldn’t afford our leathers and had maximum handbag retails of $100 or $150. We offered a better synthetic line—which takes the same aesthetic from our leather line. But we found that a lot of our existing leather accounts bought into it as well.

So they’re buying both?

There’s no stigma to buying non-leather or faux leather anymore. Look what Stella McCartney did for the prestige of branded “vegan” bags. SR Squared opened many new doors for us and also launched our private label division in non-leather. We never had much of that with the leather line.

Sondra Roberts seems to be known for its innovations.

We have a collection in the Sondra Roberts spring line that looks like beige canvas but it’s actually embossed leather. We even had an embossed sweater cable knit once. Another amazing bag in the SR Squared line features a colorful ikat printed canvas on one side and a solid faux leather on the other, and it’s reversible. Just turn it inside out and fold over the top flap for visual contrast.

What were some best-sellers for spring?

In SR Squared, we did really well with our straws with snake trim, colored nylons, ikat prints and coated sequin bags. But our new nylon yoga bag has opened up a whole new world of yoga chains, gyms and fitness stores. It’s a nylon twill, lined for moisture and it wholesales for just $32. In Sondra Roberts, key shapes were a big flap bag with a chunky turnlock and we also did well with various shapes in python leather and a beautiful soft nappa leather.

What made you go into the shoe business?

We’ve always sold our bags to several hundred shoe stores in the U.S. and internationally, so we always talked about doing shoes. It just made sense. We were introduced to someone in Italy who could help with design and manufacturing and we just went for it.

So your shoes are all Italian?

Designed and manufactured in Italy with Italian leathers. We started with 40 different shoes all under the Sondra Roberts brand, wholesaling from $23 to $230. Some match the handbags—like an embossed python or metallic washed slingback ($120 wholesale), but we had a huge hit with a $23 wholesale python embossed wedge thong on cork. Stores will retail it for $69. It’s a beautiful yet basic design and we sold thousands of them. Fall will introduce half boots, hair calf and more.

Any plans for creating shoes under the SR Squared brand?

It’s definitely in the works, but we can say that the existing Sondra Roberts footwear definitely draws inspiration from SR Squared handbags as well as Sondra Roberts handbags.

Are evening and special occasion bags another growth category for Sondra Roberts?

We always had some evening but it has grown at least 30% in the past few years! We attribute the success to our positioning. At wholesales in the $40s, we offer beautiful bags that retail around $100, while much of this market is much higher or much lower. And in the worst economic times, women are  wearing last year’s   black dress but they want a new bag for that event. We were known for our 3D floral bags, metal minaudieres and other signature designs.

Do you specifically target brides?

Our retailers were loving the evening bags and starting asking for bridal, mother-of-the-bride, etc. So we launched more ivory and champagne with unique embellishments such as feathers or iridescent crystal. We just did our first bridal show at the Javits Center and we did incredibly well.

Having expanded your brand, would you ever go into the licensing business?

We are always open to exploring new avenues that will grow our business, whether that means licensing out the Sondra Roberts brand to new classifications, or creating and manufacturing licenses for other companies.

Any plans for your 30th?

We’re thinking of doing a small retrospective collection as an anniversary edition for Fall 2011. Maybe we’ll even bring back that original bag #100—the sling bag.

Glad to hear that things are going well, especially in such tough economic times.

We’re actually moving to the showroom next door on our floor so we can expand our space for all our new divisions. We’ll be in the new showroom for March market. Same address, same phone number.

I hope you’re taking your trophies to the new space!
Of course! We won the Dallas Fashion Award for Accessories in both 2006 and 2008. The trophies will always stay with us.

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Lauren Parker, Accessories Magazine

Lauren Parker, Editor-in-Chief, Accessories Magazine
As Editor-in-Chief of Accessories Magazine for the past 12 years, Lauren Parker has covered accessories both from a retail business perspective and a fashion point of view. In previous full-time magazine jobs and freelance gigs, she’s written about practically every angle of fashion lifestyle living, including women's fashion accessories, fine jewelry, Caribbean travel, private jets, Hampton’s real estate, the New York art scene, the bridal industry, men’s lifestyle and being a mom. She loves meeting designers and seeing how their latest offerings capture the current zeitgeist and fit into the entire cultural and social picture.