Rebecca Minkoff: A Missed Opportunity Doesn't Mean It's All Over
Read this excerpt from the designer's new book 'Fearless: The New Rules for Unlocking Creativity, Courage, and Success.'
In October 2001, Rebecca Minkoff got a call that changed the trajectory of her career. It was actress and friend Jenna Elfman’s assistant with incredible news: Jenna wore the I Heart NYC shirt Rebecca designed for her on Jay Leno. The episode would air to millions that night. She couldn’t believe it. Hundreds of orders poured in overnight. For the first time in her life, people wanted to buy something that she had made. She felt like a real designer. What Rebecca couldn’t have predicted in her euphoric state is that a call with her just a few years later would feel like the end of her career. That is, until a wild series of you-can't-make-this-up moments turned it into the foundation of Rebecca’s brand today. She writes about this story in her new book Fearless: The New Rules for Unlocking Creativity, Courage, and Success.
Here is an excerpt from her new book:
Three years into my business, I was barely getting by. My collection was doing decent, but I was still taking every styling job I could get to pay the bills. On one of our sales trips out to Los Angeles, I had a dinner date with Jenna. We were catching up at Chi Dynasty over chicken in lettuce cups (if ya know, ya know), and she told me all about a movie she was working on that had just started pre-production. She asked if I did bags. I said of course. Which was absolutely not true. I had never made a bag in my life, and she needed it in a week. Perfect. I headed back to New York and sketched out what I thought the bag of the moment could be. In those days, it was all about the Sex and the City lifestyle: serendipitous meetings on the subway, romantic encounters on the street, getting past the velvet rope to dance the night away—and having a handbag with room for your dancing shoes when you headed off to work the morning after a wild night out (sleep felt really optional in those days). And just like that, the idea of the Morning After Bag was born.
Now I had to make that idea a reality. At my first factory meeting, I put my idea on the table. The man on the other side was a tall, austere Russian who was so quiet it was intimidating. After I went over my sketches with him, he said, “Give me a second,” and he walked out with a very confident swagger. When he came back, he had a bag in his hand. “Do you know what this is?” he asked. Of course I did. It was every downtown cool girl’s ultimate bag of the moment. He continued, “This is what I make.” I honestly couldn’t believe my eyes. “No you don’t,” I said. “That’s a knockoff.” And with that, he turned around, walked back to the door, and motioned for me to follow him. He walked me through the factory, pointing out the heavy-duty sewing machines and industrial riveters.
As we got closer to the end of the production line, I saw the It Bag of the moment coming together piece by piece, stitch by stitch. New York’s hottest bag was being manufactured right in front of my face. I felt like I had struck gold. If this guy could make those bags, he could definitely make mine. I gave him my sketch and my last $1,600. He told me to come back in a week. The next seven days were a real rollercoaster. All I could think about was what was happening at the factory. I imagined my new Russian friend painstakingly cutting each canvas panel by hand, surrounded by sewers watching his every move. (I’m sure this didn’t happen.) I would call to check in to see how everything was going. He would get on the phone and, in his very thick, very rough Russian accent, tell me it was going “Goot. Really goot.”
Around day four, I wanted to stop by to see the progress, but he told me that was not necessary and he would call me when it was ready. On day seven, he told me to call tomorrow and that the bag should be ready for me then. He said the same thing the next day and the day after that. I was forcing myself not to panic. I still had a chance, but I could feel my window of opportunity closing. If I didn’t get the bag to Los Angeles before they started shooting the scene, all of this was going to be for nothing. Worst of all, I’d be letting my friend down who had done so much for me. I had never made a bag, and I didn’t know the process or how and when to push. On day ten, I got the call.
My first Morning After Bag was chocolate brown canvas with metallic faux crocodile trim and a turquoise zipper. To me it was perfect. But it was also technically three days late. I rushed to the factory, rushed to FedEx and packed the bag on the spot. I overnighted it the fastest, most expensive way possible to L.A. and started praying that it would make it into her hands by the time they started shooting. I was awake all night checking the delivery status. Whenever my phone rang I held my breath, hoping it would be Jenna’s assistant. When it was finally her on the other end of the line, I could tell that something wasn’t right from the way that she said hello. Her tone was a mix of having a heavy heart and genuine annoyance: The bag wasn’t there and they started filming with another bag. And no they wouldn’t reshoot it. And no they were not going to have her carry a second bag anywhere else in the film. The bag arrived two hours later. The bag was late. It missed its big moment. And so had I. I was devastated. Not only did that opportunity go up in flames, but that was also the last of the money I had to my name. I missed my chance to become an internationally recognized bag designer. These kinds of chances didn’t come along twice, and the feeling in the pit of my stomach at the lost opportunity was truly painful. I went over every day, every minute, every choice that I had made that had led to this royal screw-up.
I counted all the ways where I could have pushed harder and been clearer, all the things I had let fall through the cracks. I had no savings and no one I could borrow money from. So I did what anyone would do if they were stuck with a $1,600 two-of-a-kind purse: I put all my stuff in it and brought it everywhere with me. People started freaking out. In a good way. Everyone loved it. I couldn’t go out without someone stopping me in the street to ask who made it and where they could get one. I showed it to my friend Ilaria, who was the buyer for a store in Los Angeles called Satine. She ordered twelve for the shop. It might not seem like a dozen bags is that big of a deal, but to me it was. At $600 a pop, this wasn’t a small amount that they were investing in me. They were willing to take a gamble.
Back to my factory friend I went. I mixed and matched neutral canvas colors with textured leather and tracked down bright zippers to make the MAB standout. When the bags came in, Ilaria showed them to her friend, who was an editor at DailyCandy. Back then, there were two things that made you: Oprah (duh) and DailyCandy, one of the early daily email newsletters. While many publications were already relying on celebrities to give their stamp of approval before featuring a new style or young designer, DailyCandy just wanted to be first. The day that DailyCandy featured the MAB, Satine sold all twelve bags by lunchtime and ordered seventy-five more by dinner. That’s when I started to sweat. I didn’t have the money to put that many bags into production. I called my dad and asked for a loan. He said no and told me to call my brother Uri. Thankfully, Uri agreed to loan me the money, after a few thousand questions. Round after round of orders kept rolling in. With the success of the bag, Satine invited me to join their new showroom. When I designed the MAB, I just designed a bag that I loved. It wasn’t much deeper or more philosophical than that. It was the bag that I needed and that I imagined other women needed too. To this day, I feel the same surge of gratitude every time I see a woman wearing it. I wouldn’t be here without her.
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