It all started with a knock at the door four decades ago. It was 1982 in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Patricia R. Miller was stopping by to introduce herself to her new neighbor Barbara Bradley Baekgaard.
“I happened to be the welcoming committee of one,” Miller told CNN Business with a laugh. “Barbara answered the wallpapered door – because it was their new home and she likes to wallpaper new homes – and I said, ‘Welcome.’ And that was it.
The women quickly became inseparable. A few months later, returning from a family trip to Florida for Barb’s mother’s birthday, a stopover in Atlanta changed everything. The duo, known to friends as “Pat and Barb”, looked at the passengers’ luggage and noticed that everything looked rather drab, in shades of beige and black.
The idea of Vera Bradley, named after Barb’s mother, is now a $540 million women’s fashion brand that sells brightly patterned bags and other products, was born right there in that terminal of the Atlanta airport.
“Growing up in Miami Beach, we had Lilly Pulitzer and Laura Ashley. I was used to a lot of color,” Baekgaard said in an interview. [moment] or a God-wink. I don’t know what it was, but we came back and started the business the next day.
With a combined investment pool of $500 from their own money, they purchased materials from their local fabric store and set to work creating their first duffel bag on the basement ping pong table. Baekgaard soil.
It was many years before the advent of the internet, let alone social media – so they had no influencers. But they had Baekgaard’s two college-aged daughters, and they sent the young women to Marymount College and Michigan State with first-ever duffels Vera Bradley.
“The Kapas [Kappa Gamma women’s sorority] home in the state of Michigan, they sort of brag that they started the business,” Baekgaard said. “They were our first test market, and it grew from there.”
Because the bags were so visible — and shiny — they were “like a little billboard,” she said. Soon, Baekgaard and Miller were receiving so many requests for duffel bags that they could barely keep up with the orders. To keep up with demand, they hired local seamstresses who collected kits containing a pattern and the components needed to make each bag, then sent the finished products back to Barb and Pat.
It was clear: it was a viable business. And every business needs a name.
“We used all kinds of names, but Barb’s mother’s name was Vera Bradley. My mother’s name was Wilma Polito! Miller burst out laughing.
Colorful patterns and paisley prints took off almost immediately, with their bright bags and luggage dotting college campuses and inside airport terminals. Over the next few decades, Vera Bradley expanded into bedding, technology and home accessories. On Thursday, the brand launched its very first shoe collection.
Last year, the company’s sales reached $540.5 million, a figure the duo could hardly have imagined.
“I remember at the gift show in Atlanta, they didn’t get it,” Baekgaard said. “I remember one woman specifically saying to me, ‘Do you think I’m carrying bags with chickens on them?’ Well, it turned out to be a huge success.
Miller and Baekgaard served as co-chairmen of the company from 1982 until its public debut in 2010. Miller retired in 2012 and Baekgaard in 2017.
Even as women reminisce about 40 years of Vera Bradley, the brand is looking to the future and pushing the boundaries of its duffel bag roots. Earlier this month, the company unveiled The World of Vera Bradley, a platform to teach women about Web3, and it’s also selling two NFT digital artworks to raise money for the Vera Bradley Foundation for the breast cancer.
“We couldn’t have imagined cellphones and what we’re doing now,” Baekgaard said. “Things come and go…I just hope we can stay relevant and up to date, whatever it is.”