New York–Accessories caught up with the ever-energetic Emily Blumenthal, founder of Handbag Designer 101, the Independent Handbag Designer Awards (IDHA), which recently wrapped up its 7th annual competition and awards show, and the HBDNetwork. The company recently launched the site Thehandbagawards.com, which serves as an invaluable industry resource.
What is your background as a designer and why did you launch the IHDA?
I started my handbag line, Yasmena, in 2000 when I had just started my MBA. It was bootstrap but I was lucky to have had a media background and to have worked at Cartoon Network Moscow and CNN International in London. Becoming a designer, though, made me feel like I was thrown into the deep end when I was just learning to swim–I had to figure out the ins and outs of retail and just the basics of design. After running a handbag line that had made it into Bergdorf Goodman, Bloomingdale’s, Fred Segal and then licensed out my patented silhouettes to a small leathergoods company, Adidas and then a run on QVC. I taught Fashion PR at LIM College, then Fashion Marketing at Parsons while consulting countless designers on launching their line which lead to writing Handbag Designer 101, the book (with over 13,000 copies sold) and then the parallel website to support it. After the launch of HBD101 in October 2006, I thought “what would be the fastest way to launch this brand?” –-and the Independent Handbag Designer Awards came 10 minutes later.
How many entries to you get each year and how fast is it growing?
The first one had 300 applicants (which I thought was ground breaking) and 500 people attended. Now, we receive over 1,500 annually. It’s amazing since we have amassed by far the largest database of independent and emerging designers globally.
Did you ever think it would be so successful?
Oddly enough, I did. I knew this would strike a chord after having been a handbag designer myself. There are many people who are trying to do this now but don’t have the background or understanding of the market. But knowing the b2b and b2c angle of how handbag designers work—and how tough this oversaturated market it—I knew an awards show to celebrate their talent and discover their brands would resonate with the designers themselves…not to mention consumers seeking the next “it bag” designer.
How has the caliber of entries increased over the years?
Incredibly! We have been working Timberland now going on 4 years, with InStyle since 2010 and now with Bloomingdale’s, which has had a major impact on the talent we bring in. I think the designers have an understanding now what they are up against since we are the first round draft pick for handbag discovery. Entrants really run the gamut. We get designers who have just designed their first bags and turn out to be rock stars and the ones to watch as well as others who have worked on this as a side project and this ends up being their tipping point for brand discovery. They come from all reaches of the globe—from the smallest village in Brazil to Tokyo, or even Tulsa. The word is out and we think it is awesome.
How do wins translate into retail sales? How do your retail sponsors get involved?
It’s exciting since when I created the IHDA I specifically made sure that all of our sponsors were treated like partners. It has always been more than dollars and a logo since we reverse engineer each category to hit the brand’s USP so we can build the category accordingly. For example, our Best Student Made Handbag sponsor this year was Charming Charlie, which was fantastic. The winner, Carmen Ortiz of Linoza from the Parsons The New School of Design, is of their demographic so it is a complete win-win.
In addition, InStyle has been supporting the IHDA since 2010 by hosting the Audience Fan Favorite on InStyle.com and received a record breaking 420,000 votes—the largest ever in their dot.com history. We are also fortunate to have a spread in their September issue which makes the IHDA truly the home of handbag designer talent discovery.
Do you print up materials for winners that retailers can use in their stores to call out the fact that these bags are “winners”?
Yes. We work with their retailers and the winners to ensure that this opportunity is maximized to the fullest to draw consumers in. We aim to create brands with fans and have been successful in doing so far.
Why are retailers looking for independent designers these days?
I think it’s necessary that they incorporate some newness and freshness within their assortment. It’s challenging to find designers who can produce within that sweet spot below $499 and deliver quality bags on time. A lot of these new designers also think they are luxury brands when it’s even harder to launch within that space. Having said that, there are always dynamic stars that we have seen flourish that we have discovered, evolve and know they are here to stay.
How can people use your website—as a resource, inspiration, etc. And how you expect the awards to grow further due to the site?
We are excited to launch www.thehandbagawards.com. It’s something after seven years was necessary and now – one can go back to 2007, review the past Finalists, Winners, pictures from the actual Awards’ night. They can also review our past and present sponsors, presenters and as well as see our incredible collaborations with our partners and winners. This is definitely an inspiration tool for our current crop of designers who will be applying for our 2014 8th Annual IHDA since they need to know what they are up against since we are blown away year after year and say “where did this person come from and how come we have never heard of them?!”
Are any of the handbags on your site for sale?
We are planning a major—and we think, groundbreaking—relaunch of Handbag Designer 101 for the Fall which will be a completely different approach to representing independent and emerging handbag designers and brands. That will be entirely B2C and we can’t wait to see how it impacts the marketplace.
What else can we expect from IHDA going forward?
Bloomingdale’s will be hosting an in-store event at their SoHo location for Maria Lamanna in October and we have other phenomenal brands that are signing on. We are open to out-of-the-box collaborations which has been part of our growth and success. Going into year 8 seems like a game changer from us being an ‘independent event’ to evolving to ‘mainstream’ industry staple.