One might say the past two years may not have been the best start to a new decade, and rightfully so, but for Brandon Blackwood, it’s been an ideal inflection point for his business. In the midst of the early days of the pandemic and the social rise around the Black Lives Matter movement, people found new ways to incorporate more Black businesses into their lives and sought different avenues to show support and voice their allyship with the Black community.
Blackwood was one of the designers who used his platform to speak out, and as a result, he introduced the beloved End Systematic Racism (ESR) Tote. The ESR tote instantly became an ‘it bag’ and was worn by the likes of celebrities, supporters of the brand and activists. Before releasing the ESR Tote, business was steady. But according to a Business Insider report, by May 2021, the brand had already netted $14 million in revenue for the year from bags that cost no more than $650—aside from a select style made out of crocodile that retails at $8,500.
Building community, delivering great customer service and maintaining a personal relationship with customers are just some of the things that Blackwood has mastered. “I think it’s just really about keeping everything organic,” he says. “Honestly, with my customers I think because I’m so open and still kind of available (I ask them what colors and shapes we should use) we have an open rapport and I love that because I think that’s what has been instrumental in helping the brand grow so quickly.”
It’s a method that not many mega-brands can say they’ve adopted. “When you look at other brands, they’re not necessarily talking to their customers, asking their customers their opinions, or in the comments with them figuring things out,” he adds. “And I think because of that we’ve been really able to grow in a very kind of strange and almost different direction. I think a lot of the bigger fashion institutions don’t really realize how to consume or understand us because it’s been so strange. But I think it’s helped the brand grow because I don’t feel like I’m alone in this and I don’t feel like it’s just me and my team. I feel like it’s me, my team and half a million other people.”
Creating a personalized experience is something that has always been at the core of the Brandon Blackwood brand. Before the ESR Tote takeover, it was the brand’s customizable fur fanny packs, which most people customized with their names, that were a customer and celebrity favorite. On a daily basis, Blackwood reposts pictures from customers on the brand’s Instagram story, along with sharing a glimpse of his New York City life while asking customers for their opinions on future drops. “When you think of a Brandon Blackwood girl [all customers], it’s a very specific person because that’s literally who’s buying the product, who’s hyping the product up, who’s the ones posting on Instagram, TikTok and Twitter, so your customer does mold your brand,” said Blackwood. “And I think the more you try to fight that, the less you will do well.”
Once upon a time, Brandon Blackwood wasn’t stocked in high-end retailers because they struggled to understand the brand’s direction. Take for instance the brand’s newest New York City billboard that shared that the defunct retailer Barney’s once said the Brandon Blackwood brand had no direction. They couldn’t have been more wrong. Today, Brandon Blackwood’s bags are carried in several luxury retailers including Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom and Selfridges. In addition, Blackwood’s bags have been spotted in music videos from some of our favorite artists including Saweetie and Summer Walker, and according to a list by Money, Brandon Blackwood has become the most lucrative handbag brand in the world to date—topping Telfar and Dior. It seems that all along the only direction that Brandon Blackwood was headed was up.
Most recently, the handbag designer expanded into new categories for his latest collection that is available for purchase starting today at 8 p.m. EST. The collection introduces new silhouettes, new patterns, new materials, along with fur coats and sunglasses. Blackwood made it clear that if you love his handbags, you will love the brand’s new products just as much. “I didn’t want it to be a thing like I love his bags, but I don’t like his sunglasses or I love his bags, but I don’t like his outerwear,” he says.
We connected with the Jamaican designer on the inspiration for his new fashion film and the brand’s new collection, what it takes to create an ‘it bag’, defining luxury and more—read ahead.
ESSENCE: In one of your most recent campaigns, you stated that the “customer is the curator”—can you elaborate on what that means and how that mindset has helped your business?
Brandon Blackwood: Honestly, when a lot of people start their brand they go into it saying “I want to be the next Céline, the next Dior, the next this or that” and people don’t realize that your customer literally molds the brand because at the end of the day it’s going to be the people that are actively shopping, supporting and buying that’s going to be giving the brand the income to keep growing. So, I think people don’t really think about that when they start their brand and that’s something I learned very quickly and jumped into and fully embodied and embraced it. Your customer does curate what your brand is and what you sell and your identity. When you think of a Brandon Blackwood customer, or a Brandon Blackwood girl, and when I say ‘girl’, you know I mean all of the girls. When you think of a Brandon Blackwood girl, it’s a very specific person because that’s literally who’s buying the product, who’s hyping the product up, who’s the ones posting on Instagram, Tik Tok and Twitter, so your customer does mold your brand. And I think the more you try to fight that, the less you will do well.
ESSENCE: What was it like to translate Brandon Blackwood into categories outside of handbags?
I think because the bags do so well and the customers really trust us it was very easy to branch out because I was like “Ok I know that they trust me and I know whatever I do next will probably work out and be popular or sell pretty well.” It was more so just making sure the quality was there, making sure it was the best product I could make. I didn’t want it to be a thing like “I love his bags, but I don’t like his sunglasses or I love his bags, but I don’t like his outerwear.” I wanted it to be a full-on moment, so that was the tricky and scary part, but it was also easier because I knew I had my customer’s trust and that really just allowed me to focus on the product and not the marketing and how we’re going to sell it. You know like I know it will sell, and I just needed to focus on making it the best it could be.
ESSENCE: Visually, what was the new fall collection and fashion show inspired by?
So, it was a lot of things. It was originally something totally different. We wanted to rent a marble quarry, where they mine marble, but there were so many hazards and a lot of insurance and I didn’t want anyone to get hurt. So, I was like “Ok how can we figure out a more realistic approach.” And we went with doing something in-studio, we could control the temperature, we could control all the elements—the lighting, everything. I wanted it to feel like a familiar setting, but at the same time I wanted it to feel out of this world. And I didn’t want it to look everyday because I don’t think the coats look everyday, so I wanted it to have that same emotion. It kind of looks like a very bare desert landscape on another planet, and that’s what I was going for. It sounds cheesy when I say it out loud, but it looks cool.
ESSENCE: One of the floor length coats reads “Stop Playing With Me”—can you elaborate on what you’re expressing with that message? Is it just kind of like we all know who Brandon Blackwood is at this point and his bags, so like stay playing with me?
That’s exactly what it meant! That’s literally what that coat was about. I feel like a lot of people see the brand and see the success of the brand and to make themselves feel better there like “Oh it’s like a $150 bag” or whatever. That for me was like look I could do all this other stuff especially if I really wanted to focus on it and that was the message.
ESSENCE: Your bags are offered at an accessible price, but they’re still luxury bags. We see them on all of the celebrities and in high end retail stores. In your own words, how would you define and identify luxury?
I always say luxury is all around comfort. And comfort is really subjective to who is talking about it, and who is trying to relay that feeling. I don’t think luxury necessarily means something that is super expensive. It doesn’t need to be a couple thousand dollars to be a luxury item. You can have something really well made, really well thought about, something that isn’t mass produced, and I think that will make a luxury item. It’s also how it makes you feel, so I’ve always looked at it that way. I don’t like fashion’s idea of luxury or their image of luxury because it’s something that’s unattainable. I think now with Millennial and Gen-Z shoppers like older generations have been sold a fantasy through fashion like “be rich, be skinny, be perfect, wear this jewelry, wear this perfume” like that’s how it used to be marketed. But, instead of selling a fantasy, I think now Millennials and Gen-Z want to be sold a reality. I don’t think that fantasy s**t flies anymore. I think people want to see themselves in the clothes, they want to see that they are able to afford it and still be able to go out and wear it. The price point needs to be somewhat realistic. And I think because we have hit the nail on the head with that, it’s worked so well. Nobody cares about selling a fantasy anymore, you can go to social media for that. When it comes to us and our own aesthetic, we’re literally looking for luxury as reality.
ESSENCE: What are the steps to creating an ‘it bag’? Is there a guaranteed formula or is something like that only attainable by chance?
I would definitely say there is a formula to it. It’s not just like you put it out and it happens. It has to be of course somewhat cute. But, I think if you notice how I do my rollouts, allowing people to see a bag and kind of be teased with it for a very long time and then making it available and gifting and things like that, it all adds to the hype of the bag. And I feel like obviously the ESR Tote, the Kendrick Trunk and the Kuei Bag, those are the three bags that we did the most promo for and made the most colors of, but just making it constantly available in new ways and limited quantities is what kind of boosted it and made them popular.
ESSENCE: Since Brandon Blackwood handbags have become the new music video vixens, what are some dream placements you would love to land?
I feel like none of my placements are dreams because we just make them all a reality. I don’t think there’s a placement we can’t get if we don’t try for (it). I mean there’s two people that I would love to wear the bags, and they both have literally bought them or requested them and so, I never want to jinx it. I’m sure if you could throw out the words you know who they are. But, I’m just waiting. That would make me freak out, but I know it will happen one day.
ESSENCE: Talk to us about the Cortni bag. She’s got a little sass. How did that design come about?
The one with the fur, you know what’s so funny, I love Mongolian wool just in my day to day. I have crazy Mongolian throws and I wanted to incorporate it into a bag, but because of the way it is you can’t really make a full bag with Mongolian wool, you have to trim it, so that’s what we did and I loved it. I put it on Instagram and it was literally like 50/50. I asked my customers, “do you guys like this?” and people went ham on me like going crazy and the other half were like they needed it. I think with that bag I just wanted to do something wild like every collection I drop there’s always one to three wildcards in there. Because my thing is yea we have to sell the product and design the pieces to sell and be functional as an everyday piece, but you also need to flex your design muscles a bit and have fun while you’re doing it. And making that bag was fun for me and that’s exactly why I did it.
ESSENCE: Are there characters or people or objects your bags are inspired by?
You know it’s really weird whenever people ask me what my inspiration is, I never really have a solid answer because I don’t do mood boards and I’m never going to lie and say I was inspired by my trip to so and so. I literally just think in my head what would be cute and sometimes it pops up and sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve walked into a restaurant and seen décor outside of a restaurant and been like “oh s**t you could put that handle on a bag” and so it comes from everywhere and it’s never me sitting down doing that super brooding artist focusing thing. It’s literally on some day-to-day s**t like I’ll be on my Peloton and something will pop up. And it’s also thinking about the customers and what they want.
ESSENCE: What’s next for Brandon Blackwood? NYFW? Is a physical location something you would consider these days?
I spoke with the CFDA before this past fashion week and for me I don’t really want to do fashion week, and this sounds horrible but I’m such a Libra, but I don’t want to share my time and my attention with everyone else on the same calendar. It’s like why am I spending so much to show this stuff, and to make this show or this presentation like anywhere from $100,000 to a quarter million dollars like why am I doing that just so in the next 30 minutes someone else has their show. I wanted to do my launch in October, we could have done it in September, but I wanted it to be my own month and my own thing. And my customer doesn’t really care too much about the fashion calendar. But, maybe I’ll do something during one fashion week, I don’t know, maybe. And in terms of a store, we’ve played with the idea of a pop-up, but just gauging from the way the site sells out so quickly, we wouldn’t be able to keep the pop-up for longer than a day or two, so we couldn’t stay a month or a week at a place realistically because our items wouldn’t last that long, so I don’t know; we’ll have to figure that out too.