MAGIC Interview: Bungalow 360

Next in my notebook is a brief interview with Susie, DE and proprietress of Bungalow 360 (“happy handbags”), reversible totes and bags. I don’t think she was too sure about me coming in, commandeering a stool and plunking my butt down to ask her too many pointed questions so do me a favor and go visit her site! I figure the least we can do is give her a little link love and up her page ranking (pity-click if you haven’t done it already, thanks). Also check out her staff page. Having been in animal rescue, I’m a sucker for that stuff.

Susie was managing restaurants when she started this venture (part time) in 1998 with pillows at first but quickly gravitated to totes, having taught herself to sew. She says she did the craft show circuit on weekends for a couple of years and that she did quite well with it. Well, not entirely well, she says she got knocked off. This other operator copied not only her product line, but her booth. She wasn’t sure how to handle it -who does?- but did go to talk to them about it. She was stunned when they 1) denied it and 2) accused her of copying them! Wisely and retrospectively, she says she fought it by being more creative. She says she learned a lesson in that, always having to move forward is key.

Anyway, after three or four years of that, she quit her job (2001) and went into it full time. Five years ago she starting showing in the juniors section at MAGIC. By the way, she says traffic at MAGIC is really down. When she first started showing there, traffic was so backed up in the aisles that people couldn’t move. She says traffic is diluted due to the increase in trade shows but that she’s doing well sales wise. She says this most recent show was good for her. Most of her customers look for her or if they don’t meet up with her, they view the line over the web. She says she got her usual customers, a lot of reorders and some new customers this time around. I walked juniors, it didn’t look very busy so that’s great she got her cut.

But I digress; she says her big break was when Nordstrom’s picked up her line, they found her and approached her about carrying the line. The line is an easy sell; it’s fun, bright and cheery with price points ranging from $13.50-$16.00. She has only five styles (are you all listening?) in five colorways. Her booth is really cute, it looks like a little cottage or doll house. While I have nothing to compare it to, I’m guessing her booth design is a signature of sorts for her line too. She has two reps now, one in LA, another in the Midwest with a third starting up in NY soon. Otherwise, she’s a one woman show working out of her home. If you check her press pages, you can see she’s gotten a lot of ink. I asked her who handled her PR and she said she’s done it all herself. Wow. She describes herself as “lucky” but I think it’s more than that.

I asked her what was the best advice she could offer you and she said “research”. Do your homework. Go to the marts and talk to people who can help you. Cover the back end of the business and find out what you’re up against.

Then I asked her what her most expensive lesson was. She said “importing”. Her first contractor was in India. She says they told her exactly what she wanted to hear, the samples looked good but she got burnt on the deal because they substituted a lower grade buckle between sampling and production and that due to humid shipping conditions, the buckles rusted. On top of all that, the product was eight weeks late. She had to call all of her stores and it was a fiasco in all respects. She says she found a contractor she likes in China, that if you show at market, they’ll cruise the booths and pitch you. She said she checked them all out and that these guys ran a clean operation. She says you should visit a shop if you can, don’t take anyone’s word for it. She says that “there are no sweatshops in China anymore”, that the government owns them all so they’re all cleaned up. I don’t know about that -and I don’t– but she’s happy with the performance and standards of the facility she’s hired. She also said all the shops in LA are sweatshops but I don’t know about that either. Really, I don’t.

Thanks Susie, I appreciate your time and the advice you offer my visitors.

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  1. Jan says:

    Being a handbag designer myself, and having started in a similar fashion, I really admire the strides Susie has made in getting her bags out there…especially doing the PR herself. I saw so many similarities btw. her work and my own that it was startling, including the animals! All of my handbags are named after rescued dogs in my life (and it’s funny how much people resonate to that fluff).

    Glad she found a way to propel her work forward after being copied. After one season of realizing that every other indie handbag designer was using the same fabrics ad nauseum, I chose to draw on my experience as a painter to create my own fabrics, which I do in Illustrator. I’ve only put out 2 seasons of my own fabs, but if I had a nickel for all that I’ve learned….you know that story! I think my downfall may be the pricepoint. When you have fabrics printed in small quants. as well as paying for American labor, the cost of production is $$$$ – making it nearly impossible to wholesale. But I’ll keep plugging away b/c I’ve come too far! Susie is a huge inspiration for those of us who have talent and desire, but sometimes lack the fortitude.

    In the process of linking with other designers and reading about all the DEs here on FI, I was really blown away by the unsung talents that you don’t know you don’t know….which brings me to my final point: I started a weblog called Scoutie Girl that posts about the fabulous works of indie and emerging designers. And I’ve been intending to get the word out here, in case there are any DEs who would to have their work blogged about. Send me a note!

    Thanks for this post Kathleen – you just gave me the kick in the pants I needed!

  2. Big Irv says:

    In China, most of the apparel/sewn product factories are privately held, not government owned.

    Under the old Communist regime, yes, the government did “own” the factories and it was only when Dong Xiao Ping introduced reforms in the mid to late 70’s that privatization was allowed. By the early 90’s the private sector was maturing very rapidly.

    Most or all factories today are regulated and licensed by the government, so they do exercise some control, but even the Chinese government doesn’t really want to run manufacturing facilities.

    Not sure what the previous commenter meant by “legit” factories or her reference to a black market but apparel factories in China are definitely run in a much more militaristic fashion than factories in North America.

  3. julia says:

    I recently attended my first Trade show at AmericasMart Atlanta, Feb. 1-4. Being that it was my first time I really did not know what to expect. But I was a bit dissapointed. First of all , the first day that the show opened Atlanta got hit with snow, ice and rain, None of which atlanta is used to getting. 200 flights were cancelled in and out of Atlanta. As I sat there that first day and waited for the 1000s of buyers to walk by and they didn’t, I really started to panic. But then I started to walk the floor and realized that it wasn’t just me, there was no one there. The next day people started to drift in but I was told by veterans that traffic has been low at a lot of trade shows. These veterans told me that there are far to many shows through out the year and this may be the reason why shows are not as busy as they used to be. One guy in particular had one of his employeess in Las Vegas at the same time and he said that he had gotten only one order, which is really unusual for him. A few things that I learned while I was there is that trade shows put on fashion shows, I was approached to put in my handbags, I put one purse in the show and the next morning , I received my first two orders because they had seen my bag at the fashion show, so that was the best money that I spent. Also, something that I found out by talking with other vendors, is that there is usually a PR. room set up where you can drop off your bios. unfortunatly I found this out too late, they are only there on certain days of the show. But I was approached by Atlanta Style Magazine and they were interested in having my bags as part of their Spring/Summer issue. We’ll see what happens. The shows are very expensive to attend and I am baffled on how these manufactures can afford to attend as many shows as they do. Probably the most interesting thing that I learned was that there are sooo many beautiful items being produced, for me I find it hard to be competitive while producing in the USA, I am feeling that I need to pre-produce in volume overseas to get my price points down. I think that I was the only handbag designer there that was producing in the USA. and unfortunatly, price seems to be the deciding factor. After reading Kathleen’s book, I keep thinking about what she said about pre-selling my products before going to production, which makes perfect sense unless you are producing overseas because of the high minimums, so I am at a crossroads right now between price points and pre-selling.
    I have recently started to contact some factories in China but after reading the above entries, I am wondering how to go about finding a reputable China factory.

  4. Mina W says:

    Jan, I’d be very interested in hearing what you’ve learned about doing your own fabrics, if you felt like sharing some of it. All my designs seem to come out as textile designs, and I’ve been doing designs in Illustrator and Photoshop as well as the hand-dyed variety. But I’ve only done the print-from-an-inkjet-&-fix with small pieces of fabric. That’s more useful for quilters than for clothing.

  5. colleen says:

    Thanks, Kathleen, for interviewing Susie. I love her web-site – especially the family photos and text (Ravishing Ronald and Granny are my favorites). The only difficulty is deciding which bag to buy.

  6. Zoe says:

    Very informative over all, but as someone who has worked in China for quite awhile, I can say that a) if, indeed, the government owns any factories, they are few and far between and would not automatically be any stricter with regards to worker safety or even age by any means. b)I highly encourage anyone to both be fearless in checking out Chinese factories and also do lots of research about the regions you are looking into and, in particular, the factories you are considering. Track down other customers of the factory or, even better, find other companies who can reference a particular factory for you. Facotires routinely move through owners and managers and management styles very quickly over there, so make sure your contacts are all up to date. Piggy-backing with customers who can afford to do things like socially-responsible auditing (I can’t think of any sites off the top of my head, and to give you an idea what I’m talking about here, go to this site will ease your conscience somewhat. Labor abuse is a problem in the US, but nowhere near the scale that it reaches in China. I could tell you stories, but I don’t need to, you can scan the headlines. Price is a good indicator of both the quality of product and service you can expect and the kind of treatment labor and the environment are recieving at the hands of your factory. “If it sounds too good to be true…” is a rule of thumb that applies in China, too. Also, factories that give markedly cheaper quotes, need to be looked into. They may be dishonest or exploitative and, really, with a little research or just by asking other companies for recommendations, there’s no excuse for ignorance here or for exploitation. Chinese laborers deserve just compensation, humane working hours and safe environments just like you do.

    If the above paragraph gave you a headache, remember that China is the world’s number one choice for clothing manufacturing for a reason: factories are not only cheap, but also relatively well-regulated and there is by this point a solid enough infrastructure of information in place that it really isn’t all that hard to find a good fit, especially when you consider the long-term benefits of outsourcing to China. That said, go USA! I really do support keeping things local as much as possible, but time will soon tell whether this is a sustainable strategy for my own little business.

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