How This Handbag Founder's Husband (and Mentor) Helps Her Communicate Her Creative Vision
Aimee Kestenberg launched her eponymous handbag line in 2012, with her husband, Sean Elan, as her business partner. Together, they find balance between her creative, visual thinking and his business-minded brain.
In the Women Entrepreneur series Mentor Moments, female founders sit down to chat with their own mentors (and us!) about how and why the relationship developed, and the lasting impact it’s had on their careers.
Australia-born, New York–based accessories designer Aimee Kestenberg launched her namesake fashion brand in 2012, and in 2014 launched Affordable Luxury Group, which serves as the parent company to her now multiple brands and licensing deals. But the success of her company all started with a fateful meeting at a past job -- one that introduced her to her now-husband, business partner and closest mentor, Sean Elan.
Women Entrepreneur: Talk me through the timeline of your relationship, and when you first met.
Sean Elan: We met in the elevator. Aimee had just started working at Li and Fung, now Global Brands Group, where I had been working. It was one of her first days there. We just hit it off, pretty friendly flirting, normal stuff.
Aimee Kestenberg: That’s what he thinks.
SE: Aimee thought she had found a great friend.
AK: And Sean was telling people we were dating when I didn’t even know we were dating.
SE: We were dating.
AK: I had a strict no-dating policy when it comes to work, but I finally accepted that we were dating after about six months -- he went to hold my hand, and I decided to allow it. But from my perspective, we didn’t hit it off right away, because I told him I was an accessories designer and had just graduated from Parsons, and he said he’d never heard of it. Never heard of Parsons School of Design, working at this company? I thought he was trying to have a go at me. But it was just because he came from the business side. And as I watched him in action in the office, he was always the first one in, last one out, just outworked everyone. I remember thinking, This guy is so smart.
WE: So at what point did you go into business together?
AK: I got to a point where the corporate environment was really toxic for me. I felt like an ant in an ant farm. I realized, I’m working so hard, what is it for if it’s for people who don’t really care about me? Sean was going through his own issues when Vince Camuto reached out. They wanted to bring their handbag license back in-house and hire a strong team to run it. And Sean told them, ‘I’ve got the perfect team.' I was creative, Sean was business and logistics, and we had a friend that did finance. Between the three of us, we were fully operational. We love the brand, and we love Vince, but about a year in, it also started feeling very corporate.
SE: There were cultural differences; it just wasn’t what we were looking for. But the experience taught us that we could build a brand on our own. I knew we could do it.
WE: You launched Aimee Kestenberg in 2012. How did you use those past lessons to guide the development of the company?
AK: I wanted to launch a heritage brand that was cool and that really considered who our girl is. I don’t ever want to just get into activewear for the sake of it. I want to consider what my girl wants. And Sean always had a bigger picture -- it was always about building a thriving company. I’m creative and the vision, and Sean is the brilliant business mind.
WE: That balance must serve you well as the company continues to grow.
SE: We always knew that division: She’s creative, I’m business. But as for balance in our personal lives, I don’t think there are any husband and wife entrepreneurs who can leave work at the office. That’s unrealistic, unless your company is so big that you have hundreds of employees. And that balance is hard -- as the company has gotten bigger, there are certain pressures that dissipate and others that creep up. We do our best to stay off our phones when we get home. And now we have a little boy, so that’s another job in and of itself. We do the best we can, and we work really hard to make sure our personal relationship stays strong. I have mentors that are on, you know, their third wife. We are working to find that balance and make sure that doesn’t happen. Our focus is on each other and the company and our little boy.
AK: We both ultimately want the same thing. When you have a common goal, it makes it easier to understand each other’s sacrifices. I grew up in a family that always had dinner together, and that was important. But I also know that if Sean is home for dinner every night at 6 p.m. to eat with our son, we’re never going to grow the company. It’s about understanding that long-term vision and being aligned on sacrifices.
WE: In terms of your work at the office, what have you both learned from each other?
AK: When I met Sean I just did not understand the business side. I’d go into meetings with CEOs and romanticize the business and talk about colors and trends, and people looked at me like, What the hell is she talking about? Sean taught me to talk money and business and finance. I think that’s something most designers lack and something I hope they’ll implement in design schools more, because a lot of creatives are kind of set up to fail when it comes to turning their vision into a business.
SE: From my end, it’s an understatement to say I’ve learned a lot about creatives. You have to give them space, you can’t talk too much business with them, don’t talk pricing, just send them out and let them create the most amazing thing. It’s been really beneficial to us, understanding how to treat the creatives in our company and shield them from outside noise. And on the other side of that, if you get a creative in the room and they try to articulate their vision, to a normal person they sound crazy, like they’re out of touch with reality. I’ve told Aimee, explain 10 percent of what’s in your mind. Just let a few things out -- they’ll get it. But at 11 percent, they’ll think you’re crazy.
AK: Internally, it kills me when I feel like I live on my own planet and no one understands me. So it’s been helpful to figure out how to get people to see things the way I do.