After noticing a void in women's work-wear fashion, 28 year-old Joanna Lau took matters into her own hands. The designer and mind behind JEMMA handbags is taking a stance for the modern workingwomen. Designed to be highly function, glamorous, and affordable, celebrities like Katherine Shwarzenegger and Maria Shriver are strutting the streets with JEMMA handbags on their arms. In this Q&A, Lau talks with SWAAY about how she developed an idea into a brand.
What was your “ah ha" moment for creating JEMMA?
When I was working in finance, I was looking for a workbag that I could carry to work everyday. I wanted a bag that was presentable, and at the same time, was able to hold everything I needed to carry for work; whether it was a laptop, Ipad, multiple documents or a basic thing like a pen. I looked around, and all the workbags I saw were pretty on the outside, but the inside was just an empty bag with only one zip. For me, I would go to conferences and meetings with a lot of men, and being in a very male dominant industry, I noticed that all of these guys had beautiful leather briefcases. These briefcases had compartments for all the various things they needed to carry with them, and as a woman, going out there and looking for these things was impossible. I either felt like I had to get a men's bag or I had to compromise and carry a women's bag with no functionality. So, while looking around, I couldn't find anything that had the functionality aspect while looking like a designer bag on the outside. I asked my friends and coworkers if they could find something similar to men's briefcase, but a more feminine version of it, but no one really had an answer for me. So, that is when I thought that maybe I should start something within handbags to cater to that need. I decided on handbags because it was something that I always liked and felt was important to women. Handbags really represent who a women is and what she stands for, almost more so than clothes. With clothing, people can change their style from day to day. But with a handbag, it really represents the women in the moment that you see her, and it is a statement of who she is.
What makes JEMMA handbags different from other handbags like Coach?
We cater to a working women's needs, or a more general sense, the modern woman today. She goes around, she's busy, and she always has things to carry. Especially today with all the electronic gadgets, like Ipads, IPhones, Macbooks, and Apple Watches, you are required to carry around multiple chargers and electronics. Women will sometimes want to carry a water bottle too, and a lot of designer purses don't have compartments for that.I think that a lot of designer bags only focus on the exterior and how the design looks, whereas we want to focus on the exterior, create classic designs that people love, but at the same time, we want to focus on the interior and create necessary pockets that the modern day woman is looking for in a handbag. So, our bags are not going to be just a big, black hole.
The modern woman today is smart and savvy, and they don't just want a good looking bag, they want a good looking bag that has the quality they are looking for and be at the right price. So, it is all of these little things that we really try to focus on. It is not just coming out with a bag that looks good, it's coming out with a bag that is functional, at the right price point, and is designer looking.
What inspired the other products you have made, like the gym bag?
When we started, we initially wanted to start with two bags, so the workbag and the life bag. The workbag has been very successful for us because people really like our classic designs that have the functionality and quality they are looking for. On that basis, we built on that momentum and created the wallet crossbody and gym bag, with the knowledge that the modern woman has various needs as well. Women today are very active, so after work they might go travel or go to the gym and workout. So, being that active and busy, they want a bag that is presentable, affordable, and can cater to their active and healthy lifestyle. The gym bag has a hidden compartment to put your shoes in for women who like to switch out their work shoes for their gym shoes. There is also a compartment for women who love to carry a water bottle everyday. The gym bag also comes with a cosmetic purse and a laundry bag as well, so it really caters for women who go to the gym and travel a lot. So, the gym bag is really an extension of the brand, and that's what we want to keep doing.
What was the process of transforming your idea into the product?
When I had the idea, I did some research to get an idea about the type of competitors that were out there. I personally went down to factories in Asia to try and get a sense of how our product would be manufactured. I spoke to manufacturers, tried different prototypes and sample, and got a sense of whom else to work with.
Handbags really represent who a woman is and what she stands for, almost more so than clothes.
I went to Europe as well to get material because I wanted to work with Italian leather. So, it was a lot of flying around and doing research on my own. In terms of designing, I sketched everything out myself and went back to the manufacturer and told them how I wanted everything to be made. For me, the design aspect was a little easier just because I had a background in it, but the manufacturing side was really from the ground up and figuring it out as I go. I would say it took about a year to develop the product. I had the idea in mind while still in work, but I went full time on it six months after that. So, it essentially took me about a year to kind to from the idea into an actual product that could be sold.
How do you advertise for JEMMA?
We are focused on being very consumer based. We do a lot of social media and don't really spend a lot of money on mainstream advertising because we like to do it more organically. Social media allows us to do that because we not only reach out to new customers, but we also hear their feedback and thoughts about our products. They talk about it, post about it, and comment about it on Facebook and Instagram. With mainstream advertising it's a little harder because you don't know if people see it or what they think of it, so we like social media advertising more.
What is your 5-year plan for JEMMA?
In five years we really want to build JEMMA into a brand that caters to every dimension and need of a workingwomen. Whether it's handbags or any other product category, we are always looking into expanding the brand based on the needs of a modern woman. Also, there are so many needs and things to work with that fashion brands have not looked into in-depth yet, so that is what we are really focusing on.
In 2016, I finally found my voice. I always thought I had one, especially as a business owner and mother of two vocal toddlers, but I had been wrong.
For more than 30 years, I had been struggling with the fear of being my true self and speaking my truth. Then the repressed memories of my childhood sexual abuse unraveled before me while raising my 3-year-old daughter, and my life has not been the same since.
Believe it or not, I am happy about that.
The journey for a survivor like me to feel even slightly comfortable sharing these words, without fear of being shamed or looked down upon, is a long and often lonely one. For all of the people out there in the shadows who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse, I dedicate this to you. You might never come out to talk about it and that's okay, but I am going to do so here and I hope that in doing so, I will open people's eyes to the long-term effects of abuse. As a survivor who is now fully conscious of her abuse, I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and, quite frankly, it may never go away.
It took me some time to accept that and I refuse to let it stop me from thriving in life; therefore, I strive to manage it (as do many others with PTSD) through various strategies I've learned and continue to learn through personal and group therapy. Over the years, various things have triggered my repressed memories and emotions of my abuse--from going to birthday parties and attending preschool tours to the Kavanaugh hearing and most recently, the"Leaving Neverland" documentary (I did not watch the latter, but read commentary about it).
These triggers often cause panic attacks. I was angry when I read Barbara Streisand's comments about the men who accused Michael Jackson of sexually abusing them, as detailed in the documentary. She was quoted as saying, "They both married and they both have children, so it didn't kill them." She later apologized for her comments. I was frustrated when one of the senators questioning Dr. Christine Blasey Ford (during the Kavanaugh hearing) responded snidely that Dr. Ford was still able to get her Ph.D. after her alleged assault--as if to imply she must be lying because she gained success in life.We survivors are screaming to the world, "You just don't get it!" So let me explain: It takes a great amount of resilience and fortitude to walk out into society every day knowing that at any moment an image, a sound, a color, a smell, or a child crying could ignite fear in us that brings us back to that moment of abuse, causing a chemical reaction that results in a panic attack.
So yes, despite enduring and repressing those awful moments in my early life during which I didn't understand what was happening to me or why, decades later I did get married; I did become a parent; I did start a business that I continue to run today; and I am still learning to navigate this "new normal." These milestones do not erase the trauma that I experienced. Society needs to open their eyes and realize that any triumph after something as ghastly as childhood abuse should be celebrated, not looked upon as evidence that perhaps the trauma "never happened" or "wasn't that bad. "When a survivor is speaking out about what happened to them, they are asking the world to join them on their journey to heal. We need love, we need to feel safe and we need society to learn the signs of abuse and how to prevent it so that we can protect the 1 out of 10 children who are being abused by the age of 18. When I state this statistic at events or in large groups, I often have at least one person come up to me after and confide that they too are a survivor and have kept it a secret. My vehicle for speaking out was through the novella The Survivors Club, which is the inspiration behind a TV pilot that my co-creator and I are pitching as a supernatural, mind-bending TV series. Acknowledging my abuse has empowered me to speak up on behalf of innocent children who do not have a voice and the adult survivors who are silent.
Remembering has helped me further understand my young adult challenges,past risky relationships, anger issues, buried fears, and my anxieties. I am determined to thrive and not hide behind these negative things as they have molded me into the strong person I am today.Here is my advice to those who wonder how to best support survivors of sexual abuse:Ask how we need support: Many survivors have a tough exterior, which means the people around them assume they never need help--we tend to be the caregivers for our friends and families. Learning to be vulnerable was new for me, so I realized I needed a check-off list of what loved ones should ask me afterI had a panic attack.
The list had questions like: "Do you need a hug," "How are you feeling," "Do you need time alone."Be patient with our PTSD". Family and close ones tend to ask when will the PTSD go away. It isn't a cold or a disease that requires a finite amount of drugs or treatment. There's no pill to make it miraculously disappear, but therapy helps manage it and some therapies have been known to help it go away. Mental Health America has a wealth of information on PTSD that can help you and survivors understand it better. Have compassion: When I was with friends at a preschool tour to learn more about its summer camp, I almost fainted because I couldn't stop worrying about my kids being around new teenagers and staff that might watch them go the bathroom or put on their bathing suit. After the tour, my friends said,"Nubia, you don't have to put your kids in this camp. They will be happy doing other things this summer."
In that moment, I realized how lucky I was to have friends who understood what I was going through and supported me. They showed me love and compassion, which made me feel safe and not judged.