At seven Jessica Alpert-Goldman began imagining her own fashion based company. Years later upon graduating from Syracuse University she set off to New York City to fulfill her destiny. Voted one of the Top 10 Entrepreneurs of 2004 by CNN, Jess’s quirky handbags can be found all over the fashion and entertainment pages, notable for their blasts of colors and creative design. Come visit World According to Jess and learn more about a highly successful young woman from Canton, Massachusetts, with a can do spirit and a lovely outlook on life.
CCB: What appeals to you about fashion?
JAG: What appeals to me about fashion is that it is a quick fix. Sometimes you are in a bad mood and you put on the right color or the right outfit and it makes you feel slim. It’s instant gratification. I look at fashion as the easiest drug in the world. It’s addictive, but it can’t harm you.
CCB: That started at an early age?
JAG: It started at five years old. (Laughs) I’ve always been obsessed with clothing and accessories. I was always obsessed with color. I was interested in getting into fashion because I looked at it as my way of healing yourself. It feels great to go out and buy something that feels good. I always look at fashion as very simple. It’s not like we are trying to solve world peace or figure out the deficit. We are figuring out fashion.
Of course my company gives back in many other different ways. We do a lot with Dress for Success. They collect outfits, usually interview suits. Not always for underprivileged women but for somebody who is down on their luck. They need someone to say, “go out for that job and we’ll help you write your resume. We’ll get you a suit and make you feel better about yourself.”
CCB: When did you realize this was your career ambition?
JAG: At about seven years old I wanted to start my own fashion based company.
CCB: When you were younger was it handbags?
JAG: Have you ever heard of a Rub-A-Dub pen? It’s a marker that your parents use to mark your clothes with. My mom was a big fan of writing my name on everything because she thought people would steal. I used to take the Rub-A-Dub pen and put my name across the tushie of my jeans because I thought I was Gloria Vanderbilt. I wasn’t very well off growing up and I wanted to be like the other kids and put a name across the back of my pants. I got started on making my own clothes, thinking about my own fashion company.
I realized in the industry and by watching consumers that clothing is many different size ranges, it’s a lot of money. It’s a lot of returns because it doesn’t fit the person properly. It’s hard to run a clothing company and be profitable. I discovered handbags about twelve years ago. I always shop the stores like my mentor Sam Walton. I don’t forecast myself. I get ideas from watching consumers spending so much money on handbags, accessories, and shoes because they are an instant gratification purchase. You don’t have to fit into them. They don’t make you look thin or look fat. You put on one handbag. You like it, you buy it.
That’s where I came up with my niche which is fashion and function. What was missing in the market place was a really great bag that works the way you need it to and is very unique. As much as fashion is an industry of fun things, it’s also an industry of people knocking each other off. I’ve seen a lot of copycat syndrome going on in fashion. So for me I don’t follow trends and I don’t copy. I am always on to the next thing.
The line I started originally was travel bags because there were no travel bags that were functional and funky. That fit in the overhead compartment of a plane because I constantly traveled overseas for my job as Head of US Polo Accessories. The bags that I would carry would either be a nice Tumi bag, but it was black or I had the option of going Louis Vuitton or Moschino. Really expensive and unique but they would be three thousand dollars. Who wants to put a mortgage payment down into a bag? In the end let’s remember it’s a bag. (Laughs)
CCB: Did your Fashion Design degree from Syracuse University prepare you for the fashion world?
JAG: I come from a small town in Canton, Massachusetts. When I went to Syracuse it was such a mix of people. It’s Newhouse (School of Public Communications) and the actual campus that launched me to New York City as a start. I don’t think that people understand that college can be great courses, but it’s also where you learn the next step to life.
It’s the first time I ever understood the idea of networking and that everybody has something to offer if you have something to offer back. I’m not saying that I’m the country mouse, but in a lot of ways I walked into Syracuse incredibly naïve never knowing of a sorority, never knowing of kids with this wealth. It prepared me to go to New York and know what to expect. If I had gone straight from Massachusetts I would have been in a tunnel.
CCB: Once you got out of school how did you break into the industry?
JAG: In 1996 the second I graduated I packed up straight from Syracuse. I got an apartment in Hoboken (New Jersey) with two other people from Syracuse. I had no job when I got there. I pounded the pavement of New York City, checking the job listings everyday and sending out resumes. I had a job a week later as an assistant designer for the Jacques Moret collection, which was like rollerblade and Kathy Ireland plus size collections. Over the years until I started my own company I had fourteen jobs out of college.
CCB: In an article I read that you would stay somewhere until you felt like you were not learning anything and then move on.
JAG: I think people are so set on the idea that college prepares you for everything. I discovered that New York was going to become whatever I was missing in Syracuse because they can’t prepare you for the real world, the real fashion. I figured I don’t have the knowledge. I don’t have the money. I don’t have the network. I have to create it myself. So, how am I going to do that? I’m going to take in as much as I can in as little time. If I felt like I had learned enough and was hitting a stumbling block I moved on. I didn’t stay at a company too long because I didn’t want to stay stagnant. My motivation for going to a company was not like most people. Most people go to a company and they want to climb the ladder which I think is perfectly fine. But, I had a dream since I was seven years old to start my own company.
I listen to a lot of my interns, a lot of young people that are assistant designers complaining they get treated so badly at work. You should not really be thinking about office politics or how low you are on the totem. You should be thinking about what you are learning and how to get to the next spot. You’ve got an account for JC Penney and you now know all the buyers. You should be psyched because that’s un-measurable.
CCB: What prompted you to go solo and create your own handbags?
JAG: My husband said to me on our honeymoon, “Jess you’ve gone this far its time to start your own company.” I wasn’t afraid to start my own company but I almost felt bad leaving Polo because I had such a good relationship with them and was in such a good spot. I just did it one day. I gave my notice and said I’m starting my own company. In these kinds of decisions in life you can’t be afraid of anything. You just have to go for it. I had enough knowledge and I’d saved up enough money to start up my own company. By no means was it a Fortune 500 company. It was going to be as grassroots as it could possibly be, but you’ve got to take a chance.
CCB: Did you seek out advice from mentors about starting your own business?
JAG: Yeah, of course. There’s the Small Business Development Center. There’s SCORE, retired professionals in your field that can help you out. I used some of them, but I didn’t rely on them a lot. I had a mentor as far as my old boss at Polo. I had a great relationship with him. It’s a lot to be said that you can be a nice person and also run a successful business because that is pretty hard.
CCB: Were you happy with the first bag you designed?
JAG: Oh no, never happy. (Laughs) Samples never come out properly. It was awful. Every bag I make takes at least three to four revisions and me pulling my hair out trying to explain to the factory properly how to make it. It’s a joke around the office whenever I receive samples. It’s like get out of Jess’s path, everybody run. (Laughs) It’s not that I’m screaming at them, it’s because I am looking at bags and saying why would anybody make this? (Laughs) My assistants are looking at me like are you ok Jessica, do you want me to get you a Dairy Queen? Somehow Dairy Queen makes everything better in my world or jellybeans.
CCB: Is the fashion world different than you expected?
JAG: I expected it to be a lot more glamour. Going back to that Canton mentality I expected people to be a lot nicer. It’s really hard to make a name for yourself. Thank God I’ve done it successfully. I’ve worked my little tushie off. I’ve done it in a very nice and honest way. Every step of the way I’ve had bosses, friends, and co-workers trying to change me. That’s why I became World According to Jess. I don’t want to be like everybody else.
CCB: Is there a typical day on the job?
JAG: When I wake up in the morning I go for a walk with my dog, get my mind clear. I start my day at about 8:30. I try to keep to the schedule because that is the success of my company. In the mornings I answer emails. In the mid-morning I start calling back people from the night before because we deal with California, other countries. From mid-day we are building up invoices, sending out orders that are coming in, and making sure orders are being paid for. Then it goes into marketing and press. Somewhere along the line I find time to design. (Laughs) That is the most un-normal thing for me, not very scheduled. What I do is I set aside one week and won’t let anyone talk to me. People think I’ve fallen off the face of the earth. I have to fall off the face of the earth in order to design the next collection. Otherwise my mind is everywhere except where it’s supposed to be.
CCB: As far as the collections is it a quantity thing?
JAG: A lot of companies do go on quantity and on offering every single color wave for one style. I don’t follow any sort of formula that fashion does. Fashion does follow a formula. I go with what sells. I’m only going to produce what sells.
CCB: With collections you will produce however many bags are appropriate whether it’s a small amount or not?
JAG: Exactly. With this season going forward we didn’t make a lot of bags because we re-ordered so much of our old product since our customers kept saying we want that bag back. We are going to put the money into buying old bags and produce five new ones. I’m constantly making sure that the inventory is going to be sold and that we’re going to make money.
My secret to a successful business is the second you ask me for something I do it. If you say I’ll do it in a few months it will never get done. You’ve got to do it the second it hits your desk because that is when there is excitement for it and then it’s off your plate.
CCB: Because you don’t know what’s going to happen in the future.
JAG: I could be stuck in a reality show in the future, you never know. (Laughs)
CCB: At which point do you know that an idea is going to be the design?
JAG: I have a sketch book full of crazy ideas and I let my mind wander as much as possible. Along with being an entrepreneur I am also a designer. You have to have that marriage of both sides of the brain. I try and embrace the wacky side of myself in the time that I am designing. I’m not thinking how much it’s going to cost or if it’s going to sell. I’m just going to make something silly. If it’s a great concept I think I can sell it. I may change this and that making it more marketable for a collection. That’s how I really do it. I get a lot of inspiration from my childhood, from candy, and color in general.
CCB: What makes a quality designer?
JAG: You have to be a leader in your field and never compromise your own design. You really have to do what’s in your heart. Whenever you lose sight of your vision you’ve lost face in my world anyway because it takes a lot of guts to do what you want to do.
CCB: Is there a separation between the designing and business sides of your work?
JAG: When I am designing I don’t want to put any limitations on myself. With production and worksheets that’s when I start making story boards, thinking what is going to sell. How do I take it to the level where fashion meets function? Fashion being the wacky side of Jess and function meaning it works, we can get it at a price point that is appealing to the client, and it’s comparative or better to our competition. I’m sure the people I consider competition don’t consider me competition. My competition is Kate Spade, Marc Jacobs, and Isabelle Fiore. They might consider me. Give me a few more years. I’ll be all over them. I’m slowly creeping up to their level.
CCB: When you first started how did you go about marketing your designs and finding distribution?
JAG: I think the reason my business has been very successful is that I don’t have a lot of rules for myself. For a lot of people fear will make up their whole entire world. “I’m afraid to walk into the boutique. I don’t know if I should do this. Maybe I’ll wait until it’s perfect.” In my mind you’ve got to go for it. It will never be perfect. When I started my company I would walk into boutiques and pretend to be shopping. The second the salesperson or owner said, “Wow that’s a great bag,” I had them. You like the bag, great. I have the rest in my car. I’ll show you the whole line. I’ll write an order. I never said maybe you’ll write an order. I’d say you’ll write an order.
CCB: You have to come in with the mindset that you’ll make the sale.
JAG: I like to be chased. If you put out something that people want they are going to chase you for it. You shouldn’t have to come to a boutique and beg to be in it. It’s easier to be wanted than try to pitch somebody that doesn’t know your company. Of course it’s steady growth. What’s the easiest way to do it? Pretend to shop with a bag on your arm and you are going to know right there and then if you have product that will sell. It takes a lot for a woman to say, where did you get that? They probably say that twice a year. That’s how I knew I had a company. People are constantly stopping me on the street to this day asking me about a World According to Jess bag I have in tote.
CCB: Are there obstacles that you face as a female or is the fashion industry more accepting than other business fields?
JAG: I don’t really look at anything as an obstacle. I think a lot of the time obstacles tend to be personal fears. For me my biggest obstacle is lack of time. I wish the days were forty eight hours.
CCB: Have any advice for people interested in working in fashion or in even broader terms, how to prepare for fulfilling goals, no matter how distant they appear?
JAG: Never compromise yourself in any field. I get people that misunderstand the name World According to Jess. They think it’s this girl that believes everything she does is so wonderful, but that’s not the name World According to Jess. I like what I do. I’m going to do it my way not because I’m stubborn or obnoxious, but I believe in what I’m doing and I’m not going to compromise myself just to run with the pack. This industry can eat you up and spit you out if you compromise your beliefs.
People always say dream big. I don’t really think of it as a dream. Find the steps to make it happen. Life is a series of goals. I didn’t start out at nine years old saying I’m building an empire tomorrow. I never thought that. I thought first step for me was get good grades. Second step get a good college to accept me. Third step get a good job. Fourth learn a lot on the job. Every thing goes in steps. What I don’t like about some of the kids that I meet from colleges or internships is that they think they can skip out on all the steps. I think that there is a learning curve. You have to learn before you do something. You can’t just say I want a company, I’m starting it tomorrow but I have no experience.
CCB: You have to be well informed enough to go about it.
JAG: There are always steps to what you want to do. With me I look at it all as growth. You want something everlasting. A lot of times when people start companies they don’t know what they are doing and they last a year and they fizzle out.
CCB: Are you always thinking long term?
JAG: Someone will say where is this company going? In the end it’s going to be an empire. I started this company when I was seven years old and I brought it this far. I have a plan. It’s an organic plan because you never know what’s going to be thrown in front of you. You call them obstacles. I think of them as new things I can learn or gain. I try and stay as positive as possible. We have distribution in Japan, Canada, Australia, Netherlands, and London. My next step is to go more worldwide. I think globally while a lot of people think locally.
CCB: How did it feel the first time you sold a handbag?
JAG: It was awesome, the biggest rush.
CCB: Was it one handbag or an order of bags?
JAG: It was an order. It felt so great. I came running home with an invoice. This was the start, let’s go. The first piece of press my company received was in the New York Post. It was what to buy for Christmas. In between Christian Dior and a bag by Moschino was a World According to Jess bag. For me it’s a personal accomplishment. I always think how did I make that happen? Of course I put all the hours and time in and I have a little bit of luck on my side. But, I can work until I am blue in the face unless I have that talent and that ability to market myself, work doesn’t always mean payoff. Thankfully I have the nice mix of talent and the work mentality that it pays off for the sales, the press, and the growth of the company. I’m pretty crazy. I give myself five minutes of celebration and I am on to the next thing.
CCB: What is the most difficult part of your job?
JAG: The most difficult part of my job is dealing with the people who are really hard to talk to. They are just not nice. It’s that one person that for no apparent reason is on a war path. I figure maybe I caught them on a bad day or somebody passed away in their family and they don’t tell me. They feel like being vindictive and mean. I know people like to say its business not personal, it’s personal.
CCB: What has been the coolest thing about the job so far?
JAG: I get to meet so many people that email or love what I’m doing. It’s strange when I meet young designers that are so happy to meet me. They look at me like I used to look at Todd Oldham. It’s funny to see that in their faces because I’ve been there.
CCB: People would be surprised to learn what about your job, perhaps that you do the business and the design?
JAG: They’d be shocked to find out that beyond the design I am more of an entrepreneur. The bottom line is the dollar. I make sure that we always have funds available and we’re not in the red. I think that’s always weird to people because when they think design they think happy flaky designer that knows nothing about business.
CCB: What are your career aspirations apart from expanding globally?
JAG: I’m really looking to build a license and an empire with a personality behind the brand. The handbags are the foundation and now it’s time to branch it out. I’m not going to lose sight of where I started. One day it will make sense to branch out into accessories and clothing. My ultimate goal is that you see a piece of baby clothing or you see an oven mitt or a cell phone that’s all funky and weird and you wonder if World According to Jess made that. I don’t have to put my label on it like most designers. You know by the design that it’s mine and that feeds into that whole brand and lifestyle.
CCB: Where does that creativity come from?
JAG: I don’t know. (Laughs)
CCB: That’s always been there since you were little?
JAG: Yes, I’ve been really fortunate. It’s something that’s so fun for me. Anything that I get to do or touch is exciting to me, even creating marketing schemes or press. I have to constantly be creating, it’s just me.
*Visit her site: worldaccordingtojess.com
Help underprivileged women with their careers with Dress for Success: dressforsuccess.org