How do you define luxury? For a small business like mine, in an industry where what you buy can often change people's perception of your social status a luxury handbag does a lot more than just hold your stuff. When I started my business at 23, my main experience with the handbag industry had been in Florence, Italy. A place where artisans are deeply appreciated and valued.. I was approaching the development of my product from the Italian, artisan perspective: well made, well designed, functional. Naively, It didn’t immediately occur to me how obsessed we are with brand labels--particularly when it comes to handbags.
And why is that? Why are we so obsessed with a label? Why do women both in the US, Asia, and in other European countries bend over backwards to purchase brand name bags, not caring how much they cost, or where or how they’re made, or what they’re made out of? Because your handbag= your social status.
It only took a couple of years in business for me to see that my biggest battle would be showing women what a quality leather product actually looks like. My handbags are beautiful and well made. Am I biased? Yes. But that doesn't make it any less true. There are so many women who have supported me, but there are also a lot of women who will only buy my makeup bag or wallet to go inside of their giant Louis Neverful, or a credit card holder to go in their Gucci crossbody. And this has always been so frustrating. These bags from large “luxury” brands are not particularly well designed, don’t offer any functionality and are made of materials I would never make a bag out of. The brand that confounds me most though is Louis Vuitton. The most popular “LV'' printed bags aren't even made of leather, they are made of canvas with a plastic coating on top. These bags aren’t made out of the best leathers, or made to function in your life, instead what these bags do well is signal to the people around you your social status. You have a Louis Vuitton? That likely means you have the disposable income to spend over $1000 on a handbag without blinking an eye. You have an Hermes? Woah, you have $10,000 to spend on a handbag, you must be rich! We often view cars and homes as status symbols, but handbags are the ones you can carry with you everywhere you go. This is something a small business like mine would take decades to achieve. And at the end of the day, do I even want my brand to have that kind of meaning behind it? No! I just want to make the most beautiful leather bags possible at a price point that is fair and honest.
I grew up worshiping designers, editors, and the fashion industry as a whole. I saw it as a way to be creative, and to get out of my small town in Missouri and see the world. And in many ways, fashion has done that for me. But my journey within the industry and my time spent at the Fashion Institute of Technology sent me running from it as quickly as I was submersed in it. I learned in school that these brands I had worshiped (Dior, Gultier, Alexander McQueen) were all owned by huge conglomerates that didn't give a shit about people, or quality or any of that, they cared about their stockholders, board members, and CEOs. Not to mention the fact that being anything over a size 4 and anything other than white put you at a disadvantage both within the industry and in the fitting rooms of every store in NYC.
(Yearly Revenue- Louis Vuitton- 9.8 billion, Chanel-9.62 Billion, Fendi- 1.2 billion, Celine- 949 Million, Kate Spade- 1.4 Billion, Coach- 2.26 Billion, Micheal Kors- 981 Million, Versace-207 Million, Burberry- 2.72 billion)
Now, more than ever, we must vote with our dollar. And in many cases the handbag industry is the most important place to do just that. The fashion industry as a whole is one of the top contributors to greenhouse emissions and therefore, global warming. The leather industry is high on the list of polluters and as livestock are big greenhouse gas contributors. The high end fashion houses that make leather bags are huge contributors to the overall problem. These high end handbags are mostly made with leather, and although my bags are too, my model is more similar to the 'made to order' model. I don't make thousands of bags every season that might not sell. I choose to make bags in small batches, and restock them if they sell out. My bags are designed to last a lifetime and never go out of style.
Many of these larger and "prestigious" fashion houses have been caught burning their products. "Burberry burned $37 million worth of goods to stop them being stolen or sold cheaply, and destroyed more than £28 million of unwanted products in the last 12 months. According to The Times, it is common for designer brands to destroy unwanted stock in order to stop them being sold at discount prices." And why would Burberry feel the need to do this? Because if their bags sell for less money to less "desirable" people, the brand loses its status symbol cache, and therefore, the brand will struggle to mark up their products and sell them at significantly higher prices than they are worth.
The Black Lives Matter movement has shown a spotlight on the lack of Black leadership in all industries, and of course, fashion is no exception. In fact, it’s in the fashion industry’s best interest to keep white men in power working to convince us that the only thing that matters is a label, not the quality, or the design or longevity of a product. The status quo works for them, so they fear change more than anything. Of the ten companies we speak about in this article, only two of them have a Black man as a CEO. Both Kate Spade and Coach are owned by Tapestry, the first large fashion conglomerate based in the USA. The CEO as of last year is Jide Zeitlin, a Black man. The rest are owned by white men that often come from a long history of generational wealth. And isn't that a little bit ironic, when women are the ones paying for these products? These fashion houses are making their money off of women, because women are saving and making big purchases to prove to society that they have found success.
If women don't own most of these companies, where do we come in? Many of these larger fashion houses use women's creativity and ingenuity to profit billions of dollars every year, but these women are rarely given a seat at the table. Of the ten design houses I listed, there are 6 women that lead design teams, and one person of color. The leaders of these companies are majority male and majority white, but the people making these products in factories or ateliers are majority women, and are often women of color.
The problems in the fashion industry go so much deeper than what I touched on, and because the handbag industry is so near and dear to my heart, I find these facts so deeply frustrating, but also motivating. To me, luxury is about every aspect of the process of a product coming to life, not about a label. Instead of a brand name, it's about material quality, design, and knowing who made your bag. Luxury should be about customization, transparency in pricing and production, and accessibility. You shouldn’t need to make $100,000+ a year to have a luxury handbag, and with my company, you don’t. My goal is to make Tesoro the kind of company that pays fair wages, offers amazing healthcare plans, and makes a product that will last a lifetime. All of these things are huge disrupting factors in the fashion industry as we know it today.
A made in America handbag doesn’t have to be boring or simple. Instead it can be sleek, functional, well made, and fun to wear. It is no surprise that because these brands know the symbols these bags take on for women, they know they are selling you a label, not functionality or quality or ingenuity in their designs. But we shouldn’t let them off so easily. The 10 companies I have used as examples in this article make a combined 30 billion dollars a year, that is a whole lot of opportunity to vote with your dollar. And is that really the vote you want to cast?
At Tesoro our goal is to redefine what a luxury handbag truly is: impeccable quality, timeless designs, and ethical production to protect the women working in this field.
Burberry bag burning source- https://www.businessinsider.com/burberry-burned-37-million-of-goods-to-protect-its-brand-2018-7
Very educational post! Thank you for taking the time to share your fashion knowledge and expertise. Designer hand bags have become a status symbol just like cars and homes. Do think there is a growing group of folks who are becoming more conscious about the impact of the goods they purchase on the climate and environment. Keep pushing for change, you are deeply inspiring!!!