JLEW Bags — which carry a “Made in New York” tag — have found immediate acclaim from all sorts of folks. Women’s Wear Daily referred to the brand’s bags as “ones to watch” at the Los Angeles Fall 2016 Contemporary Market. xoJohn added JLEW to its list of “favorite sponsors,” per its work within the the MTV Music Award Celebrity Lounge. Boxer Mikaela Mayer is a fan, having talked about JLEW in Glamour. Sportstyle, TMZ and Celebuzz! have also covered JLEW happenings.
Downtown had the pleasure of conducting Q&A with JLEW Bags founder Jamie Lewis prior to her Nov. 18 in-ring appearance at the Hammerstein Ballroom. JLEW Bags can be visited online at www.jlewbags.com, while the rising fashion brand also maintains a strong presence on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
The story I’ve heard is that you came up with the idea for JLEW Bags while working as a hedge fund executive on Wall Street and sought a fashionable bag for your boxing gloves and work essentials. Was there an exact moment that inspired this? A particular walk or experience?
Jamie Lewis: Picture a woman suited up for work in heels and a dress walking down the street with boxing gloves slung over her shoulder. You can imagine the looks and comments. I figured the best way to stop these was to find a bag big enough to hold the gloves inside, but all I found were gym bags designed for men that looked out of place. I watched other women commute around Manhattan and realized I wasn’t alone. Everyone seemed to carry a luxury handbag in one hand, plus a canvas tote, reusable shopping bag or cheap nylon bag in the other. Why weren’t these women — who care so much about their appearance — accessorizing with a more appropriate carryall? I searched only to realize one didn’t exist. Therefore, I decided to make my own.
How did you find the company that you source your leather from in Brooklyn?
JL: We don’t source our leather in Brooklyn, but we do manufacture JLEW bags in Brooklyn, New York. I tried Googling, cold-calling manufacturers in the Garment District and even tried sourcing using Alibaba. All of the research compelled me to manufacture in the U.S. My brother told me about a company based in Detroit that facilitates the introduction of designers to manufacturers in the U.S., called Makers Row. From them, I sourced and sampled with American manufacturers across six states until I found the quality craftsmanship and likeminded business person with whom I felt comfortable working, which luckily enough, had its facility in Brooklyn.
What about To The Market? How did you first become aware of them?
JL: A good friend invited me to a holiday pop-up at her home that she was hosting for Jane, the founder of To The Market. I loved what Jane was doing and immediately wanted to figure out a way to collaborate. Our first collaboration didn’t work, but both of us believed in the mutual mission of empowering women so we kept brainstorming, emailing, meeting and Skype-ing to make something work. This led us to creating the Treasured Clutch, a special edition of our Celebrity Clutch. The women who hand bead our bow logo on the clutches are survivors of disaster living just outside Port-au-Prince, Haiti. I expect this will mark the first of many fantastic collaborations.
So when it’s said that your bags are “Made In NYC,” was that always the plan? Or a happy accident?
JL: Initially, I cast the net wide and worked with teams in Texas, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Connecticut and New Jersey, in addition to New York. So I guess you can say it was a very happy accident indeed that we found the manufacturer who “fits” best with us right here in New York City.
Which was the first product that you made a prototype for? Is it still sold?
JL: The Triangle Top Tote was our very first bag and we sell it today, although we have improved the design already. The clean design and high-quality construction transition well from workout to work to weekend, yet the functionality really sets it apart. Zippered pockets inside and out guard necessities like your cellphone, mini iPad, keys, passport, tickets and wallet, while the interior pouch pockets keep larger items prone to dirty up your pretty bag contained and organized — think high heels or flats, tennis shoes, spin shoes, water bottles, and of course boxing gloves.
Do you have a favorite of the JLEW line?
JL: Great question! I love the entire JLEW collection, but I worked the hardest on developing the zip top duffel, and that’s the bag that WWD honed in on when they identified me as an emerging designer to watch.
Is it true that you yourself went to FIT to learn how to make bags?
JL: Yes! After making over 70 prototypes in my TriBeCa apartment, I got to the point where I wanted to move forward and produce the bags. I shared them with a veteran in the fashion industry — she had 30+ years experience, and in the nicest way possible, she indicated I wasn’t ready and encouraged me to go back to school.
The next day I enrolled in evening classes at FIT. I had so much fun and learned a great deal, so much so that our first JLEW bags employee was a classmate and one of our advisors was one of my professors!
Is the end-game for you to only make JLEW bags? Or are there are further aspirations for the JLEW line?
JL: We just added jewelry to the website this week. I love boxing and it inspired the launch of the bags, so just in time for the holidays, we launched a mini boxing glove charm with our signature bow placed on the inside top of the laces of the glove and on the cuff you’ll find our JLEW logo. We have a couple of new designs I’m anxious to roll out, but that will likely happen in the new year.
Are you able to apply much of what you learned on Wall Street to your company?
JL: I believe my Wall Street career laid a great foundation. Every day is different, but skills like negotiating, managing processes and people, thinking critically, processing large volumes of information, writing and pitching have proven invaluable. Having a great product isn’t enough, I learned on Wall Street and am learning with JLEW Bags.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
JL: Analyzing businesses is not the same as running a business — so many aspects of this business are challenging because they’re entirely-new. I’ve never even thought through, let alone produced, a fashion shoot before or built a website. There really aren’t enough hours in the day to do or learn everything I’d like. I’m still figuring out the best way to manage all of the tasks, “turn it off” to get sufficient sleep and pace myself.
Every day a different challenge arises, which excites me. We try to absorb the opinions and ideas of everyone around us in an effort to improve continuously and connect with our customer, but balancing that with the notion that we cannot be all things to all people is yet another challenge.
Are you still boxing? What was the gym that helped inspired JLEW?
JL: Still boxing, and hopefully I’ll get to fight again in 2017! I’m training out of Church Street Boxing downtown and Mendez, which was the gym that helped inspire JLEW.
I understand that you are also involved with Haymakers For Hope. Any events coming up for that organization?
JL: I fought in 2013 and raised over $30,000 personally for the organization, and their annual New York event takes place Friday, Nov. 18 at the Hammerstein Ballroom. They’ve already raised over $600,000 for this event alone.
I’m particularly fond of this organization because their mission is so broad; each fighter can direct his/her proceeds to be donated to the cancer charity of his/her choice. I’ve been in the gym with a number of the fighters – they’re fired up and have been training hard; it’s sure to be a fantastic event.
When not busy with work, how do you like to spend your free time?
JL: After boxing, my favorite activity is traveling for surf adventures, primarily throughout Central America. The ramp of JLEW has kept me hunkered down this year, but hopefully surfing’s in my future soon.
Do you have a favorite restaurant in New York?
What is it that keeps you living downtown?
JL: I lived in Murray Hill for a good 13 years before moving to London. Upon my return, I headed straight for downtown and haven’t left. It feels more authentic, less hectic. I love running along the West Side Highway, frequenting the various farmer’s markets, being around so many artists. TriBeCa feels like a community, a neighborhood.
Finally, Jamie, any last words for the kids?
JL: Visit us at 290 Mulberry Street and follow us on Instagram @JLEWbags. We’re planning a really fun event in downtown Manhattan to kick off 2017 that you won’t want to miss!