Brandon Blackwood is a designer of his era, inspiring hundreds of thousands of shoppers to buy his bags with the simple click of a button.
The accessories designer, who launched his label in 2015 but whose profile skyrocketed during the pandemic, has built his business on the premise of virtual community engagement. On Friday that will be taken a step further with the release of Blackwood’s spring 2022 collection, which drops on his website at noon and has already inspired numerous social media posts and comments to his feed.
Thirty years old and now looking to “elevate” his company with a slew of initiatives to roll out over the next six months, Blackwood is also grappling with a new challenge: engaging with his fans in-person as pandemic restrictions lift.
“To me [virtual] is more natural, it makes sense to me. Always when I’m asked to do talks in person, I have a full anxiety attack before I go because I’ve had to live online so much with this brand, it’s my comfort zone more than in-person,” said the designer, who like many Millennials and Gen Zers grew up on an after-school appetite of computer time.
The designer, for some time, sensed that his bag business had significant legs. So now amplifying what has made his bags a sell-out success, Blackwood plans to launch a shoe and ready-to-wear line later this year.
He will also host his first major in-person brand event this summer to celebrate Juneteenth. The event will be a large-scale replica of the Juneteenth parties that Blackwood has held at his home in Brooklyn, N.Y., and will feature a vendor roster of local Black-owned businesses to drive support within his own community.
To make sure this is all pulled off in a financially sustainable manner, Blackwood has also hired his first executive.
These initiatives follow a record year. Blackwood’s brand sold more than 170,000 bags in 2021 — a large portion of the more than 300,000 bags that have been sold to date. They’ve appeared on everyone from Megan Thee Stallion and Olivia Rodrigo to Kim Kardashian and sat proudly beside Charlotte York at a woke picnic during an episode of “And Just Like That…”
But Blackwood, who does not have formal design training and studied neuroscience at Bard College, had been diligent for some time. He founded his company while working a $10-an-hour job at a New York City Crossroads thrift store. As one of his recent downtown Manhattan billboards pointed out, Barneys New York buyers passed on the line, saying it lacked vision.
But when the murder of George Floyd kicked off a social reckoning in the summer of 2020, Blackwood — who is of Chinese and Jamaican descent — felt inclined to do his part. He designed an $85 canvas tote inscribed with “End Systemic Racism,” a product that was quickly dubbed the ESR tote and sold by the thousands.
“It’s interesting with the ESR tote — it wasn’t a marketing move. We were all quarantined, we weren’t selling anything and I thought: ‘OK, I have some followers, what can I do to make money for charity?’ I made this tote and it blew up bigger than anyone expected,” he said, sitting in his brand’s new SoHo headquarters where a staff of 12 works in an airy, eclectically designed loft space.
Blackwood’s design galvanized shoppers of many creeds who were attracted to the bag for the same reason that he felt inclined to design it — buying and wearing it offered a sense of control in a world that in many other ways felt dire and unpredictable. “It was cool to see people with the ESR tote, it was like, ‘I wear it to work as my silent statement, it feels good,’” he said of the phenomenon.
While the ESR tote has gone on to be flipped on resale platforms like StockX and The RealReal for hundreds more than its going rate, Blackwood has since retired the design. In October 2021, he told WWD that he felt pigeonholed by the fashion industry and was eager to reset the narrative around his brand to drive it forward.
“When the ESR tote blew up, articles would label me an activist designer and I was like, ‘Wow that’s a heavy thing to carry around,’” Blackwood said.
“Being a Black designer, people always want a trauma story, they want some race trauma story or for me to be like, ‘fight the power,’ 24/7. I just genuinely like these bags and I feel like I keep having to fight back against this. It’s the same thing for Black creatives in general. I have friends in fine art and their work won’t look like another [Black artist’s] work but they are compared constantly,” he said.
He’s now intent on elevating his label in a bid to make it a full-scale lifestyle brand. To help lead the charge, Blackwood has hired Jason McNary as president. McNary, who identifies as African American, comes to Brandon Blackwood from the Spanish jewelry and accessories brand Unode50, where he was chief executive officer for the Americas. He also previously worked as president of the Americas for Agnès b. and serves on multiple advisory boards.
McNary and Blackwood are working on setting a five-year growth plan, and McNary has estimated just one month into the job that new categories and continued sustained growth have put the brand on pace for sales to increase by 25 percent in 2022.
“I have always admired Brandon’s creativity and how he has built a really unique following. If I can be honest, I never thought I’d have the opportunity to work for a Black creative designer-owned company. This is the opportunity of a lifetime and as someone who has worked for big organizations to come into a company that’s really cool and fresh and taking a different approach on retail is what attracted me,” he said.
Blackwood said he had the foresight to hire an executive because he knew his expansion ideas were not possible to pull off alone. “It’s so strange, Jason came in with all acronyms and stuff. I thought I knew everything,” Blackwood laughed.
The company is not seeking investment even as Blackwood says he has been approached twice about majority investments from big companies. “In a sense, Brandon is a private equity in himself. He built a strong business foundation coupled with a talent for creative. I think we are in a really good position,” said McNary.
But Blackwood’s currency has as much to do with pure sales volume as it does his persona, digital know-how and egalitarian approach to design.
As someone who grew up between Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn and Tokyo, Japan, Blackwood said he learned from an early age that the world is much bigger than what New York fashion would like to think. His time abroad, rather than influencing an aesthetic, had a larger effect on his design ideology: It made him hungry to appeal to the general public. “[As a kid] I felt like nothing had a limit and I take that into my approach of how I design things,” he said.
The designer’s appeal stretches wide and he enlists a Michael Kors-type playbook of making bags for the masses, producing covetable mini trunks, shoulder bags and crossbodies in a wide assortment of candy colors and neutrals to meet shoppers where they are most comfortable. Most of Blackwood’s designs are priced at less than $500 and he aims for his footwear and ready-to-wear collections to remain aligned with that pricing.
This is all finessed with the designer’s unfiltered approach to self-promotion, leaving no stone un-posted (aside from, maybe, his home address). It’s a genuine, if borderline compulsive, sentiment: During the time WWD was at his studio, the designer began posting photos of his new collection that had otherwise been expected to remain under wraps. To share with others is just part of the fabric of his life.
He feels like this level of transparency helps establish an emotional connection with his customers. “With big brands, you don’t know these people personally, there isn’t a person as the face of the brand. I will post whatever, I’ll go on Instagram stories maybe after three glasses of wine and go online to talk with my customers. I call my customers my cousins, I hate the word ‘customers’ anyway. I always say cousins, because it feels like they are a family supporting me,” said Blackwood.
“I don’t think I have ever been in a position to be a snob,” he added. “It just doesn’t make sense to do it now in our brand. What has worked is being authentic and sometimes even vulnerable. People now care about everything behind a brand. We align with a new way of shopping.”
This personal approach will now be applied to a wider range of products. Blackwood’s first shoe designs, for instance, offer fresh takes on designs that he thinks shoppers are actively in search of — like a good high heel or over-the-knee boot. The designer did not want photos of sketches or initial samples publicly released, for fear of of being copied by major high-street entities, which have the muscle to produce versions of Blackwood’s designs before his are even released.
The shoes and an initial line of outerwear styles are expected to be released this fall, with outerwear taking some inspiration from Blackwood’s recent line of one-of-a-kind fur coats made for his virtual fall fashion show. Blackwood’s first sunglasses, also introduced as part of that runway show, will be released in July.
For his spring drop, Blackwood cut back considerably on the number of designs he is issuing in a bid to reserve his energies for fall, which he sees as a major coming-out party for the brand’s next iteration. The number of stock keeping units has been cut from around 500 to 39, with a new focus on raffia and wooden beading motifs, as well as medium-sized bags, which Blackwood says he has a new affinity for after years of mini styles.
The brand says it hopes to increase its direct-to-consumer reach and maintain its current 5 percent margin of wholesale orders, with a limited quantity of bags available at stores like Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue and Kith.
McNary said in the next two to three years, he hopes Blackwood’s rtw will comprise 20 percent of sales and footwear another 10 percent, with handbags continuing to serve as the bulk of the business.
With 95 percent of brand sales coming from Blackwood’s own website, the company is discussing what a physical retail space would look like, with New York and Tokyo on the table as possible locations. For Blackwood and McNary, international markets like Asia and the U.K. — already a growing piece of the company’s following — could hold the key to full lifestyle brand realization.
“There is tremendous opportunity for growth to scale the business domestically as well as internationally,” McNary said.
For Blackwood, his hard work to sustain and push forward is starting to pay off. The designer said his audience is steadily growing, proving that his brand has lasting appeal.
“I think word-of-mouth is better than any marketing. I have a niche audience and being a Black designer means you are going to have support from Black people. But with our new visibility, I have noticed that our audience is starting to expand and diversify. It was a slow start, but it’s catching on for sure. I love how it’s going.”