Rebecca Minkoff, cofounder and chief creative director of her eponymous brand, came to New York with practically nothing. She had no college degree, no money, knew two people living in New York City and got a low-paying internship at an apparel company. With homegrown talent, determination and perseverance, she eventually built a successful Millennial lifestyle brand, but it wasn’t without its setbacks and challenges. Her new book, “Fearless,” which comes out June 14, explores her rules for making it in the fashion business.
Each chapter tackles rules such as “Go for Purpose Over Payout,” “Get Friendly With Failure,” or “Forget About Balance.” As she explains these rules, she tells the story of her upbringing, how she got her start in New York, how the “Morning After Bag” put her on the map, how she recruited her brother, Uri Minkoff to become chief executive officer, and how she was an early proponent of social media to talk directly with her customers.
In an interview, she said she started the book before anyone saw COVID-19 coming. The company had just celebrated its 15th anniversary, and she felt like it was a good time to reflect and tell the story. She wanted to be able to write something that others could learn from and apply to their own lives.
Minkoff credits her childhood with accidentally cultivating her creativity. As an eight-year-old, Minkoff’s family moved from San Diego to Florida, and Minkoff found herself without any friends, being bullied and very unhappy. An art teacher taught her how to draw and paint, and most importantly, how to use a sewing machine. In high school, the costume studio director took her under her wings and Minkoff started making costumes for the dancers in various productions.
Originally, she was a dancer herself, but in on pointe shoes she was 6-feet, 1-inch tall and none of the boys had gone through puberty so she had no one to partner with, she said.
“I was always in the back and I had big boobs, and they said big boobs don’t look good on dancers,” said Minkoff. “There was enough not going my way, I decided to design costumes for the dancers. And the teacher loved that I wasn’t actually just there to get my credit, I was there to absorb the knowledge and understand the craft. She went above and beyond for me.”
Minkoff decided to forego college and moved to New York City after high school. She took an internship at an apparel company that was paying minimum wage. Despite lack of money and friends, she persevered.
“I think it’s part stubbornness, part having to get what I want my entire life and not having anything spoon-fed to me. I also think I was in the dance department in high school and that is a hard, competitive environment, and if you don’t have thick skin then, you probably won’t make it in other areas. That definitely prepared me with the toughness of it, the discipline, and if you want something so badly, you have to work at that craft,” said Minkoff.
Although her parents were very loving, they weren’t willing to support her financially once she moved to New York.
“We were never raised with handouts or that type of support. From the early get-go, [they said] if you want this, you have to earn it,” she said.
During her first job in New York at Craig Taylor, she would work on her own line during downtime. When that collection started picking up momentum, they fired her and told her to pursue her own collection.
“I recently connected with the CEO and we laughed about it,” said Minkoff. “When I got done with everything at the end of the day, there wasn’t social media and websites to get lost on. If you were efficient, there was a finite amount of work. She would see me do [my own work] and when she fired me it was gentle and a slap in the face at the same time. Which was ‘you clearly have a passion for what you do. You need to basically go do it, so that’s it, go do it.’ I was like, ‘Wait a minute, I was just kidding, I don’t really love what I do. I need a paycheck.’ It’s not as if I was making money or had a plan.”
Minkoff started with a five-piece collection, and most of it was selling deconstructed I Love New York T-shirts. “This was when DIY things were wanted and desired,” she said. She said her friend, the actress Jenna Elfman, wore the T-shirt on “The Tonight Show,” and said her name, and the magazines came.
“The magazines had a power then to move products that’s sadly not as much today. They kept writing about that shirt. It was in Us Weekly like five times. It was in OK magazine, it was in In Style. It just kept fueling it. I had one source of e-commerce, RavinStyle, and she would just call me and say, ‘I need 10 more, I need 15.'”
Elfman then asked her if she designed handbags because she needed one for a movie she was in, and Minkoff lied and said “yes,” and tried to make one, but missed the deadline. Elfman used another one in the movie instead.
But it was that “Morning After Bag” that propelled Minkoff’s success.
“When we look at that time period, what was happening culturally, ‘Sex and the City’ was the rage, having your cosmo was the thing to aspire to. You could go out and meet your Mr. Big and go to work the next morning,” she said, explaining the bag’s appeal.
She said she got involved with the Cynthia O’Connor + Co. showroom. O’Connor, who had a lot of complaints about Minkoff’s bags initially, had helped launch Kate Spade and had every hot American consumer brand such as Kooba, Botkier and Foley & Corinna. Minkoff felt she better take O’Connor’s feedback because she clearly knew what she was doing.
“When I first started everything was made of real brass hardware that I got from Home Depot. You’ve seen natural brass, it starts spotting as it gets exposed to air. She felt like the bottoms of the bags weren’t reinforced enough for the amount of things that need to be carried, she felt the edges shouldn’t be raw, they should be etch painted.”
She said O’Connor felt the consumer who was spending $595 on a Rebecca Minkoff bag would have similar issues.
“I never had feedback like that before. It was a lightning experience for when the bags came out, and I didn’t have to think about that level of quality,” she said. The original price points were $595 and $495.
But then, during the 2008 holiday season, one of their wholesale partners said the recession was about to hit and if you have a “4” or “5” in front of the price of your bags, when they came Into market in January, they wouldn’t be able to carry the bags, or only in a really small way.
“I got gray hair, and Uri and I had to reengineer our supply chain and start making deeper inventory orders of leather in advance enough to get the price down, and negotiate and look at our margin,” she said, adding they found a new customer who before couldn’t afford one of Minkoff’s bags. “We went down to $295 and $395 for the big satchels,” she said.
Over the next four years, they grew 548 percent. “It was crazy. That’s when we saw our quickest, biggest growth. That was 2009 to 2012,” she said.
Asked how she felt about becoming so well-known for handbags, although she started in apparel, Minkoff admitted she didn’t mind. “In the book, I talk about going with momentum. Sometimes we can get so stuck. I just wanted to be respected as a clothing designer at the time, and I wouldn’t have had anything. When I saw the bag gaining momentum, I said I could always launch clothing later, and that’s what we did. And we did it from a point of strength.”
Today, the business is 80 percent accessories, and 20 percent apparel. She recalled that in 2005, after she called her dad for a loan to make the first batch of production, he told her, “Call your brother.”
“I had a long talk with Uri, and he was like, ‘why don’t we just focus on this bag? It clearly has momentum, and come back to the clothing when we have extra money, or a better partner?’ It was growing, we were doubling our business every year and then it just spiked,” she said.
At first, Uri Minkoff came up from Florida once a month, and they had phone calls every month. But as the business increased, in 2011, it was, “Hey buddy, you got to move here. This is getting very real,” said Minkoff.
Discussing what it’s like working with a family member, Minkoff said, “You’re going to spend more time with that person than your spouse or your partner. It’s really imperative that you set ground rules of how you’re going to treat each other. There will always be some level of respect for someone you haven’t grown up with whose buttons you don’t know. If you are working with family, you know the buttons, you don’t push them. You know the ‘no-go’ zones and things that set someone off. It takes constant work.”
As for how she got involved with the online community, Minkoff said she discovered a website called the Purse Forum, where women talked about handbags. “I was like, ‘OMG, I should just talk to these women. I can answer all their questions.’ I asked Uri, and this was when people weren’t talking to their customers, and he was like ‘go for it, what could happen?’ At first, these people didn’t believe me, and then I verified myself. They were an incredible group of women and we named them the Minkettes. We would do this crowdsourcing, and they would ask, ‘Can you bring back this purple one?’ If 20 of you could give me your credit cards, I would go uptown and make the bags. I’d buy the leather at Global Leather and have them made at my local factory. I got to know so many of these women and if I had an event, they would show up.”
Minkoff said stores would say to her, “if you keep talking to your consumer, we don’t know if we’ll be able to keep buying your bags. You should be better than her, you should be above her.’ That’s just weird, it just made no sense,” said Minkoff. “We don’t have the $40,000 for a full-page ad in a major magazine. We have our consumer and we can talk to her and we have these bloggers who are making awesome content. They need something, we need something. For us, it was never a strategy, it was about opportunity.”
Minkoff feels she was ahead of her competition in the social media sphere.
“I definitely think we were leaders within that. If you look at our track record, when it comes to technology and innovation, we tend to be first to market. Whether it’s the store, or our wearables launching at the same time as Apple,” she said.
Touching on other topics, Minkoff said she felt she didn’t miss out by not going to college, and said she felt she had learned so much about design while she was in high school.
“I did go to FIT for six weeks in the night school. I remember looking around, and I love FIT, I think they have an exceptional education, but I just remember looking around and my level of impatience of feeling ‘I learned this already,’ because I had been so studious in high school with this teacher, I just was ‘I just have to get started.’ I can’t ever say ‘did I miss out on college?’ Could I have been savvier and gone and continued on to work for other designers and learned more? One hundred percent. That’s where you’re in real-life situations. Having to make real-life decisions. I could have done that, but I was of the mind-set if I’m going to work this hard, I want it to be for me.”
Her company, like others, got slammed by the pandemic.
Discussing the current state of business, Minkoff admitted, “The pandemic made everything come to a glaring halt for a good six to nine months. We’re now back working with these stores, and just ensuring that we’re prepared for a different relationship, not in a bad way at all. We want to make sure wherever we do business, we’re as profitable as we can be. It’s not about being everywhere, it’s about optimizing each store that we’re in so that we’re in the ones that are doing the most business. We just have a more laser-like approach to wholesale and it’s been working and we’re getting reorders and that business is coming back, which means that she’s out of her house and getting back out into the world.”
When the stores started canceling orders, how did they deal with that?
“It happened in one fell swoop. March 13  we went fully remote. March 16 the emails began. ‘We have to push the order out, we’re not able to take in these goods.’ That was probably the hardest part in my career. How do you build a business where that’s the main portion of it? How do you then have that turn off suddenly overnight? He [Uri] was basically like, ‘Our e-commerce site is it, and you’re our chief influencer, let’s do this.’ It took a reorganization of the team and what everyone did. We all got five jobs instead of one. As hard as it was, the learning that we have taken, the closeness we have with our customers, the smartness we have with our business because we’re looking at our own backyard for the first time, has been so valuable. Every day our morning call starts with, ‘What did we do on our site yesterday?’, not, ‘what did X wholesaler think about the line?’ That used to drive us. We fully support our wholesale business and are grateful to have it, but I think the pandemic really forced us to make sure our own garden was blooming.”
Minkoff added: “We ended the year up 10 percent over the prior year. I don’t know where she was going, but I’m grateful that she wanted a bag and the sign that she was going to go somewhere. And we also saw the growth of new categories. Jewelry had been a small business pre-pandemic, and we kept selling out. It took us a while to figure out OK, she’s on Zoom and wants to change up her jewelry. Then we started seeing huge growth in our casual ready-to-wear. She wanted to look cozy in a sweatshirt and look cool and our Janine sweatshirt became a number-one item and still is to this day. It sort of spurred a lot of new opportunities.”
She said their factors, Rosenthal & Rosenthal, have been “incredible.”
“We have an incredible relationship with our factor,” said Minkoff. “They made a decision at the moment from their hearts and not what they saw on paper. To be able to call Michael [Stanley, managing director, head of factoring], and say, ‘I’m in Paris and I’m having a panic attack.’ You need to make a decision from your heart and not the number. The fact that we built a relationship beyond loaning money, he and the team have consistently come through and supported us, in ways that other people who are just about the bottom line haven’t.”
Asked what she hopes people will take away from the book, Minkoff said: “I think my main intention is there are so many people who let fear stop them from pursuing their passion or their dream. I hope that when you see all these examples that I should have given up, I could have walked away. It would have been easier to throw in the towel. I tried to make rules, whether you’re in fashion or not, you can follow and have success. If we go back and look at all the times we were called ‘crazy,’ whether it was working with influencers, using social media, see now, ‘buy now. We had to take so many risks to be where we are today. Those risks have been worth. They’ve more than been worth it than not, and I hope it encourages people to take those risks.”