An interview with Jennifer Velarde, founder of 1154 Lill Studio
What made you want to make purses?
I had been working in interiors for four years, but it wasn’t my whole career plan. I wanted something I was a little more passionate about. I had exposure to a lot of great textiles that were appropriate for something like handbags. So the material was there and available. I just used the resources available to me. And handbags were something that I enjoyed making and would give them as gifts.
How did you come up with the idea of letting people design their own bags?
The first place I sold my bags was at a street fair in Chicago in 1999. In the beginning, I didn’t have enough purses made but I had the basics of my line developed. So I came up with the idea of letting people pick their own material and bag style. People loved the idea and it struck me that they liked the experience of making their own purses as well as the purses themselves. Their purses reflected a little bit of themselves. A person becomes very attached to something they had a hand in making. So we offered the experience. Also, I didn’t want to produce thousands of the same things.
Where do you find your material?
In the beginning, it was a lot of remnants. It used to be more of a hunt for the great remnant where I would hope for five yards. Now it is anywhere from 50 to 100 yards. I go to fabric trade shows and have fabric reps. We do two major palettes each year. We change our fabrics often so there is always something fresh and new. We don’t keep the same patterns of the fabric in the line, even if they are really popular. Well, the solids we do, but the patterns change.
How do you decide what to name your purses?
Bag style names started as names of my friends and family. The newer bags are people that work at Lill. I try to match the styles of the bag with the person, too, but that doesn’t always happen.
You had suede as a fabric choice for a bit. Why did discontinue that?
There were mixed dye lots that weren’t exactly the same. You get that with natural materials. And we didn’t buy enough of the suede to have access to really interesting colors. Fabric allows us to offer more forward colors. And it’s very durable and a little easier to care for.
How would you describe your approach to picking handbags for yourself?
With me, it’s more of a function: I want a bag for work, I want one for going out. So I have a few and use for different things as I need them.
What Lill purse are you carrying?
The syle that I like for every day is the Andi. It has one strap and sits nicely next to you.
What sets Lill bags apart?
When I notice them on the street, they are this little bright spot, a colorful bit of cheer on a person, kind of like a happy thought. The bags are going to have a unique fabric. And then there is our black and white label which is hard to miss.
What’s new at 1154 Lill Studio?
Right now we are working on a frame bag. It’s a very hot trend. We are also partnering with a shoe company to make a fabric ballet slipper with three components. It will be offered December first, but only in our stores.
Tell us a little about your purse parties.
Purse parties started at the first street fair. We had flyer telling people that they could have a party and design bags. People weren’t prepared to design a bag at the street fair so we gave them the chance to host a party in a more relaxed setting. That’s how we got our first seven parties. They are a little like Tupperware parties of our mother’s day for the heart of our market, which is mainly young professionals in their twenties and thirties.
How many bags are you making nowadays?
It’s the height of the holiday season so we are doing about 3,000 bags a week. We have three stores, all of them in a central shopping districts where people come to shop. In Chicago, you get a lot of women shopping with their mothers and grandmothers, their friends and co-workers so it’s a very social shopping experience.
How are do you balance your career with family?
My husband is an entrepreneur as well so we have a mutual understanding of what it takes. You have to treat your job a little like a baby and really nurse it along. I think of it as a little bit of a see saw and one is always riding a little bit above the other and the challenge is keeping it level. You just have to find a way to keep that seesaw as level as you can. When I’m at the office, I focus on work. I keep certain times of the day dedicated to family and. At the end of the day, I change hats and do the best I can.
What are you like to do outside of the purse business and your family? Are you passionate about cooking? Small dogs?
Ha ha! I don’t really have time to cook a lot and we have a cat, so neither of those. My biggest passion is keeping in contact with friends and trying to keep relationships going. I went to the same university as my husband so we have a really great network of friends. So we make memories and relive the old ones. I just went to New York for a girls’ weekend. We did the tour bus thing, a lot of shopping, went to restaurants. Stuff like that.
What about TV shows? Any Project Runway action?
I like Weeds and Grey’s Anatomy. Weeds really stresses me out to watch but I can’t wait for the next episode.