Handbags Fit for a Boss Lady
By Katherine Cox
Photography by Leslie Hodge
During her first conference call with a handbag designer out of L.A., Kelly Wynne said she learned an important bit of terminology.
“In a friendly voice the designer said, ‘The first thing you need to know about this business is it's not called a purse, it's called a handbag,’" Kelly says. “And I thought to myself, oh, okay. Already failing.”
After that call, Kelly continued to reach out to other designers. She started visiting fabric shops on her lunch break and taking advantage of the interior design scene in Dallas to learn more about the design industry, soaking up as much information as possible.
“I would meet with people just to learn about different types of materials, specifically leather,” she says. “This was a stepping stone because I didn't know anybody in the fashion industry. No one in my family was working in the industry, which made it more difficult to get connected.”
She began traveling to other cities, taking meetings with anyone who would let her. While sharing her goals and aspirations with them made her feel vulnerable, she found that people responded well to her dream and would go out of their way to introduce her to anyone they knew who could help her. She found it in herself to cold call strangers and ask them about their failures and successes in starting a business.
Kelly did this research for a full year, meeting with designers and manufacturers across the country. While she never felt discriminated against for being a woman, she felt that many people in this male-dominated fashion industry didn’t take her seriously due to her age.
“I look really young,” she explains, “and I looked even younger when I started this business, so it was very difficult to get people in the industry to take me seriously especially when all I had to show were my sketches.”
Despite the lack of encouragement from some members of the design community, Kelly says she adopted a new motto through it all: “Fake it ‘til you make it.”
Five years later, Kelly is more so making it than faking it, with dozens of her own handbag designs hand-sewn in the U.S. and sold in over 75 retail stores across the southeast. Her line also includes dog collars and wallets, as well as collaborations with other designers. Now, Kelly calls herself “boss lady” playfully, and works with a team of boss ladies to bring her design dreams to life.
Kelly’s handbag dreams started early, growing up in Austin. She collected handbags and jewelry with her mother, and it started a lifelong passion for design.
“It was one of my unspoken secret passions to be a designer,” she says. But she had put the design industry up on a pedestal, and never thought someone like her would be able to design handbags.
Kelly studied studio art with a focus on graphic design at Ole Miss and graduated in 2009 where she was thrown into a very tough job market. She landed a position working in public relations with a small team in Dallas, where she got to hone in on her graphic design skills and learn every aspect of branding. She says she struggled with the writing portion of her job. It wasn’t her strong suit. After three years, these struggles led her to question if she could continue working in this field.
"What am I going to do for the rest of my life?” she says she remembers asking herself. “I cannot write press releases forever. I have a heart attack every time!"
Kelly was blessed with a mentor who noted her difficulties and asked her, point blank, what she would like to do, if she could do anything.
Without thinking, Kelly blurted out: “I just want to design handbags!”
She quickly backtracked, saying that was a pipe dream that could never happen, but the mentor persisted. They dug to the heart of why Kelly didn’t want to pursue a career in design, and found the bottom line was a common thread among entrepreneurs: fear.
“Fear of failure,” Kelly says, “fear of what people will think of me. And fear of taking the initial step.”
Her mentor continued to push her to pursue her passion with small steps. Kelly started to sketch handbags at night after work, and thanks to her graphic design skills, was able to design her own logo for the Kelly Wynne brand. She also began that year of research, and little by little, learned enough to start out on her own, doing something she had dreamed of doing for as long as she can remember.
Kelly gets her inspiration from the women in her life, and designs bags with them in mind. In fact, one of her three lines was designed specifically for her wedding day, for her mother, mother-in-law, and bridal party. She incorporated some of the lace from the bridal party dresses into the handbags, and the entire party wore the bags at her wedding.
That inspiration from other women extends outside of her family, too. For the company’s fifth anniversary this year, Kelly Wynne is partnering with five women designers from Texas to create items that will be sold exclusively in the Kelly Wynne store.
“They’re all so inspiring and everyone is in different stages of their careers,” Kelly says. “I always say collaboration ignites creativity. We’re really trying to work with as many boss ladies as possible.”
Her customers are also an inspiration and responding to their needs is a big part of her design process. For instance, the NFL and NCAA now require bags brought into stadiums or sports arenas either be completely clear or be no bigger than four inches by six inches, which is extremely small as far as handbags go. Kelly found that most clear handbags on the market were cheap and fell apart after one or two wears. So she and her team designed a line that included quality clear handbags and bags that were the proper size in order to meet the requirements and give women something actually cute to wear to these events.
“The Austin Country Club Dell Match Play just finished up, and I had the opportunity to go for one of the days. There were many women wearing my clear bags,” Kelly says, “which was just so special to see.” A few weeks later, Jordan Spieth’s fiancé, Annie Verret was spotted wearing a Kelly Wynne bag at the Masters.
Kelly and her team have been hard at work to ensure Kelly Wynne Handbags can be worn for multiple occasions. The bright, bold prints that are Kelly Wynne’s signature add a bit of flair to any outfit. Style and function are the key to her design aesthetic.
“Our bags are definitely day to night,” Kelly says. “We encourage our customers to wear metallics even during the day. Be bold with your style and push the boundaries. I've always wanted to be known for my unique printed leathers, but also function.”
The designs change over time in response to her customers’ needs, as well. Take, for instance, her very first design, the Cloud 9 Clutch, which was created to be a more utilitarian clutch.
“I designed it initially because I was tired of all the envelope clutches that were too small to fit my wallet, keys, phone, lip gloss, everything you need,” she explains. “So I made this clutch a little bit wider, with a boxier feel.”
Now, the Cloud 9 clutch can be worn six different ways, with varying chain lengths or straps or just as a handheld evening bag. “It's my most versatile bag,” Kelly says.
Life is about to change in a big way for the designer, as she and her husband are expecting their first child – a daughter – in August.
“This is my first, so I really don't know what to expect,” Kelly says. “All I know is she's got a pretty incredible handbag collection already started for her.”
Kelly will be taking some time off to care for her new baby, which may be difficult after working for six years straight, but, she says, she’s not worried about it.
“I've got an incredible team of boss ladies I know will be able to handle everything behind the scenes while I take care of family matters and spend some time with my new little baby girl,” Kelly says.
Once her maternity leave is over, Kelly will be bringing her daughter into an environment that is already supportive of children. The boss lady has spent the past half-decade building a work environment where women feel capable of having a family and a career.
“I am very supportive of bringing your children into the workplace,” she says, “because there are so many working moms, and I want to make it easy for my team. I definitely want to empower women to feel like they can be a mom, and they can work. You can absolutely do both.”
Her new daughter is already inspiring her designs, too. Kelly Wynne will be releasing a new travel line this year, which will include a weekender bag, an overnight bag, and you guessed it, a diaper bag.
“It’s going to be a really stylish, fun, diaper bag, and even if you're not a mom, you would want to wear it,” Kelly says. The purposefully designed bag, which will be a backpack, is being produced in a new material she’s developing.
In terms of advice for entrepreneurs, Kelly says, “My business looks completely different now than it did when I first started. I still have to overcome fear of all magnitudes. It’s important to face them head on. Don't wait until the fear goes away to pursue your dream, or you’ll be waiting a lifetime.”