What happens when a tech savvy entrepreneur in need of a very particular type of handbag stumbles across a branch of Build-a-Bear in an Australian shopping mall? Sounds like the start of a bad joke, but in this case it was the start of a brilliant business.
Having had a particularly unedifying trip to her local Westfield Mall in search of a very specific handbag that suited her taste and that didn’t break the bank, Lana Hopkins found herself wondering around the customisable teddy bear retailer Build-a-Bear where she spent an hour creating a bear to her exact specifications.
“When I left I thought ‘I think I’ve had my Come to Jesus moment‘. The experience blew my mind,” she explains on a whistle-stop tour to London this week, where she was visiting the new concession in Selfridges for her young but fast-growing brand Mon Purse. Before she’d even left the mall she found herself asking how she could bring the Build-a-Bear concept to the luxury (but, crucially, affordable luxury) handbag and accessories space. No more going to shopping malls for a bag and coming back with a bear, why not just design your own? “I had no idea how to do it but I was asking myself, conceptually speaking, ‘how could it be’?”
After “a chat with her best friend Google” she discovered that the best handbag makers were based in Italy, Spain and Turkey and before long got herself on a plane and toured factories in Turkey to ask if they would support her project. She was met with a lot of responses along the lines of: “you’re lovely but unless you’re going to make 1000s of the same bag, we’re not going to be able to help you.” But eventually she did find a factory to take her on.
Next step, however was to raise some capital, which she did by joining a tech start-up community and by the end of 2014, the beta version of Mon Purse went live with a mere 17m possible design combinations. Barely two years later that figure now stands at 6bn and, as well as a highly successful online store, Hopkins has concessions in Myer stores across Australia and in Selfridges in London and Manchester, as well as Bloomingdales in New York and San Franciso. On top of which she now employs 80 staff.
It’s something of stellar rise for such a young brand but Hopkins is so measured and matter of fact about her achievements that she makes it sound easy; it’s no surprise, therefore, that she is often called upon to speak at industry events to inspire other entrepreneurs to greatness. In fact it was at one such event that she happened to find herself seated next to Myer’s CEO who went on to offer her exclusive concession contracts for a number of top locations in the Myer estate. Within weeks of its arrival Mon Purse was its number one performing bag brand.
Creating such immediate appeal is not easy, as the novelty of designing your own bag will only take you so far. Again, Hopkins makes this sound easy. She had basically identified the most popular bag styles for day and night, such as the bucket, the satchel, the shopper and the pouch and ensured they were on offer in a multitude of options for materials, colour, finish, lining and hardware (and of course monogramming).
“People need to have many options,” she says of the reason for the 6bn options. They also need reliable technology so they can see exactly how their bag will look before committing to buy it. Mon Purse uses PBR (physics-based rendering) to create accurate previews of the finished product and, to Hopkins’ knowledge, is the only business in the fashion space to use the technology, which is typically found in 3D gaming. She also ensured the bags were of outstanding quality at an affordable price (classic buckets and shoppers start at around £380), and enlisted a designer from Chloé for good measure.
Buoyed by her success with Myer, Hopkins got herself back on a plane and decided to visit the department stores of the UK to see if they might like a slice of the action. Several came back with offers but for her the choice was simple; the partner she really wanted was Selfridges, partly because she loved the Mr Selfridge TV series but mostly because it’s “progressive, disruptive and theatrical” just as Mon Purse is.
The concession was opened last month and allows people to touch and feel the Mon Purse products, see the fabric samples and colours and create their own bags on roaming iPads. When Hopkins paid a visit to see how it was going this week, staff had been too busy to fill her in on the details. “I’m going to have to go back again later,” she explains, but she won’t have too much time as she needs to get on another plane to check out how they are doing at Bloomingdales in New York.
When she is finally back at Mon Purse HQ she will set about adding yet more design combinations to the line-up and will look for more interesting collaborations, such as the one currently live on the site with US InStyle editor-in-chief (and fellow Australian) Laura Brown. “We want to tap into intelligent people who have achieved a lot,” she says of the kinds of people she would like to work with.
More territories and more stores are also on the horizon, as, for Hopkins, Mon Purse, was never just about an online brand. “It’s about having the omnichannel approach. Forget about silos, think about the most important thing, the customer,” she says. “It’s about giving people theatre and being part of something. Shopping is nothing without soul.”
That sounds a lot like something her idol “Harry” Gordon Selfridge might have said.