Many designers excel at literal references from the past, but few can reinvent an old concept in a thoroughly modern way. Brett Heyman, founder of handbag and home collection, Edie Parker, has done just that. A long time collector of everything vintage, Brett paired her love of acrylic handbags from the 50s and 60s with her PR knowhow from years at Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana and launched her line which is now sold everywhere from Bergdorf Goodman’s to Shop Bop and Brett’s first Madison Avenue boutique which opened last year. Somehow we never met in all our years in fashion, but Brett is fun, charming and has a slightly wicked sense of humor (have you seen her bags?) that permeates everything she does. Here she shares the hardest part about creating something popular (knockoffs), her role model (though he doesn’t know it) and why there’s no such thing as a fashion emergency.
How do you define yourself in your role and what you do, and who you are. My official title is I’m the founder of Edie Parker and the creative director. I have no proper training. I didn’t go to school for fashion. I went to school for communications. I guess, when I launched Edie Parker, I was an accessories designer, because I was doing it all by myself, but all I can really make is a box, so we were making boxes and I was hand-drawing the motifs that would go on top. Eventually, it was really above my pay-grade.
I had no idea what a gusset should look like, and a lot of much more complicated interior questions, so I finally hired someone. We had worked with some consultants a few years in, and now I finally just hired someone in-house who can do everything technical and be really creative and successful, and I can help inform direction and colors and all the things I think I’m good at.
What made you go into handbags? It was a bit of a twofold reason. Number one, I love handbags. I’ve collected handbags my whole life. I grew up in Los Angeles. I would always go thrifting on Melrose on the weekends. I would always buy, frankly, everything. I mean, I was a bit of a hoarder as a child, so it wasn’t just handbags. It was vintage clothes, jewelry, bags. I just collected and loved to put funky outfits together. I was always one of those people that someone would be like, “Well, I guess you can pull that off,” which, looking back, I went through some strange stages, but I just loved it. I loved the creativity of it, which is probably why I went into fashion.
I covered handbags for most of my PR career, so I both knew what was in the market and what wasn’t in the market. When I moved to New York I had no space, so I had to get rid of a lot of the stuff that I had collected, but I always kept the old acrylic bags, from the ’50s and ’60s, that I bought in high school, and always wore them. They were such a conversation piece. There’s a sense of nostalgia associated with them. Usually, someone will see them and say, “Oh, my mom has a bag like that,” or, “My aunt,” or, “My grandma,” or they just want to touch them and are curious about them. It’s this very tactile product.
After my first child, I wanted to do something more creative than I had been doing. I had this familiarity with the accessory market, and I really felt like I knew this particular product category, this acrylic handbag from the ’50s and ’60s, and they weren’t available, so I tried to relaunch them.
What did you take away from your years at Gucci and Dolce? What did you take from that and bring to launching Edie Parker? A lot. I mean, first of all, just the access that I had when I launched was so helpful, because by the time I had samples, the people that had worked at Gucci had gone to Barney’s, so I was able to get in front of their sales department. And then when I had samples and I was going to be sold at Barney’s, I knew the editors to call to get a little feature. I knew stylists to get on red carpet. Obviously when they took my call, I had to have something good to show them, but I was able to call them.
Also, we’re still very niche, but we started even more niche, with just clutches and just acrylic. I thought like a PR person, so when it was a new fashion season … I would follow it and make trend reports, just like I had done in PR. I could see obviously what the trend stories were going to be and if we were missing something, I would be able, because we’re manufactured here in America, to add say maroon, add blue.
I’m interested in people who start with a very niche product. What was your thinking behind this? What do you think the advantages of doing that are as a businessperson? I think, today you have to do that. Maybe you don’t have to be as small as we were, but when I talk to younger people or people who are starting their businesses, I don’t think there’s enough room anymore to launch a “lifestyle” brand. I think you have to do something and do it well and get known for something. I think there’s a danger in that, because, for us, I think we waited to long to really expand, but I just didn’t have the capability. I didn’t have a product development person. I didn’t have an in-house designer. There’s a lot that I wanted to execute on, that we haven’t been able to, that we are now doing, but it’s been seven years.
I think if you pick one thing, and for us it was evening, our bags were considered evening bags, cause they were small, but they didn’t look like any other evening bags out there. Evening, as a category, was generally thought of as very ornamented, a la Mrs. Leiber, or a miniature version of a best-selling bag, a mini city bag from Balenciaga or a mini PS1 [Proenza Schouler]. I thought that there was space for something that felt a little bit more purposeful, a little bit exciting, that could be worn with a gown at the Met or with jeans.
They kind of have a cheeky quality. What inspired that? It’s funny. It’s just my personality. I don’t take things that seriously. I take my family seriously, obviously, but it’s fashion. Even when I was working at Gucci, which is obviously a very huge and successful house, I would object anytime someone would call me and be like, “I’ve got a fashion emergency.” I’d be like, “No such thing. It’s not a fashion emergency, nope.” I always see the humor in things and try to be a little bit light about things. On the other hand, I have a great perspective on what’s going on in the world. At the end of the day, this is a thousand dollar handbag.
I like this idea of we didn’t set out to make a very expensive bag. It’s expensive because we use really fine materials and we handcraft them here in America. Every little piece is cut by hand, weighed by hand. It’s a very labor-intensive process. People use words like artisanal and craftsmanship. They use them as buzzwords, but that is really how we make something. We make an old-fashioned product the way they were made in the ’50s. That’s why it’s expensive. I like that idea of treating something in a way that is a little bit irreverent and just not being so precious about it.
When you started out, what was the hardest thing and what came easiest for you? I think I was really, and still am, so surprised by the amount of copycats there are and the lack of integrity people have. Forget factories in China that I don’t know that make the bags and sell them on their website. That’s upsetting, but fine. I’ve found that there are a lot of designers, and particularly female designers, who are working more in the contemporary space, who just copy things that are being sold, right now, in a store.
That’s really upsetting to me. Believe me, I have always been very honest about being inspired by these bags that came before, but they haven’t been sold in 40 or 50 years. These are things that I’m inspired by and I’ve evolved, they’re not something that another woman has made and is trying to make a livelihood out of at Bergdorf Goodman’s. I think that’s been the hardest part.
When I had a jewelry line somebody knocked off a couple pieces. I was like, “You couldn’t have found it anywhere else”. They totally knocked it off. And it felt horrible. What can you do? Well, it’s hard, and we went through that. We spent a lot of money on legal stuff, trying to protect the name, trying to protect the trademarks. It’s a very gray area in the legal system. I guess where I’ve come to now is you just have to keep innovating, but it kind of sucks.
You have to educate the customer about what they’re paying for and why it’s worth it. That is so important and it’s really hard to do, because the way we communicate is very different now. People’s attention span is different. You really have to educate them in a short amount of time, something that resonates.
What came easiest for you in the beginning? I think I was just very lucky with how much awareness we were able to generate in a very short amount of time, and it’s because of the aforementioned reasons. We got a feature, a little news piece, in Vogue, in April of ’11. Then in May, Kate Hudson wore a bag to the Met when she was uber pregnant. I remember, at the time, I had told my dad these things, and he was like, “No matter what happens, no one can ever take that away from you.” It’s Barney’s. It’s Vogue. It’s Kate Hudson. All those things were so exciting, and I think, frankly, they were unheard of for someone who had no experience and just tried to make this little clutch line.
What inspires you? A lot in New York, a lot of architecture. I go to the art museums with my kids, so there’s a lot of modern art references. There are a lot of ’50s and ’60s references. I’m very into furniture, and little bit now into ’80s Memphis and color. I’m having this Murano glass chandelier moment, I can’t stop going on Etsy. But usually something that’s very saturated and happy. I’m into positivity and optimism. They’re not tenets that I talk about, but it’s what I am attracted to.
To date what do you think has been your biggest success? What has been your biggest dud? What did you take away from it? I think being a finalist in the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund was kind of a big deal. I’m very proud of that. We opened a retail store on Madison Avenue February of 2017. That was a very big deal. I think those are probably the two biggest measurable successes.
Failure, I think, and I touched on it before, I didn’t know any better. I kept wanting to make things. I just kept hiring consultants. No one ever said to me, “Hey, you can have a less expensive product development person and they’ll help you make all the things you want to make.” I should’ve hired someone in a leadership role and I didn’t. I always felt like that was expensive and we didn’t need it, but there really has to be a cadence coming from the top, that I’m not necessarily good at.
I’m really good at creative and ideas, but everybody having a role with a clear deliverable is very important. I know that sounds like, “Duh,” but I just didn’t know. I didn’t know how to achieve the things that I wanted to achieve. It’s been a steep learning-curve.
One of your attributes that helps you succeed: I fail really fast. I don’t have a big ego about things. Even if I love something and I really feel strongly about it, if it doesn’t work, it’s not going to be something that I obsess over. You can’t get so attached to things.
What motivates you? Well, now, we have 10 people that work here–I know that’s not a lot, it’s still a small business, but those are people that get up every day and they come to work because they believe in my vision and they believe in what we’ve started. I don’t want to let them down. I want to succeed, I am really proud of what we’ve built, and I think we’ve only scratched the surface. There’s so much more we can do. You have to put in the time. It doesn’t just happen. It’s very motivating.
Role models: I mean, I always quote Domenico de Sole, because when I worked at Gucci, he and Tom were there in the beginning. It was such an amazing corporate culture that he created and then I was there when he wasn’t there. You really could see and feel the difference. I’ve read a lot of profiles about him and I believe in things he says. I joke about this with his daughter, Rickie, who’s a dear friend, and I’ve sat with him a couple times, and he’s great. He’s a role model. He doesn’t know that he’s a role model. It’s not like we have this mentor-mentee relationship, but I think about the culture that he created a lot.
Best advice you received or would give somebody starting out in your field: I always say be nice to everybody for so many reasons, but I think it’s a great life lesson and I try to live by it. I didn’t always. We touched on this, too. Pick one thing to be good at that you can excel at, and people will know you for it. You don’t have to do everything and do it well. Get people comfortable with you and trusting you, then you can do more.
How hard would you say you work? Very.
How do you keep focused? Just do. I have a lot to do. I don’t get distracted that easily. I have kids, so I think, when I’m home, I really try to be home, and when I’m at work, I am at work.
What’s next? Expanding the breadth of handbags a lot. The response from all of our wholesalers for next fall was really positive, so that was really encouraging. I think people were really ready for some newness from us, so a lot more of that for resort and a lot more for spring. Then, also, we launched a home collection several years ago, but really in no…I don’t want to say it wasn’t thoughtful, but it was more like people would always say, “I love this bag. When I’m not wearing it, I put it on the shelf,” or, “I love this. I use it as a box.” At some point, I just thought, “All right, I’ll make you a box then.” We made some boxes and trays and coasters. Now, I don’t know if refining’s the right word, but just adding to that home collection and being really thoughtful about it, and challenging ourselves, doing a lot of games and mixing materials, like acrylic with wicker. Doing home that feels really Edie Parker.
Three words that describe Edie Parker: I like this expression that we use about ourselves, Serious Irreverence. I know that that’s not a word. Saturated Color. Luminous.
Three words that describe you: Casual, warm, fun. Are those weird words?
Life goals: Be a good mom, have happy kids, happy husband, not regret things, focus on the right things. I don’t mean not regret things. We all regret things, but I mean big picture. The end, when you look back, “Did you make the right choices? Did you focus on the right things?” That’s mostly family.
Daily goals: It’s basically wake up really early, because children jump on me, and I’m tired all the time, so a lot of coffee, some kind of breakfast, and then I walk to work. I think what I’ve been really loving is a podcast. I got the Apple earbuds and I don’t commute on a train because I live close, so I always walk. People have been telling me about all these Podcasts they listen to.
What are your favorites?I have so many. I love the Malcolm Gladwell Revisionist History one. It’s so good. I listen to the New Yorker. They do an eight-minute roundup of good stuff that’s happening, so I listen to that. I love Preet Bharara’s podcast. It’s really interesting. For a really guilty pleasure, when I’m feeling stupid, I listen to … What’s it called? Bitch Sesh. It’s a podcast that these two comedians do about the Real Housewives of different cities.
That’s funny. Sometimes I just need an escapist walk.
How do you unplug: Vodka. Sometimes tequila, but mostly vodka.
Hidden talents/hobbies: Secretly, I play guitar. I play folk songs and sing them, but I play it very badly. I’m been playing since summer camp, when I was 13.
Favorite charity: I will donate to anything with children. I am a founding board member of the Parenting Center at the Mount Sinai Hospital. I’m really proud of that. I love Sanctuary for Families and Turnaround for Children.
Do you collect anything? Books, I love big books. I really love vintage jewelry, just cool, old, antique pieces.
Biggest splurge you don’t regret: The country house in Connecticut.
Your favorite small indulgence? Cheese. Oh, my God. I’m obsessed with cheese. I make a cheese plate almost every night.
Any kind in particular? Oh, I have a lot of kinds. Yes, there’s a hard truffle goat-cheese I eat all the time. There’s a ewe’s milk soft cheese that I’m obsessed with. I like a Petit Basque if my children are going to join me, something a little bit more mild.
Album currently on repeat: Historically I have been classic rock or bust, but lately I watched this documentary and it was making a case for why the ’80s were so good for music. When you think about it, there was so much happening through the decade. Early in the decade, all those British bands, and then all the female bands, like The Go-Gos and The Bangles, they were the first girls that were writing their own music and performing it. And then early hip-hop started at the end of the decade, so I’ve been listening on Sirius to the ’80s channel. I also love early ’90s, because it’s really my time. What else? Sometimes, once in a while, I will download an album from a movie. Moana is a phenomenal soundtrack. Had no idea, listen to it with my kids sometimes and it’s fantastic.
Scent that brings back memories: Fracas.
Lucky charm: I have this necklace. They’re these vintage Van Cleef pendants that look like dog-tags, and they have astrological signs on them. I have one that’s Aries. I’m an Aries. Libra is my daughter. I bought them when she was born, a long time ago. I guess it’s a bit of a talisman, I always wear it if I’m traveling. I don’t know that it brings me luck, but I think of it as a protective something. I have no idea why, I guess because I’m superstitious and silly.
Favorite hour of the day: I resent my children when they wake me at 6:00, because I’m tired, but the truth is they get in bed, I don’t have to do much, and we all kind of just hang out until they get dressed at 7:00. So as much as, at the moment, I don’t think it’s my favorite, probably, in hindsight and at a moment like this, it’s pretty good.
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