by Jenna Kutcher
I felt a little star struck with today’s interview with Rebecca Minkoff. You may know her for her subtly edgy designs and her industry leading luxury handbags, accessories, footwear and apparel around the world. She launched her brand in 2001 with an iconic capsule collection that landed her on The Tonight Show and she became an overnight sensation. Goal Diggers, Meet Rebecca Minkoff!
Today, Rebecca Minkoff is a global lifestyle brand that spans ready-to-wear, handbags and accessories, footwear, jewelry and watches, as well as men’s clothing under the label Uri Minkoff, in over 900 stores worldwide.
An industry leader, she is also an industry disruptor, pushing the boundaries of fashion and tech. Today I want to hear the REAL STORY of how this woman took her name and her talent… and turned it into an empire.
Rebecca Minkoff got the sewing bug when she was about 8-years old. She wanted a dress that her mother wouldn’t buy it for her. Instead she taught Rebecca how to sew. This skill came in handy while Rebecca was a teenager, too. She described herself as very thin and “scrawny”, and she had a hard time finding clothing to fit her, so she would go to thrift stores and do her own adjustments on clothes. Soon she was sewing all the time.
She attended performing arts high school as a dancer, but her teachers told her she was too tall and needed to be in the back of the group for performances. Rebecca decided to take her elective classes in the costume room where she learned how to use patterns and new techniques. That’s when she learned sewing wasn’t just a hobby, it was a career.
College after high school wasn’t her first priority, but she got connected with a friend of her brother’s who introduced her to an internship opportunity with a designer in New York. With a paycheck of $4.95 an hour and her parents unwilling to help her pay for an apartment, Rebecca decided to figure things out on her own. A friend at Fordham University would sneak Rebecca into his dorm after work and that’s where she stayed while she started her internship.
The CEO of the company was tired of the usual interns that the designer often hired, so she was especially hard on Rebecca at first. Rebecca worked to prove herself, and eventually the CEO noticed that Rebecca wasn’t “just dumb and pretty,” but a dedicated worker who wanted to learn the business. The CEO taught her the ins and outs of the business and gave her a view of all aspects of the fashion industry. It only took six months for Rebecca to land a full time job with the company as an associate designer.
There was a finite amount of work for Rebecca to complete, and when she was finished her boss allowed her to work on her own collection. Rebecca created a five piece collection and even featured her collection in a mini fashion show on September 10, 2001. With the tragic events of September 11, everything changed.
One of the pieces of her collection was an “I Love New York” t-shirt she had cut up and customized. She sent it to an actress prior to her fashion show, and days after the attacks on September 13, that actress wore it on Jay Leno and name dropped Rebecca Minkoff. Suddenly, everyone wanted Rebecca’s shirt. She could barely keep up with demand, but kept creating shirts and gave all the profits to charity. That shirt became her life for about nine months.
She sold the customized bedazzled “I Love New York” t-shirts online, making it one of the first e-commerce clothing sites for women. Rebecca’s name was now out in the world, and when her shirt sold well in stores, she pitched her entire collection. For four years she plugged along and worked hard, not making much money, but making plenty of mistakes.
In 2005, Rebecca decided she wanted to add a handbag as an accessory to her collection. She had no idea that it would become what it did. A friend wrote about Rebecca’s handbag on DailyCandy (remember that?) After the feature, the store sold out of all 12 pieces… And ordered 75 more. Not knowing where to begin to afford to pay for 75 bags, she called her father for help, who basically said, “Go ask your brother.”
Rebecca’s brother helped her build the business at the beginning (and mentored her on the basics like setting up a bank account and getting a tax ID number). She kept creating bags, and the buzz around them grew. She was eventually able to hire an intern, and she convinced her landlord to rent her another apartment just for office space. It was a fun, exciting time for Rebecca and her handbags.
Fast forward several years and Rebecca has since launched ready to wear, jewelry, timepieces, and eyewear. She admits it was an aggressive growth plan, but her brother really felt that expanding quickly was important to ensure Rebecca’s brand stood for more than just bags in the customer’s eyes.
Rebecca may not have anticipated the success of that t-shirt, or the handbag line, but she says it doesn’t really matter that the customer chose to love a product that wasn’t necessarily the “star” in Rebecca’s eyes. She explained, “We do a lot to ensure that we’re listening to the customer, and her opinion is far more important than mine. If she likes it and she’s happy with it, then I’m happy.”
Working with Her Brother
Rebecca’s brother is the CEO of the company, but his role and partnership with Rebecca has evolved from the humble beginnings. At first, he offered advice. Then, he started flying up to New York once a month… And then every five days. When the company hit $10 million in sales, Rebecca started asking her brother to move to New York and take on a bigger role running the business side of things.
Now that she’s been running the company with her brother for 13 years, they both have strong ideas and opinions in each other’s areas of expertise. “Business partners fight, and brothers and sisters definitely fight, but we try to put everything for the business first and sort out our differences when we can.”
Learning from Her Mistakes
When Rebecca launched apparel she believed that to have any clout in the industry that her collection needed to be runway worthy and in the pages of a magazine… But she learned that people don’t buy that clothing.
“We spent and wasted a lot of money…” trying to keep up with the rat race of the industry, when the catwalk-ready clothing didn’t align with her affordable, saleable handbags. Rebecca pushed hard for the runway collection though, until she received her personal order and it clicked: Where would she wear the dress? It’s the same question her customers were asking when they saw the clothing line. The customer felt alienated by the clothing, so Rebecca decided to pivot into clothing for women to wear in their everyday. That’s when it started working.
Her biggest regret? Trying to fit into that catwalk club. “What was I holding onto? This idea that I was going to be a Vogue darling? I’m not on Anna’s List and that is okay, but holding onto that too long was something I wish I hadn’t done.”
Picking the Ideal Customer
Who is the Rebecca Minkoff girl? Every woman.
“There isn’t just one woman for our brand. We try to make products that fit all women and facets of life that they need a great crossbody or a great backpack, or a great leather jacket, all the things we’re known for. My goal is to speak to lots of women and not pigeonhole, not say ‘if you don’t fit into my mold, you don’t get to be part of the club.’”
Rebecca keeps herself in mind, and her humble beginnings in New York City not being able to afford a night out with friends, when designing and pricing her products. While she offers handbags and jackets and other items at a higher price point, her prices generally do not alienate the girl who is just like Rebecca once was, just trying to make her way in NYC.
Tying Impact into Your Business Model
It all started with the “I Love New York” shirt with all proceeds going to charity after 9/11. After that, she paused the charitable efforts of the business (while maintaining her own personal involvement in charities) because she knew the business wasn’t yet at a place where it could begin to give back.
When she became a mom, and when the business had grown to a point that it could support giving back, Rebecca thought a lot about the world her children would inherit. She partnered with Jessica Alba to create a diaper bag with all proceeds benefiting an organization for mothers. Rebecca supported a donation of 100,000 diapers to NYC moms who couldn’t afford them otherwise. She designed a bra in partnership with another company, with $500,000 worth of bras donated to breastfeeding mothers.
In an ongoing effort to support many different causes, Rebecca Minkoff partners with a new charity each season to support with the proceeds of a selected piece.
Her New Podcast
Rebecca launched her new podcast, “Superwomen with Rebecca Minkoff” with the same innocence as many newbie podcasters… This is going to be so easy, right?!
Well, she was quick to learn podcasting wasn’t quite easy, but it was a welcome challenge for a woman who had been doing essentially the same thing for the last 13 years. Rebecca modeled the show off the fireside chats she has at her New York City store where she aims to inspire women with interviews with leaders and changemakers.
More from this Episode
Misconceptions of the fashion industry: Why do handbags cost so much? When will fashion become more inclusive across the board? Listen to today’s episode to hear Rebecca’s take on the behind the scenes of the industry.
The Mindset Battle: Rebecca battled mindset struggles early on. In an industry when you want to be part of the “cool girl’s club”, how do you battle these limiting mindsets? Rebecca gets into how she overcame negative mindset to grow her business.
Getting What She Wanted with Confidence: How did Rebecca handle not one but TWO famous actresses nearly refusing to wear her bag on the red carpet, despite it being part of the original agreement? You have to hear the story.
Advice for Maternity Leave: Why not hire someone who can do your job, and do it better, so you can take a true leave? Hear Rebecca’s honest take.
And so much more. You gotta tune in for all the Rebecca Minkoff realness. This woman does not mince words, and tells stories of the years grinding in the industry and building a brand she believes in, while making plenty of mistakes to learn (and teach) from along the way. What are you biggest takeaways from today’s episode?
Show Some Love to Our Sponsors
Photo by Paul Maffi