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Looking (fashion) forward: A conversation with Julia Stackler

Champaign resident Julia Stackler is trying to get her new custom leather handbag company, Darlington Originals, off the ground. Stackler releases a different handbag design every month, and then customers can customize that design by picking from different body, lining, and hardware options. Stackler formed the company because she’s had the dream for years of running her own creative business. She designs the handbags here in Champaign, but they are manufactured individually by a company in Nashville, Indiana, called Moonshine Leather. Her handbags cost between roughly $200 and $400. For now, Darlington Originals is pretty much an online business, but Stackler hopes to eventually have her bags in stores as well. In order to hire a public relations firm to help get the word out, Stackler is crowdfunding on Kickstarter. I spoke with Stackler recently in her home studio in Champaign about where she is now, how she got there, and where she’d like to go.

While Darlington Originals is not the only business that sells custom leather handbags, it’s not a common line of trade. Stackler explained:

There is one other custom leather handbag company that I’m aware of — and I’ve done some pretty extensive searching — it’s Laudi Vidni. That’s “individual” spelled backward, and they’re in Chicago. I believe they started with the website and then opened the store. I have come to find out why it’s rare — it’s because no one works with leather on the scale that we are doing it. It’s hard to find people who are good at working with leather because it’s kind of a dying art. In my essentially yearlong quest to find seamstresses who could sew leather and do it well, I talked to all kinds of people at mostly leather working companies. People who were creating boots and items out of more durable leather like cowhide. But lambskin is pretty supple; it’s more flexible and not as thick as cowhide. But in talking to them about finding skilled leather workers, everyone was like, “Good luck with that.”

So, Stackler was happy when she finally found a company that could help. She said:

It was just by chance that I heard about Moonshine Leather. It’s in Nashville, Indiana. I design everything here. I have patterns for all the bags and I actually cut out the pieces for each order and compile kind of a kit for it. Then I send that to them, they produce the bags one at a time, and send them back to me.

All the materials for the bags come from the United States. For instance, the lambskin leather is from the Garment District in New York City, and the hardware is from Ohio Travel Bag in Solon, Ohio. Stackler said she feels that the All-American aspect of her product is important. She elaborated:

I think it’s so important to buy products that are made locally, and made in the U.S., because it’s becoming a lot less common now. I think it’s going to take time for people to realize the repercussions of that too. It’s like what I was talking about — how hard it was to find people or a company that know how to work with leather. That’s because everything gets shipped to China. There’s not a lot of appreciation for small-volume manufacturing anymore, so I’d like to see that happen again. It’s obviously what I need for my business.

Stackler said she has sold a few handbags so far, and has also made some for family and friends. There’s generally a four to five week turnaround on the custom-made bags, although she does offer some ready-made bags that she can send to customers more quickly. She said that she believes her prices are fairly standard:

I’m aiming to have some lower priced items, but it’s also a fact that it simply costs a lot of money to make these since they’re all custom made one at a time. It’s about in line with what my competitors charge.

In order to take her business to the national level, Stackler feels she needs some public relations help. She said:

The challenge is that it’s hard to get anyone to know I exist outside of using Facebook, Twitter — social media — and word-of-mouth. It’s a niche product in the sense that not everyone is necessarily looking for a website or store where they can go design a handbag. But there is a market for it; it just requires quite a bit of money to promote the company nationally. That’s where Kickstarter comes in. I have a background in marketing, but I have never worked in the fashion industry. I don’t know the right people, like editors and bloggers. I don’t know the first thing about getting into a showroom to meet with those people. So my goal on Kickstarter is to raise enough funds to be able to work with the right people to promote my concept.

I think of creative businesses as being separated into artistic-type people and business people; however, Stackler — who has an MBA from the University of Illinois — is trying to wear both hats with hers. I asked her if she is more of an art person or a commerce person at heart? Or is she both? She responded:

I like to think I am both, but in saying that, I think I am better at the creative side of things. I’m naturally more inclined towards that side of my brain. And I had the idea for the company before I had my MBA. I went back to school for my MBA precisely to decrease the risk of my business failing. I ended up doing a lot of things I would have done anyway — like talking to a lot of experts — but I also think that getting an MBA shaped my way of thinking, and I wouldn’t have had that without the classroom experience. And the networks I’ve formed have been incredible. I’ve had a lot of allies in my efforts through my business classmates.

The bags that Stackler designs are named after special people in her life. I asked her if anyone she named a bag after ever claimed that the design didn’t accurately reflect his or her personality, or if any pals were offended yet at not having a namesake bag of their own. She said no problems so far:

I think I’ve pretty much covered all my good friends and my immediate family. The three bags I’ve actually launched have been named after my best friend since I was five: the Sarah Bag, a good friend in the last ten years: that’s Ann (at left), and then Elizabeth (pictured above) is my sister.

Stackler has a day job working at Applied Research Associates in Champaign, and develops Darlington Originals in her spare time. I asked her if the business is all fun to her or starting to seem like work. She responded:

It’s total work! I have a pretty cool space out here [her home studio] and I can get pretty carried away and not realize I’ve spent three, four hours at a time, but it’s work — without a doubt. I think it feels like that only because I also work full time. I hope at some point I will be able to do this full time instead.

The Darlington Originals website is, in my opinion, a very nice one — the page where visitors can customize their own bags especially. I asked Stackler who designed it, and she told me:

I hired someone. I used to work in a department called Creative Services at the university. So I worked with designers, and web programmers, and writers and editors like myself. And there was a guy I worked with named Gabriel Horton, who actually still works at the UI, but also does freelance web and design work. He created the shopping cart and checkout process for my website from scratch. And from what I have read about other companies with similarly functioning websites, he did it very fast — within eight or nine months. He did all of the back end and to some extent the front end.

Stackler hires out other work as well. Precision Graphics, here in Champaign, does her illustrations after she sends them her sketches, for example. Stackler said one goal is to get the bags in brick-and-mortar stores, possibly with some kind of design kit to go with them, as well as selling them online. Towards this end, she said she has attempted to reach out to local boutiques, but with no luck so far.

How about a man purse? Any plans to design a purse for the fashion forward guy? Stackler responded with a laugh:

You have no idea how many people ask me that. Yes, it’s actually in my business plan — along with some leather accessories and jewelry type stuff. I’m a little leery of the market for that, however. I’m not sure it would sustain the cost of putting out a man bag. Knowing the statistics on who shops online for items like this, it’s women without a doubt. I don’t have stats on how many man purses are sold, but I’m guessing less than women.

But I also think men want a more durable, thick, cowhide. I would actually not use lambskin on a man’s bag. It’s not hardy enough. I don’t think it would withstand the way a man would use his bag — think of how men use, say, a messenger bag — they put it through a lot.

In conclusion, Stackler has high hopes for her young business. She’d eventually like to see her handbags sold in stores in cities all over the country, and appears to be well on her way. If you’d like to help her on Kickstarter, the deadline is Saturday, July 7th.

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