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.
Eboni K. Williams and Cheslie Kryst have a lot in common, as Iman Oubou Founder & CEO of SWAAY as well as host of the Women Who Swaay podcast puts it, "They're both badass attorneys, they're both from North Carolina and they've both competed in the Miss North Carolina USA pageants." And they also both took over our podcast on the most recent episode, straight from the headquarters of the Miss Universe Organization!
Cheslie is a successful licensed attorney who also happens to be the reigning Miss USA 2019, with plans to represent our country in the upcoming Miss Universe competition. Not only is she at the height of her pageant power, but she is using the notoriety to create positive change for all of the women in her life, much like her role model Eboni K. Williams. Williams is a journalist, author, attorney and speaker; from her long history as a pageant queen she has risen through the ranks of male dominated industries from law-firms to Fox News. All throughout her journey she has persevered with intelligence, tenacity and poise. Lucky enough for us, she has kindly put her reporting skills to use and got candid with Ms. Kryst about supporting their fellow women, the current state of race in America and their history together as pageant compatriots. All of these topics are incredibly close to their hearts as powerful black women using their influence to create a better future for all women in America.
Oh and, as previously stated, both are complete and utter badasses.
During their podcast takeover they talked about it all, from pageants to politics. It's clear that both of these women are motivated by an altruistic spirit and are strong supporters of #womensupportingwomen. Eboni even read a passage from her book, Pretty Powerful: Appearance, Substance, and Success, in which she outlines how her own career trajectory was so positively affected by the incredible women who mentored her in different stages of her life. She completely shuts down the idea of the "woman on woman teardown," calling it a "pitiful dynamic" tied to the "long and very hurtful history of women." This idea that in order to compete for a spot in the old boy's club, women must first fight off their own gender is not only reductive but it also supports an outdated social structure that was built to greatly favor male success. Throughout history women have been encouraged to look at one another as competition, one more obstacle to pass by. However, all that has managed to do is to pit us against each other, fighting for the few meager seats at the table allowed for women while we ignore the real problem. The problem isn't about the lack of seats allotted for women; the problem is that men are still the ones making the seating arrangements, and it's time for that to change, something that both Cheslie and Eboni understand well.
Race is another topic that is incredibly important to both of these women, and they have quite the in-depth discussion on it during this podcast. Cheslie, who is biracial and self-identifies as black, laid out her point of view on race. She voiced her frustrations for never feeling like she had her own box to tick, being stuck to decide between "black, white, or other" in standardized situations like the SATs. Existing as someone stuck between two cultures has been incredibly challenging, and though she found some solace in the black community, she felt less welcomed by her white peers. Self-identifying as black is something that has allowed her more agency in regards to her own identity, and though she still faces difficulties she realizes how important it is to be a confident black woman in the esteemed position she is currently in. Both Cheslie and Eboni seem to bond over the idea that no matter the successes, they both revel in the victories of their fellow women of color. Each of them is motivated to see more women of color in powerful, visible positions to inspire future generations. It's not about their own success; it's about respect and renown for any and all women of color.
I may have just provided the highlight reel, but the full conversation shared between Cheslie and Eboni on the Women Who Swaay podcast is a must listen. These two women managed to make me laugh while restoring hope for a better America all within a half hour of listening time! Seriously, go get those headphones, right now. You will not regret it.