Barbara Baekgaard Isn’t Even Close To Finished Yet
If you want to be as successful as Barbara Bradley Baekgaard—and who wouldn’t want to emulate the 86th richest self-made woman in America?—there’s good news.
First, it’s not too late. She didn’t start building Vera Bradley, the $500 million handbag empire, until she was in her 40s. Now cracking 80, she’s starting a brand-new project by opening The Bradley hotel in downtown Fort Wayne this summer, the first full-service hotel she has invested in or designed. “I’m the world’s oldest entrepreneur,” she says. She means it as a joke, because she is always joking, but there’s truth to it.
Second, say “yes.” Forget the empowerment trend about learning to say “no” more often. For Baekgaard, the answer is always yes. Only then does she ask, “Now, what is your question?” The maxim comes from the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center, and the Vera Bradley management has taken its course on how to treat guests and clients. The company’s backstory is full of examples of practicing the rule. Once, the team had matching outfits made from Vera Bradley fabrics to wear to an industry sales event, where they would take orders for Vera Bradley bags and accessories from store owners and buyers.
One evening at the event, Baekgaard called the company’s cofounder, Pat Miller, to fill her in on the day. When Miller asked what was selling best,
Baekgaard said, “The outfits.”
“What outfits?” Miller asked.
The team’s. Which weren’t for sale. But when clients had said they liked the clothes, Baekgaard started taking orders. She didn’t know how they were going to fulfill them. She said “yes” and would worry about the rest later.
Vera Bradley ended up selling clothes for a few years. The high-neck ruffled blouse was surprisingly popular with one particular funeral home.
It’s hard to tell how many women were buried in it.
“We always think every idea is going to turn out. Every style, every design, the hotel,” Baekgaard says. “That’s my nature. I’m shocked when things don’t work out for me. And if it doesn’t, I have a Plan B. Sometimes it turns out better than Plan A.”
One time, she made an offer on a home on behalf of her niece on the spur of the moment—not as a gift, but as a decision for her niece’s family, who had asked Barb, as she’s known, to go to an open house for them while they were out of town. Barb thought they would love the house, noted the stiff competition, and made an offer.
If you don’t like it, she said, I’ll help you flip it.
Barb was right. They loved the house.
She has built 14 homes herself, the latest a few years ago in Fort Wayne, where she still lives. As Vera Bradley’s chief creative officer until 2017, she oversaw the selection of fabric and bag designs, but she was more hands-on with setting up Vera Bradley stores and the trade-show booth. Interior design and architecture are her most enduring loves (other than her four children and 12 grandchildren), and as she traveled around the world extensively on Vera Bradley business, she came to appreciate hotel design, too. Especially hotels that feel like home.
Which brings us to the third bit of good news—you don’t have to move to make it big, even in design. For Barb, no place feels more like home than Fort Wayne, which remained her primary residence even once she could afford to live anywhere. Vera Bradley has long since opened an office in New York, where Barb has a condo in a building with A-list celebrities and loves to spend time. But when she got around to designing a hotel, there was no question it belonged in Fort Wayne—or that it would look smashing. Veranda magazine called it one of the most anticipated luxury hotel openings this year, alongside a Ritz-Carlton in Madrid and a $1,200-per-night resort on St. Barts.
And that’s good news for Paul McCartney’s band. Because the next time they come to Fort Wayne for a concert, as they did in 2019, they won’t have to stay at the Courtyard by Marriott.
If Barb had known, and if she hadn’t had a full house the weekend of the concert, there’s a chance she would have invited Sir Paul’s crew to stay with her. She never lets friends or business associates stay at hotels in Fort Wayne. The weekend of McCartney’s sold-out show at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum (after which he flew out on a private jet), Barb was busy hosting the annual Vera Bradley Foundation Classic for breast cancer. Sponsors who work with Barb don’t just mail a check. They fly in and show up.
As much as Barb loves to host, her invitations are also about quality. Fort Wayne doesn’t have a really nice hotel. Vera Bradley is a fashion brand on the level of Coach and Michael Kors. When buyers and recruits come to town, bland corporate chains don’t leave the right impression.
“We’d bring people in from out of town, and everything was so good,” she says. “Pretty parks, nice theater, we have a philharmonic, nice people, good baseball team. We had everything. And after their wonderful visit, we’d drop them at a regular hotel. I hate to badmouth any hotel, but it’s the last memory they have of Fort Wayne. Even when my girls got married, I thought, Where am I going to put the guests? That was 30 years ago. That’s how long I have thought this was missing from our community.”
Barb means a boutique hotel. Something special. Something with design cred. Something like Firmdale Hotels, which she adores because they feel like home—or at least Barb’s homes. Firmdale designer Kit Kemp’s style is soft, sophisticated, and a little playful. She uses a mix of patterns in wallpapers and upholstery fabrics, a bold light fixture or rug, color on the walls, fresh flowers, original artwork. The look is designed and detailed, not just decorated. Bespoke, not just beautiful. Town & Country said of Kemp, “She’s known for her eccentric interiors that are at once polished and madcap.” She infuses a lot of personality into each hotel, like the 57 baskets she hung over a bar in The Whitby in New York City because she had begun collecting them when she traveled.
It’s the kind of design that just feels right, feels divined. You can’t put your finger on one focal point or one reason it works. It’s the principles—the great lighting, the grounding of a room, balance, being “bold but not frantic,” as Kemp says. And Barb goes where the fullness of life and inspiration calls—whether in upscale finery or classic Midwestern style.
Her interpretation of a homey hotel will surprise people who are expecting a Vera Bradley offshoot—wholesome, perky, ultra-feminine, and a little fusty. Actually, that hotel already existed. It was the Inn by the Sea in Seaside, Florida, branded as a Vera Bradley retreat and heavy on dust ruffles and traditional furniture; the company sold it in 2013.
The Bradley name is an homage to Barb’s father, a traveling salesman, while Vera Bradley is her mother’s name. The hotel’s aesthetic is true to Barb’s personal style—she dresses smart, classic with modern verve, and casually chic, while remaining friendly and approachable. Her go-to outfit is a pair of skinny jeans, a denim or plaid button-up shirt with the collar popped a bit, and a pair of comfortable yet on-trend shoes, like the tasseled moccasin-style booties she wore to The Bradley’s construction site one winter day. She pulls off modern—her granddaughters borrow her clothes—without trying to look younger. For color, she might add a patterned scarf or Vera Bradley jewelry.
Like a Kit Kemp hotel, each room at The Bradley has a dramatic headboard with scalloped edges. Like a Barb interior, the upholstery is Thibaut and there’s wallpaper in the bathrooms, a colorful throw blanket folded across the foot of the bed, and a comfortable barrel chair in a solid chartreuse yellow. Plaid drapes are meant to be gender-neutral.
The rooms are snug and standard other than the pretty decor. One novel touch is a sleek, open closet—more like a big cubby, with a knee-high platform for a suitcase and a short clothing rod above it. “You usually don’t have a lot when you travel,” Barb explains. The nook is wallpapered, of course.
The bathroom is gleaming and spacious with white-stone countertops and antique brass fixtures, navy-and-white graphic wallpaper, and a glassed-in shower. Barb asks a visitor touring the sample room, “It’s pretty, right? Not your average hotel?”
Not average, but simpler than a grand Kit Kemp showpiece. The Bradley is Fort Wayne’s first boutique, but it’s not breaking any mold. It’s lively and modern, but not showy. It doesn’t preen, as so many boutique hotels do. In that way, one of many, it’s very Barb.
So is the exterior. The new five-story limestone building has influences of her favorite architect, Robert A.M. Stern, who designed the high-rise she lives in in New York. The Bradley has 124 rooms and nine suites, which will be named for Indiana cities and feature couches and headboards with the same Schumacher floral upholstery that Barb has at home. The suite she will use has a bathtub, one of her musts. She ends every day with a soak during which she reviews her to-do list and reckons that anything that wasn’t important enough to complete can wait a day or two.
The Bradley’s pièce de résistance is Birdie’s, the rooftop bistro with both indoor and outdoor seating. Birdie is what Barb’s grandchildren call her. She’s not into food, geeking out instead on ambience, decor, and the finer points of hospitality. Despite the name, there’s nothing chirpy about the decor, no Vera Bradley cutesiness or loud colors. The palette is predominantly cream with light, honey-colored wood chairs and barstools and Italian tile flooring with rows of diamonds. Both the deep armchairs and decorative brass lighting have a modern rattan quality, like cane furniture. Three large black-frame garage doors roll up to open the space to the adjacent rooftop patio, and the ceiling is exposed ductwork painted a soft green. Both Birdie’s and the lobby-level restaurant, Arbor (a nod to Fort Wayne’s nickname, the City of Trees), were developed with Denver-based hospitality group Ring on Hook because Barb loves the company’s posh restaurant atop Manhattan’s RH store, formerly known as Restoration Hardware—although Birdie’s, at least in the renderings, looks much more Midwestern than Ring on Hook’s modern, glitzy flagship in New York.
Throughout the hotel, artwork will be local, not generic afterthoughts, and one of Barb’s granddaughters is making a large number of colorful collages. A gallery wall will rotate works by students, faculty, and alumni of Fort Wayne’s Purdue campus. The fitness center will have first-rate Peloton bikes and Mirror workout systems.
Barb has sweated over the details in conjunction with her friend and longtime collaborator, Anne Coyle, who went to college with one of Barb’s daughters. Their role was to source wallpaper, fabrics, finishes, furniture, and other decorative details, like fox-head wall hooks, a nod to Vera’s maiden name, Fox. Peonies, the Indiana state flower, will appear on area rugs. And they had to stay on budget, a puzzle they both enjoyed. The project developer and manager, Provenance Hotels from Portland, Oregon, is handling just about everything else, but the team consults with, if not defers to, Barb on any matter of atmosphere or taste. Barb reviewed the outfits that Birdie’s staff would wear and lengthened the shirt sleeves for comfort and modesty.
No detail is too small for her attention—in fact, the fine points are her specialty. Provenance ran an idea for a suggestive “Do Not Disturb” sign by her and Anne. “I could go with that, but not to hang in my hotel,” Barb says. “You tell your child to put the thing on the door and it says something suggestive.” Back when Fox on Main was a frontrunner for the hotel’s name, one door hanger suggestion was “For Fox sake, stay out of my room,” which made her laugh. “That’s what I say to my guests when they come to my house: For fox sake!” Barb says.
Barb’s not above a naughty joke. Before Vera Bradley, she and cofounder Pat Miller had a wallpaper business that Barb had wanted to call “Well Hung,” and she’ll proudly show you a tchotchke in her house that says “Get Shit Done.” Barb’s sense of humor is legendary among her friends and colleagues—she’s not bawdy, but she’s hardly prim, either. Still, was that door hanger the right tone? She and Anne like a simple and gracious “Yes, Please” on one side and “No, Thank You” on the other. Polite and chatty, but they wonder if guests will get it.
For all the fussing (a positive word to Barb) over shirt sleeves and housekeeping messages, the ultimate Barb effect will be the overall vibe—Midwestern upscale homey. “It’s a feeling, like you’re a guest in my home,” she says. Nothing new on paper, but in the same way that Vera Bradley wasn’t just another handbag but a feminine and functional touchstone that inspired a sisterhood, The Bradley’s magic will come from its spiritual source, Barb’s exuberant and irresistible charm.
And, she expects, Fort Wayne’s.
When Barb goes to New York City—it was every month before the pandemic—she lives it up. She throws parties at her condo on Central Park West, the same building where Sting and J. Lo live. Broadway is her passion, and she has made friends among the actors and directors and hosts afterparties with everyone singing around her player piano, which she will sometimes fool people into thinking she is playing. She stays out well past midnight singing at Marie’s Crisis, a Greenwich Village piano bar, and power-walks around Fifth Avenue, shopping everywhere from Bergdorf’s to H&M. Her former driver, Gregory, is a cabbie whom she and her late Danish husband, Peer, befriended on a ride and who eventually became a close family friend.
“It’s the best city to retire in,” she gushes. If you can afford her lifestyle, of course.
She means for other people. Barb isn’t retired. And she never will be, she says, because she doesn’t want to stop working. A fortuneteller even confirmed it many years ago. For her, New York is a fabulous place to spend some time, but so is Fort Wayne, despite the glamour gap between the two. She has a lot of pride in Fort Wayne, works to make it a better place, and wants to show it off through The Bradley.
For that reason, any other location in the city would have been a dealbreaker for Barb, who is a primary investor in the hotel. It’s a block from The Landing, a pedestrian-only stretch of restaurants, cafes, shops, and public spaces, and also within easy walking distance of Promenade Park on Fort Wayne’s riverfront, which is in the midst of a rejuvenation. Where The Bradley sits, on the corner of Main and Harrison streets, is the Central Park West of Fort Wayne.
When the project got rolling with the city and Greater Fort Wayne Inc. economic development group in 2016, those players tried hard to sell Barb on a spot near the town’s minor-league baseball stadium, which the city says has generated $1 billion in revenue and new development downtown. She was adamantly against it. She didn’t have to play her Barb Card—a wallet-sized paper printed with “Barb” on one side and “because she said so” on the other. It’s a jokey but actual thing she has used at Vera Bradley to get her way, but in this case, it was the only suitable option. Provenance agreed, which helped them win the bid over two competitors. The city had invited four top boutique-hotel operators to Fort Wayne to see if they were interested in The Bradley. Three accepted, and all three wanted a shot after they came to town. “I couldn’t have placed Fort Wayne on a map before now,” says Katy Durant, the president of Provenance. But she loved the city’s enthusiasm for the project, the drumbeat of development, and Barb’s vision. “My kids go to Duke, and I have a Vera Bradley Duke bag,” she says.
Part of Greater Fort Wayne’s sales pitch was that Fort Wayne has turned around its domestic migration so now more people are moving into the city than leaving it. “Our job is to keep our capital here, giving people like Barb the opportunity to invest here, but also bringing capital into the community,” says John Urbahns, president of Greater Fort Wayne Inc. “But without Barb’s passion to create something for the community, it isn’t getting done.”
The $30 million project replaced a parking lot. The city and county provided the land as part of an incentives package worth nearly $6 million. For Provenance, Fort Wayne is a glaring departure from its other 13 locations in Portland, Palm Springs, Seattle, Boston, New Orleans, and Nashville. Durant says they like smaller markets, but all of those places are exciting, and also not that small. Fort Wayne may be growing and has nice things, but it’s not Palm Springs, a major entertainment hub, or a coastal metropolis. In Provenance’s portfolio, one of those places is not like the others.
What Fort Wayne has, though, is Barb.
People just adore her. They want to work with her. They find her charming, funny, and authentic, and she is genuinely interested in other people. She grew up in the sunshine of Miami Beach and has carried it with her wherever she goes. She has a gift for drawing people into her orbit and the warmth to keep them there. It helped her build Vera Bradley starting with a sales staff of close friends (and her mother, Vera Bradley herself) and rally more than 1,000 loyal foundation volunteers to raise $38 million for breast cancer research. Since Barb lost her best friend to the disease in 1992, the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center at IU Health has become the focus of her philanthropy. The annual Classic fundraiser, centered on golf and pickleball tournaments, is said to be the largest amateur women’s golf tournament in the country. “She made Fort Wayne feel important, so of course everyone loves her back,” says Vera Bradley Foundation President Ruth Cook.
Of course, Provenance also had to see dollar signs. Unlike many hotel companies, Provenance invests financially in its properties rather than simply taking a management contract. It’s about a 50/50 investor along with Barb. Though The Bradley isn’t The Vera Bradley, neither is it called Fox on Main, one of the early working monikers. That name had problems—it’s a little generic, and there are big Fox companies in the cultural atmosphere, like Fox News and Atlanta’s Fox Theater. Barb came around to allow an obvious connection to the company and its army of Vera-philes, who will likely make a pilgrimage there with their quilted-cotton luggage. And even though the company has struggled in recent years (its stock dropped from $52 in 2011 to $3 in 2020), it still has enough name recognition and cachet that Architectural Digest previewed “the first Vera Bradley hotel” in the spring. Inside the hotel, Barb has also agreed to a small Vera Bradley retail presence. Here’s hoping it will also have a piano in the lobby where sing-alongs break out in the evening.
The one potential blind spot in Barb’s quest to lift up Fort Wayne is Birdie’s, which will not be run by a local restaurant or chef. This choice seems like a big omission in her love letter to the city. She shrugs off the suggestion of criticism. “That was a Provenance decision,” she says. “They’re in the hotel business. I’m not.”
It takes more than that to put a damper on Barb’s enthusiasm, which is ultimately why she’s defying the odds as an octogenarian entrepreneur. Sure, the opportunity stems from power and money, which, according to Forbes, Barb has more of than both Kris Jenner and Reese Witherspoon. But Barb’s boundless energy and verve beget her wealth and influence, then outlasted the pain of losing her best friend, her mother in a car accident, and finally her beloved Peer to Alzheimer’s 14 years ago. If you can stay healthy and overcome the life-suck of grief, which befalls everyone in their sunset years, 82 isn’t too old to design your first hotel.
Or maybe two. Fort Wayne still needs one by the ballpark.