When Brandon Blackwood approached major stores to stock his brand, they rejected him; Barney’s even told the designer that his brand lacked direction. Well, tables have turned, and while Barney’s filed for bankruptcy, Blackwood’s brand blew up. It has been a journey of sacrifice, and the designer even lost friends, but it was worth it. His handbag business now rakes in $30 million a year in revenue, and here’s how he did it.
Following His Heart
Blackwood never entertained the idea of becoming a fashion designer. He told The New York Times that his family expected him to pursue law or medicine. His mother usually said that her son was intelligent and never had to study hard; therefore, majoring in neuroscience was ideal. Still, young Blackwood was naturally drawn to fashion. He raided his mother’s closet looking for clothes to redesign. He would cut T-shirts up and create new designs. Blackwood would then dress his cousins up and ask the family to show up for the “fashion show” in the living room.
The fashion designer must have been a bright student because he won a full scholarship to Bard’s College. He enrolled in the biology program to become a neurosurgeon. However, his desire to be a fashion designer never faded. Therefore, during school breaks, he would intern at fashion magazines. First was Elle, where he interned for a year before moving to Nylon. All this while, he kept it a secret. Although Blackwood’s parents had ingrained in him that being a doctor or lawyer was the only path to success, he added fashion as a major in his senior year. His fascination for the world of fashion led to him writing a thesis about the Diane von Furstenberg wrap. The thesis titled “Feel Like a Woman, Wear a Dress” shocked his family on graduation day. They were expecting him to have done one on a neurosurgery-related topic. Luckily, he had learned from his mother that everything was within his grasp; all he had to do was reach out. As Blackwood disclosed to In The Know, his mother is the most hardworking and most intense person he knows. She is a jack of all trades, having gone from a Wall Street job to pursuing law and culinary arts and even becoming a contractor. Thus, the designer was inspired to follow his heart since, after college, he felt he was in control of his life.
Establishing a Company
Blackwood moved to Brooklyn and got a job as a buyer at a thrift store, where he earned $10 an hour. He did not know his calling until he decided to make a bag for himself. The fashion designer told StockX that he would wear the backpack and everyone asked where he got it. Blackwood then realized that making handbags was what he was supposed to do. He reasoned that, unlike t-shirts, bags are worn almost daily. All he needed was to design something that would match nearly every outfit. Although he was ready to dive into the handbag-making business, the ambitious designer needed capital. So after saving $3,000 and asking $4,000 from his mother, which was his long-overdue graduation gift, the designer made four purses in 2015. He named them after his brother and close friend ̶ he still names his bags after family, close friends, and places in Jamaica. Unfortunately, stores were not interested in his products because he was not known, and it was a black-owned brand. Thankfully, he had a friend at Essence who helped the brand get some coverage in the magazine a month after launching the brand. Another month passed, and Lupita Nyong’o wore Blackwood’s brand. Before he knew it, he was featured in Elle Magazine. Unfortunately, despite getting his brand known, he was only making enough money to keep manufacturing and could not afford to pay himself a salary. Thus, he decided to use Instagram to build a close relationship with customers and boost his brand identity. It helped and the designer admitted to Glossy that the brand grew up on Instagram. However, it was yet to blow up until another opportunity arose in 2020.
His Business Takes Off
In the summer of 2020, police brutality was all over social media following the death of George Floyd. The #BlackLivesMatter was created, and Blackwood thought about doing his part in speaking out against police brutality. Therefore, he designed totes emblazoned on the front with “End Systematic Racism.” According to Teen Vogue, the fashion designer launched the tote bag by posting a photo on Instagram. He never expected the reaction the bag received. The factory had only made 509 bags. He wanted to be on the safe side, but it sold out, leaving Blackwood in tears of joy. He then decided to restock and use celebrities to promote the product on social media. Most of them were reluctant, but Kim Kardashian helped him after he cold messaged her on Instagram. She shared a picture in October 2021 that garnered over 2 million likes. The bag went viral, and he donated the proceeds to Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The organization offers pro-bono legal aid to people of color who need help with civil rights cases. However, it is not just about the message that the bags carried that helped the bag sell out each time. Blackwood eventually discontinued the ESR tote bags. Before then, he ensured that everyone had access to his bags by making them affordable and available through a pre-sale drop. He limits the styles available instead of quantity produced, ensuring that he meets everyone’s preferences. Besides, Blackwood constantly engages customers on Instagram, a practice that has enabled his brand to continue scaling the heights in the fashion industry.
Written by Allen Lee
Read more posts by Allen Lee