HANDLING THE BUSINESS OF HANDBAGS: INTERVIEW WITH JULIE NEFF
Some women have more shoes than Carrie Bradshaw, others collect jewelry like it's their job, but I've always been more of a handbag girl myself! Growing up, I never left the house without at least one bag on each arm and 20 something years later, not much has changed except the fact that I now have a greater appreciation for the materials used and craftsmanship behind the handbag design. That's how I came across J. Markell.
Not only are the J. Markell handbags beautiful to look at given the gorgeous skins used, but the thoughtfulness and care that goes into the design of each piece is truly amazing. Being a busy woman herself Julie Neff, the brand's founder, made it easy for each bag to transition effortlessly from day to night and fit into any woman's wardrobe.
Keep reading below for more with Julie and the J. Markell brand!
Honestly Unfiltered: Can you give us a little background of how your business came to be?
Julie Neff: My business came about almost by accident. As my kids started to get older, I knew I wanted to go back to work but just wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. Not too long after thinking of going back to work, while on a girl’s weekend trip, I met someone in the handbag industry and my mind started spinning with ideas.
HU: How did you decide to start a handbag and accessory brand?
JN: It was an easy decision. I had been in the business of sales since college so it was something that came naturally to me and I also wanted to create something that everyone could love and that wasn’t limited by size. I also knew quite a bit about different kinds of leather having been in the shoe industry for 12 years previously.
HU: What’s a typical design process look like for you?
JN: A typical design process starts when I realize I’m missing something in my own closet as far as functionality. When I design, function always comes first, but it also has be chic and beautiful at the same time.
I’m all about functionality but it also has to be beautiful. One of my best selling bags, the Ella, was designed to be comfortable while wearing it. Some cross body bags cut into your shoulder and don’t look sophisticated at all so when designing this bag for example, I chose a curved gunmetal chain. The gunmetal would mix well with any other metal the woman might have on and the flat chain would offer a comfortable alternative for women who placed comfort above all else. The chain also looks great as a makeshift “necklace” if you want to place the bag on your lap during dinner. That way you don’t have to worry about leaving it on the back of your chair.
HU: Once you started your brand, what were the top three components that helped it grow and become the success it is today?
JN: Function, beauty, and the true love of selling. I love to sell –it’s truly an art. Plus, I love knowing that I’m making the client happy.
HU: What was one of the biggest challenged you encountered along the way? How did you overcome it?
JN: Sourcing. I could walk into high-end stores like Barneys and Neimans and I knew exactly what type of leathers and skins I wanted but had no clue of how to go about it. It is very over whelming. I remember being on the phone for hours, asking questions and following leads, but when I finally found the right fit for the J. Markell brand it was the most rewarding feeling. Even though it took more time, it was important for me to find a supplier that didn’t believe in harming animals just for the skin. All the skins I use come from a food source so that nothing goes to waste.
HU: Did you ever think about giving up? And if so, what made you think that?
JN: Yes, and truthfully still to this day I get overwhelmed. Right at the beginning of my entrepreneurial journey, my husband (who’s also my biggest supporter) sent me a video of Marc Cuban talking about the keys to success. Believe it or not, the video has helped so much that I actually keep it on my desktop so that whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed I can watch it. The push to keep going also comes from hearing stories of other powerhouse women that have also started their own businesses and have started out working out of their kitchen just like I did!
HU: Since starting a business, what have you learned about yourself that you didn’t already know?
JN: That I can do anything I put my mind to and am capable of handling much more than I originally thought I was.
HU: Now that you’ve been in business for almost three years, what do you think has attributed the most to your success?
JN: A positive attitude and great support system. My husband, as I mentioned above has been such a huge part of the company since it’s start. I love to sell, but I’m not a numbers girl so my husband handles all of that. Aside from the amazing support system I have backing me, I think my designs have a lot to do with the success of the business. They are well thought out, functional designs that my clients keep reordering.
WWN: If you could go back in time and tell yourself one thing before you started your business what would it be?
JN: Don’t compare to yourself or your business to anyone else. Try and wear your blinders while on social media that’s the source of most unrealistic expectations for new and small business owners. It’s important to stay on your own track and make products that you believe in and are true to who you and your brand are.
HU: Being an entrepreneur, every day is filled with little bits of doubt as you continue to tread on un-charted waters. What was one of the moments that reassured you that you had done the right thing by starting your own business?
JN: I knew I had done something right when I started to receive re-orders from boutiques and clients who had already purchased other styles or colors from me. I tend to get a lot of referrals and nothing is better than good word of mouth for a brand – it’s been a very organic growth so far.
HU: What’s next for the J. Markell brand?
JN: That’s a great question! As of now, I’m in 40 stores around the country as well as have my online presence. I hope that within the next 3 -5 years I can double my business and reach an even more global market!
Photos By: Samantha Jean Photography
Boutiques of Mention:
CHICAGO: Frances Heffernan & Krista K
NEW YORK: Maddy’s 390
SAN ANTONIO: PennyLane Boutique
MORE WITH JULIE NEFF: Favorite guilty pleasure? Being with my girlfriends during cocktail hour. Favorite down time activity? Going for a run on a sunny day (Summer) OR watching tv on my couch with my new faux fur blanket and my family. What’s your drink of choice? Vodka martini shaken very very cold two lemons and a side of crushed ice. Other than Chicago, what’s your favorite city? Aspen. Favorite handbag brand aside from yours? Henry Beguelin. What’s your go-to look for a day of designing? Ripped jeans, grateful dead t-shirt vintage Blackhawks sweatshirt and slippers. If you weren’t designing luxury handbags and accessories, what would you be doing? Designing something. Not sure what, but something