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Editor's Note, August 7, 2013: On August 2, Vera Bradley Designs, Inc., announced plans to expand its presence in the Fort Wayne area, adding 128 new jobs between now and 2017, as well as tens of thousands of square footage, in the design and distribution centers there. This news arrived on the heels of 124 jobs added in 2011. Below is our June 2009 feature story on the brand.
Cathy Jansen loves her purse. She loves that it is made of lightweight cotton. She loves the print—a geometric crisscross of chartreuse, teal, and navy—and loves that this pattern has a name, Daisy Daisy, and loves the name itself. She tucks her lipstick into a Daisy Daisy cosmetics case and her cash into a Daisy Daisy wallet. Her iPod Nano slides into a Daisy Daisy tech case, and all of these pieces fit inside her Daisy Daisy tote. When she carries this purse, women she doesn’t even know compliment her. “I love your bag!” they say. And Jansen replies, “Oh, yes, it’s a Vera Bradley.”
Jansen, 48, of West Caldwell, New Jersey, loves Vera Bradley. She was introduced to the line while on vacation in 2003, when she spotted it in a gift shop. “I thought, I have to have this,” she recalls. “I’m a small-town girl, a simple Jersey girl. And Vera Bradley just reminded me of me, and reminded me of where I’m from. I thought about carrying one on the Jersey shore. It felt special, but not hoity-toity. I fell in love with them right away.”
At the time, Jansen couldn’t afford one of the handbags, but when she got home, she looked up the brand online. She read that the company was started by two Midwestern moms who still manufactured the purses in northeast Indiana. Jansen was enchanted.
Months later, when her husband treated her to a set of Vera Bradley luggage and pocketbooks in a red-white-and-blue pattern called Americana Red, Jansen marveled at how stunning they looked piled atop a hotel cart. The first time she laundered one of the purses—part of the joy of a Vera Bradley is that you can just throw it into the washing machine—she turned over the product-care tag sewn inside. “100% cotton,” it read. “Made in U.S.A.”
Americana Red was just the beginning. Since then, Jansen has fallen for Classic Black, Peacock, Yellow Bird, and Caffe Latte. This winter, she joined a Vera Bradley fan site on the Internet, hoping to gossip with other devotees about the spring catalog. Instead, she was stunned by the online chatter. Laura, in New York, posted: “What I LOVED most about Vera Bradley products was they WERE made in the USA. Not now though. Like everything else, they are now being made in China.” And from Katherine in Ohio: “Too bad Vera has gone Chinese! Don’t think I’ll be buying them anymore. I have been communicating with corporate about my concerns. All I get back is corporate rhetoric! Used to be such a great company. What happened? And what about all those Indianans who lost their jobs?”
Jansen fetched her Caffe Latte tote and checked the tag. “100% cotton,” it read. “Made in China.”
Vera Bradley Designs is a Fort Wayne–based producer of handbags, luggage, and other accessories, most of them made of quilted cotton in hyper-colorful, overtly feminine patterns. The brand’s popularity has soared in recent years: Between 2002 and 2007, sales revenues increased 330 percent, reaching $251 million. Today, the company’s 200,000-square-foot distribution facility can be spotted from Interstate 69, just south of Fort Wayne.
Vera Bradley debuted in 1982, just as International Harvester— which had built trucks in Fort Wayne for 60 years—was closing its plant. The manufacturer had been Fort Wayne’s largest employer, the flagship of the industrial economy of northeast Indiana. At that downtrodden time, along came Vera Bradley, building a business on floral and paisley patterns and blossoming improbably in the refuse of the Rust Belt.
Vera Bradley’s founders have been lauded as Indiana Living Legends and U.S. Small Business Administration Outstanding Woman Entrepreneurs. The company’s foundation has pledged $10 million to Indiana University breast-cancer research and endows an oncology chair at the school. Its annual outlet sale, held each spring, is Fort Wayne’s tourism season, pulling an estimated $3 million–plus into the local economy, filling area hotels with rabid Vera Bradley fans and earning a spot in local lore as the most-requested day off of the year among Allen County teachers.
Before Vera Bradley, the only fashion icon to emerge from Fort Wayne had been clothing designer Bill Blass, who left town for New York after high school and spent his career trying to distance himself from his hometown. (“Had it not been for the joylessness, colorlessness, and fatherlessness of my small-town Indiana childhood, I might not have gone anywhere,” Blass once wrote.) But unlike Blass, Vera Bradley’s marketing strategy has long relied on its Indiana beginnings. The very essence of a Vera Bradley handbag—quilted, cotton, comfortable—typifies its Midwestern roots. “We like to say that when you carry a piece of Vera Bradley,” the promotional materials once touted, “you carry a piece of Indiana!” Today, Vera Bradley winks at its home state through photos in its catalogs, which feature Indiana driver’s licenses and Indiana University student identification cards tucked into Mod Floral Blue wallets and Puccini ID holders. In the spring 2009 catalog, four members of the Zionsville High School tennis team—clad in crisp white and sporting Cupcakes Pink and Cupcakes Green bags—pose on a croquet lawn.
More than 3,700 retailers across the country, plus a few overseas, stock the purse-maker’s products, but only 26 of those are Vera Bradley stores, the full-bloom depiction of the lifestyle. At Carmel’s Vera Bradley at Clay Terrace, for instance, customers step through a rose-colored door onto honey-hued wood floors. A buttery yellow cheers the walls. Rugs in Vera Bradley’s Hope Garden pattern liven the floors. Mer-chandise is displayed in orderly but eye-popping vignettes: wristlets in Mod Floral Pink, Mediterranean White, and Rasp-berry Fizz rise in piles on a tiered plant stand; Amy purses—Night Owl against Frankly Scarlet against Purple Punch—hang from their shoulder straps on a shabby-chic-style coat rack. And along every wall, purses and backpacks and duffels are sandwiched like library books on the shelves of chaste white hutches.
In Vera speak, these patterns are known as “colors.” The spring catalog featured 18 of them, almost all available in several varieties of cosmetics bags and luggage, plus 16 different handbags (the Audrey, Betsy, Little Betsy, Morgan, Maggie, Libby, and Gabby, for instance); six wallets (the Taxi, Pocket, Clutch, Sleek, Zip-Around, and Mini-Zip); five styles of eyeglass cases; two lunch totes; plus a checkbook cover, laptop portfolio, diaper bag, and curling-iron cover. Vera Bradley also lends its designs to makers of eyewear, home accessories, and stationery. A few times each year, the company releases new colors and retires old ones, a constant refreshing that—combined with the threat of a favorite pattern disappearing—makes fans of Vera Bradley want to not just buy it, but collect it.
“People look at these bags, and their feeling is that there is some special value inherent in the product,” says Dr. Robert K. Passikoff, a brand strategist and founder of Brand Keys, a New York–based marketing firm. “Those values resonate within the customer, and they think that they cannot get that value somewhere else. People see in Vera Bradley a sense of security, of home, of comfort.” The signature logo—oversized “V,” artsy “B,” swooping “y”—resembles the script of a favorite aunt or sister. And the oft-repeated story of Vera Bradley’s beginning—as the home-based brainchild of two baby-boomer girlfriends—personifies the dream of any stay-at-home mom who has a best friend.
In recent years, though, the accelerated success of Vera Bradley Designs seems to have led the company away from its mom-and-mom roots. At first, the changes were subtle and unsurprising: A system of regional, contracted sales reps was abandoned for an in-house force, and the company began directly selling its pro-ducts online, a move that competed with the small, independent gift shops that had helped build the business.
But the most startling decision came last year, when the purse-maker pulled itswork out of five Fort Wayne–area sewing companies. The shift did not go unchallenged: Last summer, a former Vera Bradley executive who owned three of the factories sued Vera Bradley Designs, alleging that the company had committed fraud and breach of contract. So far, lawyers have been unable to reach a settlement; the case is scheduled for trial in April 2010.
Altogether, about 700 workers lost their jobs—news cushioned by Vera Bradley’s announcement that it would create nearly 500 positions at a new Fort Wayne–area production facility set to open about a year after the layoffs. The city of New Haven, a few miles southeast of Fort Wayne, gave Vera Bradley $100,000 to help fund the expansion and approved $298,000 in tax abatements, even while the federal government paid to retrain the factories’ out-of-work seamstresses in other skills.
In a year-end press release on job creation, the Indiana Economic Development Corporation touted the new Vera Bradley facility—planned for an abandoned auto-parts factory—as one of the state’s biggest success stories for 2008, even though it will employ fewer people than the factories laid off.
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