The Middle is having a moment. Most acutely, it focuses on the presidential election, in which the traditional middle, however variegated its reality, has been cast as a homogeneous entity. The political circus aside, The Middle as a concept has always lived at the forefront of the American psyche, long lauded as real-deal genuine and, more recently, maligned as mundane and uninformed.
This story first appeared in the August 24, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
In popular culture at least, The Middle has swung back. Social media gives everyone a voice — idealist and cynic, celebrant and hate-monger alike. On one hand, TV features all kinds of fake reality, while on the other, ABC’s traditional scripted sitcom “The Middle” merited a thoughtful essay in March from The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum seven years into its run on television. And fashion — where to begin? Fast-fashion rules; shows are going consumer (Tommy Hilfiger carnival of fun, anyone?); the September issues of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar feature stars from broad-spectrum of America’s (and the world’s) favorite objects of fascination, Kardashian-Jenners, and the proverbial “conversation” is more likely to center on the latest celebrity-spawned hoodie than the finer points of haute. Whatever shots The Middle may take from the so-called intellectual elite, in terms of buying power and opinion-making, it is a force to be reckoned with.
This may be the perfect time for a fashion accessories brand associated with Middle-American stylistic preferences to invade Metropolis in a major way. This week, Vera Bradley, a brand born in Fort Wayne, Ind., and now based in nearby Roanoke, will open its first New York City store, a 2,700-square-foot enclave of bright, practical fancy in that increasingly egalitarian shopping mecca where luxury-meets-teen-style-meets-street-style-meets-melting-pot tourism, SoHo.
In Gotham, Vera Bradley has never been “a thing,” at least not to this writer’s knowledge. But outside the city, it seems that every woman and teen who has ever schlepped a handbag has a story — the first acquisition, a favorite print — and you don’t have to hit the Heartland to hear scores of them. Cross a bridge, drive through a tunnel or hop an Amtrak, and chances are, you’ll arrive in Vera Bradley-ville. Among the devotees: the high school and college set. The quilted cotton bags, all feisty, stylish, pragmatism — they’re washable! — have been such a hit among that demographic that last year, the company launched a program to produce logoed merch for 16 colleges and universities; this year, the number of participating schools jumped to 75.
Vera Bradley cofounder and chief creative officer Barbara Bradley Baekgaard personifies the upside of the American Middle (albeit, the Upper Middle) in all its idealized, wholesome glory. In June, she tied for 54th on Forbes’ list of America’s Richest Self-Made Women, her net worth listed at $270 million. She owns multiple homes — including an apartment on Central Park West for which she paid $17 million in 2012 — though she has recently started to divest herself of some, a step toward simplifying her life.
Yet Baekgaard radiates certain elements of classic Middle-American perspective, the v-word, even — values. With her long-term, now-retired partner, Patricia Miller, she built Vera Bradley (named for Baekgaard’s mother) based on a simple principle: the fusion of function with style, the former never relegated to second fiddle, but the latter never sacrificed. Baekgaard shops the modern way, “from Zara to Valentino,” and prefers “to brag down. If someone says ‘I love that dress,’ I’m embarrassed if it’s Valentino and I got it on sale.” At a given moment, she might not know her outfit’s provenance. When she sat for an interview, she could cite the age of her dress — old — but not its maker.
Baekgaard claims she’s not a businessperson, and leaves that side of Vera Bradley to others, including, most recently, chief executive officer Rob Wallstrom who joined the company three years ago, taking over from Baekgaard’s son-in-law Michael Ray. Wallstrom was attracted to what he calls “a loved, iconic American brand with this deep customer loyalty.” Along the way, he fell hard for “Barb,” his plaudits sounding like they could be scripted on a card at a Hallmark store — where Vera Bradley goods can still be found. “Part of what differentiates [Barb] is that she has a very generous spirit. She spreads this ray of sunshine and fun and hope wherever she goes,” he says. But more than just Molly Sunshine, she’s “this incredible individual in addition to being a real tenacious retailer.”
To that end, Baekgaard’s vision has stayed eagle-eyed, ever on watch for what might be the next big thing. She notes the recent Cuban trend, and a Pop Art print that Wallstrom and others in the company overtly disliked. She insisted on its inclusion on the line anyway: “You don’t want to become boring so you have to take some chances sometimes.” Yet her greatest strength, she maintains, stronger than even her eye for color, pattern and her ability to cash in on the mainstream cultural moment is “Positivity. Positivity and then strength — adaptability and then belief. I believe everything is going to work out.”
She believes, too, in a good laugh, often at her own expense, and sometimes tinged with naughtiness of the PG sort, befitting a grandmother of 12. Case in point: a natural redhead, she offers a litany of one-liners.
“You never think of yourself as really pretty, you’re never the Blessed Mother in the Christmas play — obviously.” “There’s this old joke: Redheads don’t like nude beaches.” “Another joke: Oh, she has red hair but does the cup match the saucer?”
Baekgaard — “Barb” to friends and business associates and “Birdie” to her grandchildren, aged 25 to seven — presents with the kind of grounded charm one might expect but seldom finds from a purveyor of mainstream style.
“You walk into her showroom and you don’t know you’re talking to the founder of the company,” says Todd Bettman, ceo of Shops by Todd, whose 18 stores across Indiana and Ohio include six Occasionally Yours doors of which Vera Bradley has long been the anchor resource. “If there’s ever such a thing as Midwest values, she’s got Midwest values. She’s just as easy a person to like as you will find, and genuine as you will find. She’s good people, as we like to say.”
As the corporate lore goes, in 1982, Baekgaard and Miller made a fortuitous call based on an airport observation: American women were in desperate need of good-looking travel bags. A light bulb went off, cotton was purchased, a Simplicity pattern procured, and a brand launched was launched on a ping-pong table in Baekgaard’s basement.
Today, the firm does one-third of its business in travel and one-third in what it calls “the campus category,” with the balance in other accessories, jewelry and sleepwear. Its single best-selling item is its travel blanket; a resonant moment came via Facebook — a photo post of a survivor of the Orlando shootings wrapped in one. The SoHo opening brings the number of brand-owned stores to 112, in addition to 44 outlets, a thriving e-commerce business and some 2,600 specialty retail accounts across the country, with some distribution in Japan. Vera Bradley has a partnership deal with Disney theme parks as well as a store at Disney Springs (formerly Downtown Disney) and several on U.S. military bases. The company has a clearly defined philanthropic program focused on breast cancer, the cause chosen following the death of a college friend of Baekgaard’s in 1990. In addition, after the diagnosis of her late husband, Peer Baekgaard, with Alzheimer’s, Baekgaard personally funded Birchwood, a memory-loss day-care facility that has since merged with Lutheran Life Villages.
Vera Bradley was not Baekgaard’s first business enterprise. That distinction, and the first indication of her marketing savvy, belongs to Paper Dolls, a Chicago wallpaper-hanging business comprised of two charming young women (Baekgaard and a friend), and all-pink tools of the trade: ladders, overalls, paintbrushes. Married right out of college, and within five years a mother of four, her early marriage was “an itinerant thing” as the family moved frequently due to her husband’s job. At each house, Baekgaard liked to do a quick fix-up, and wallpaper proved practical. (She retains an affinity for the milieu; her showroom features a wall papered with big, artful butterfly.) To her husband’s chagrin, she turned her newly discovered skill into a word-of-mouth business. “We were turning business away. We were fun,” she recalls. “Who loved us? The electricians. We were having a ball. They thought we were just the cutest things.”
When her husband bought a business in Fort Wayne, the family settled down. Early on, a woman — Patricia Miller — stopped by old-fashioned welcome-wagon style to welcome her to the neighborhood. The two would become partners, first in a redux of the wallpaper business. Having aged out of “Paper Dolls,” they floated (whether seriously or as a joke) the name “Well Hung,” a handle that hung poorly with the husbands. So they settled on “Up Your Wall.” That enterprise was followed by Tupperware-type parties for the fashion line “Don Worthington,” and, as one step led to another, finally, to the launch of Vera Bradley. Starting from Baekgaard’s basement, a cottage industry of home sewers was soon scattered about Fort Wayne. “The Brits had Laura Ashley, the French had Pierre Deux, and we didn’t have anything that went with what we were wearing and our palette. My daughters would not carry Pierre Deux it was too provincial, and yet Laura Ashley was too flowery. We needed something in the middle; I think that was probably the big [appeal].”
A charming story, but a far cry from today’s $502 million in revenues, one based first and foremost in a razor-sharp clarity. “Vera Bradley is such an important resource for us,” says Adam Glassman creative director of Oprah Magazine, who has known Baekgaard for years. “If you take yourself out of NYC or L.A., everyone has Vera Bradley. It’s like their Prada, or whatever is that fancy bag that everyone covets.” He describes her as “supercool, very normal” and a worker. “She’s not a dilettante who started a line. There’s not a trade show that Barb isn’t at, and I go to all of them.”
Those trade shows were essential from the start. “We could have taken those bags to Junior League days or Johnny Appleseed days or whatever,” Baekgaard says. Instead, she targeted the gift show circuit, which she knew about from her father, who had repped a line of candles. First stop: Chicago. She pushed hard to convince management that handbags would work in the gift setting, ultimately securing what she calls the worst booth location in the show. (She still works the gift shows in Atlanta, Dallas and Las Vegas.)
That campaign proved fortuitous on two levels. It provided entrée to the world of independent gift retailers which would form the backbone of Vera Bradley’s distribution. And it introduced her to Peer Baekgaard, an importer of fine men’s gifts who sat on the show’s board. They were immediately taken with each other and fell in love.
The first year of their relationship proved rough. She divorced her husband of 28 years, Emmet Byrne, and remarried, a choice that didn’t sit well with her children. “We were a great family. We weren’t a great couple,” she says. “I had about a year-and-a-half where my kids barely spoke to me. It was a bad time in our life. Then I took the high road and just let it go and they ended up adoring Peer, they just loved him to pieces.” Her husband’s business remained Chicago-based, and for 20 years they would have a commuting marriage, seeing each other on weekends.
Peer Baekgaard died in 2007 after a devastating bout with Alzheimer’s. Baekgaard recalls that one of his doctors told her, “He gave you the greatest gift. He died knowing who you were. Most of my patients don’t have that.”
Throughout its history, Vera Bradley has been something of a family affair, with various children, sisters, sons-in-law and even Baekgaard’s late mother involved in various capacities at one time or another. The grandchildren intern.
In the mid-Aughts, Miller started to mull retirement; she wanted to cash out. For Baekgaard, the choices were finding an investor or an IPO. “I didn’t have the $200 million to buy her out,” she says. The public offering happened in October, 2010. The two women remain friends. They continue to live next door in Fort Wayne, and Miller sits on the corporate and philanthropic boards.
Along the way, there have been challenges, and Baekgaard says growth has made the company immeasurably more complicated than it once was. While it retained full domestic production for years, eventually the bulk was moved overseas, prompting some rare bad press, specifically, an extensive article in Indianapolis Monthly in June 2009. Last year, the company announced the closing of its New Haven, Ind. factory.
The company itself remains Indiana-based, and Baekgaard is proud of its shiny Roanoke headquarters. “Right on I-69, the highway you can’t miss it,” she says, adding that while the building looks great — colorful and upbeat — no one, not even her closest friends, gets an off-hours tour. “If they want to see the company, I say you have to come Monday. I will not take them through our empty building, I just won’t do it. It’s all about the people.”