As her oldest child was applying to college, Julie realized she needed to plan for her next act. She rekindled her passion for fashion and launched J. Markell Designs, with the goal to provide more reasonably-priced exotic-skin handbags and accessories.
Tell us about your background…
I grew up in West Bloomfield, Michigan, with my parents and my brother Bob. As a teenager, I worked in retail at a store called Cover-Up. After school my junior and senior years, I would go straight to work four days a week and most Saturdays. I always loved being around clothes and accessories. It was my happy place. When I wasn’t helping customers on the floor, you could always find me in the dressing room trying on clothes! Needless to say, I barely brought home a paycheck.
In my spare time at home, I would spend hours in my own closet putting together outfits and putting outfits together on paper, down to the accessories. It was very important to me from a young age to look just right but spending too much time deciding what to wear always made me late, so I figured if I had outfits written down on a “cheat sheet,” I would always be on time and feel good in what I was wearing.
I think it is very important to feel good in what your wear; it sets the tone for who you are and how you feel that day. Completing the look with the right handbag is just as important.
My mother was very into fashion as well. I remember as a young girl spending afternoons at Loehmann’s together. She was so patient and good at looking through all the racks to find really great things. Loehmann’s was an experience; you needed time and patience to sort through all the merchandise (there was so much). I could never have done it alone and so enjoyed those days as a teenager when my mom would say “wanna go shopping”?
Going to lunch and spending the day shopping with my mom are such happy memories for me. I really miss that, and wish she were still here.
I studied fashion merchandising and marketing at Eastern Michigan University. The summer between my junior and senior years, I got an internship working at Marshall Field’s State Street in what they called “The flying squad.” I worked that summer in almost all of the store’s departments, learning all aspects of retail. I so enjoyed that summer! Not only did I love working at Marshall Field’s, but I also fell in love with Chicago and knew that when I graduated college, I would move to Chicago for sure.
And I did! My first job was working at the Apparel Center in a clothing showroom selling women’s clothing. I met my husband the spring of ’92, when I was just out and about with girlfriends at a local bar called Sheffield’s. Steve is from Minneapolis, so we were both transplants right out of college. We married in the fall of ’93.
Next, I held consecutive jobs as Midwest sales rep for three different women’s shoe companies, traveling 11 states and handling their accounts over a 10-year period. I was very fortunate to be able to stop working when I was pregnant with my second child and become a stay-at-home mom.
Steve and I have been happily married for 22 years and have three kids: Michael (20), Marlee (18), and Ethan (13). While raising my family, I was an active volunteer in my kids’ schools, including fundraising.
When did you start thinking about making a change from being a stay at home mom?
When the oldest of my three children was a senior in high school and applying to college, I started thinking I needed a change. I knew that in the blink of an eye I’d be an empty nester, and I thought to myself, how much more exercising and grocery shopping can I do? I flipped out, thinking, this couldn’t be it!
My wheels started spinning and I started to think about what my next act would be. I always knew that if I went back to work, it would definitely be in the fashion industry—fashion has always been my passion—but I also knew I didn’t want to work in retail. I wanted to work on my own terms, set my own schedule, and be my own boss.
What is your next act?
I am the Founder and CEO of J. Markell Designs, which I launched in 2014 at the age of 47. My business is designing exotic-skin handbags and accessories. My most popular item is called the ELLA bag: It’s a 5 x 7.5 inch crossbody bag made out of python or crocodile, which retails for $375. It fits “all the essentials”—and makes a great travel piece too—for a cell phone, license, money, keys (room key if on vacation) lipstick, and small reading glasses. It is unique in the fact that it has a really beautiful crossbody gunmetal chain so that you don’t feel like you have to take it off when you sit down. It looks great with necklaces or just alone. I love that I can put it on my lap with my napkin over it; I know my money is safe and not hanging on the back of my chair to get stolen (which has happened to me).
My clients range from retail stores (I am in 15 across the country and growing), to private clients and referrals, as well as customers I meet at charity events, holiday boutiques, and private home trunk shows. And I’m now selling on my website too.
What sets me apart is that my customers all have one thing in common: They buy my things because they love inconspicuous luxury. They are not interested in a popular box store name brand but rather fine, luxurious, good quality products. They appreciate that if they buy a bag from me, they won’t see it coming and going all over town. My customers are very sophisticated women who prefer their own individual style.
The first thing I think about in my design process is functionality. Although I want it to be beautiful, I want it to be useful. Each J. Markell bag is truly “one of a kind” in the sense that no two skins are exactly alike.
Sometimes I feel I need something bigger or smaller and then my wheels start spinning; everything I design is very well thought out. I think about all the bags I previously bought before I started my business and what I wish they had or didn’t have and then I implement those ideas into my designs. For instance, my stingray collection of clutches are very small, so I designed a built-in wallet on the inside of the bag because I know that after your essentials go in, fitting a big wallet won’t work. Also, clutches are so beautiful, however, when a woman is at a cocktail party with a drink in her hand and then the appetizers come around, it can become a nuisance to figure out how to hold everything. So all my clutches come with an optional chain to attach when you need it. The chain can be worn long or doubled to become shorter.
The first piece I ever sold was a crocodile tote called the Roxi. I sold it to the loveliest lady who LOVED the bag! She made me feel so great, she was so excited to have that beautiful bag and told me that she was sure I would be a huge success. It was such an amazing feeling that someone believed in me right out of the box and really made me feel great in a very scary, starting out, kind of way. She’ll never know what that really meant to me.
It’s always been important for me to give back, so I like to donate a percentage of my sales to a specific charity or the “events charity of choice.” During the holidays (mostly), a lot of women’s organizations around the city have annual shopping holiday boutiques and have vendors set up booths to sell their things while giving anywhere from 10 to 20% of the sales to that organization or a charity that they support. I have been involved with many of these things and have donated to Karma for Cara, Brightpink, JDRF, Northwestern Hospital, Lurie Childrens hospital, GIRF (gastrointestinal research foundation), UJA federation of New York, JAFCO (Jewish adoption of family care), and private schools’ scholarship programs.
How did you decide to start a handbag and accessory business?
It’s funny how things happen; just as I was pondering my next act, I happened to meet the right person at the right time, who was in the exotic skin wholesale business. It was so interesting to me. His business is an importer of exotic skins from the Far East. As I grow, I am also finding and buying skins from exporters as well. In both cases, I make sure that all leathers I work with are a by-product of a food source. I also make sure that they have what is called CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species); this Certificate shows that everything is legal and authorized to be exported from that country and imported into the United States.
I have always been attracted to shoes and handbags, but exotic skin shoes and handbags are in a luxury category that I felt there was room for me to dive into because skins in general are extremely expensive. I felt there was only merchandise at a very high price point but not much else. I knew if I could get my bags to retail at a significant lower price point, I wouldn’t have much competition.
Knowing this gave me the courage to jump in with my idea and that’s when I started buying, sourcing, designing, and selling exotic skin handbags and accessories and launched J. Markell Designs.
I chose the name of my company carefully. It was very important to me to get all the family members that I love so much to be connected to the name. Coming up with the name didn’t take long; my father actually helped me. J is for Julie and Jay is also my husband’s middle name. Mark is my father and Ell is for my mother Ellen, who passed away in 2001. My children are also in there: Mar for my daughter Marlee; we call my son Ethan “E”; and my other son Michael’s Hebrew name is Mikha’el (M and EL). My only sibling Bob’s middle name is Jeffery so I got him in too with the J!
At first, I found a local artisan to make some of my designs for me. Three of my first designs are some of my most popular: the Ella, Marlee, and Amanda. When I wore my designs, people asked me about them. In the beginning, I sold my things at home shows and charity events in and around Chicago. I knew I wanted people to hear the price and not have sticker shock. I worked really hard on my manufacturing so that I could keep my prices in a category that I felt was missing in the ”luxury exotic skin” marketplace.
One day, a friend of mine forwarded me an email invitation to a trunk show for stingray cuffs, bracelets made out of stingray, one of the three skins I currently work with (the other two are crocodile and python). I went to the show and met a wonderful woman, Jill Becker, who started a company with her sister, Jenny Benscher, called Lema J. Design. Jenny designs and hand makes every piece and they both sell their cuffs on line as well as at craft shows and trunk shows around the country. They donate 100% of her profits to the Karma for Cara Foundation in loving memory of Jill’s daughter, Cara, who passed away at 22 from leukemia.
Jill was such an inspiration to me during the first year of my business. She started Lema Design almost a year before me. Watching her determination and success really made me believe in myself and gave me the courage to keep going and pushing forward through all the hard decisions you need to make when you’re an emerging entrepreneur.
The first year of my business, Jill and I did quite a few shows together, and of course I donated to the Karma for Cara foundation every time. Jill is such a wonderful person and I attribute a lot of my success to her. We continue to collaborate to this day.
How did you build your business from there?
I mostly got into stores by understanding what type of boutiques my products belong in, researching the places I wanted to call on, and going there to show the buyers my goods in person. In some instances, the only way I could get into these stores was to work on consignment. Once my product was proven, the buyers started purchasing, trusting that my goods belonged there and would sell. When you’re a new designer, you will do anything to get in the door, even if consignment is the only option. Frankly I don’t blame buyers; they like to test new products out. It becomes a partnership.
The one thing right now that is helping me build my business is social media—some of my best stores found me because of Instagram, and Facebook has brought me a ton of business too. I partner with some of my stores on advertising. For example, this past fall, I colIaborated with ENAZ on an ad, which was featured in North Shore Magazine; it was amazing for me! I was featured in the Scout Guide Vol. 3, a yearly publication that showcases local businesses, shops, designers, etc. Their motto is “live, love, shop local.” Chicago Social magazine did a nice article on me last fall as well. In Splash Magazine, Editor Meredith Wood Prince names J. Markell’s Hot Pink Shagreen clutch one of her summer essentials. But truly my very best advertising is my customers and I wearing my bags.
I am still working every day to find new ways to build my business. I am in 15 stores around the country and hoping to be able to get into a lot more. My second full year sales are 2 1/2 to 3 times my first year’s sales. Needless to say, I am very pleased!
How supportive were your family and friends?
My family couldn’t have been more supportive, especially my husband Steve. He stepped right in and helped me with all the stuff I didn’t want to do, not to mention didn’t like to do! While Steve is self employed (working in investments), he is an integral part of my business in that he helps me with finance, strategic planning, and logistics in the manufacturing process. I love to shop, design, and sell. Everything else he takes care of: all the bills, Quickbooks, purchase orders, stock, ordering, factory questions, etc. I couldn’t do it without him.
There is nothing more satisfying and challenging than raising children. Being a mother in my opinion is the best, hardest job out there, I think it’s because of my children that I felt strong enough to start my own business. It’s a weird feeling to describe, but anyone who knows what it’s like to raise a family, knows that if you can do that you can do anything!
I believe it’s really important to model hard work for your kids. They have always seen my husband working hard and I love the fact that I model this for them too! My older two are at an age where it doesn’t affect them as much as my 13-year-old. He sometimes asks me why I have to work so much—he needs me more.
My extended family and friends are VERY supportive. They buy my things all the time. At first I was worried they were buying to be nice but I’ve come to realize it’s not the case; they love my bags and wear them every day.
What challenges have you encountered?
There are so many challenges running your own business. I lay in bed sometimes and am so overwhelmed at all the things I have to do. Being a new designer, there is not a lot of money to start hiring people off the bat. So I am sourcing materials, finding factories, designing, looking for the right shows to apply for, traveling to the shows, selling at the shows, finding the right stores to call on, calling, calling, sending line sheets, visiting, doing wholesale trunk shows, etc. Again, thank God I can come home and hand all the paperwork to Steve!
One of my biggest challenges is sourcing materials and hardware. Sometimes it takes me a whole week just to figure out and locate the certain hardware or color of material that I am envisioning for a particular design. Everyone asks how do you start something like this? My answer always is: When you are really passionate about something, everything starts to roll and one thing (like a supplier) leads to another. Asking questions is key! I am always asking questions and asking people in the business for help. If you don’t ask, you can’t grow—it’s amazing how much information you can get by just talking to someone.
Do you ever think of giving up?
There are so many days that I am completely overwhelmed and want to give up, but then I’ll get a call from a store that found me through social media; that alone will put me back on the “I can do this” track. There are a lot of highs and lows in starting your own business—it’s definitely a rollercoaster ride—but what I have learned is if you have the will and the passion and you truly love what you are doing, you can do it! I have been very surprised at my success so far and that’s what keeps me motivated, especially when things get tough.
What have you learned about yourself?
I have definitely learned a lot about myself! I’ve learned that I am more of a perfectionist than I ever thought I was. Creating a handbag design takes so much time and effort; you want it to be just right. I probably spend too much time thinking about all the little details, however, the final product is in all those details. I just need to know when to move on I guess.
I have also learned that when I get overwhelmed with how much I have to do, I need to write everything down or I cannot sleep. Being a mother of three and running a household as well, I realize I am not wonder woman and, unless I stay very organized and keep my calendar and “to do” lists up to date, yes, I am only human and will forget things. And even then I still find myself forgetting things—maybe it’s my age a little too!
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
If you have the drive for reinvention, follow your heart; you can truly do anything if you have the passion for it.
When I first began, I never dreamed I’d be selling to stores. It’s such an unbelievable feeling—an adrenaline rush—to see what I have created selling in retail stores. I remember always hearing people saying follow your dreams, you can do anything. It’s so true! In just two years J. Markell is in 15 stores around the country and growing.
What is your advice to those thinking about starting a retail fashion company?
Make sure you have the time. Although I started when one of my children went away to college, it’s still a time commitment that I’m not sure I was ready for, but because I truly love it and it’s been so successful, I have learned how to juggle life and work.
I guess everyone juggles something but I think the key to success is learning how to juggle the things you love most in your life because you will always find the time if your truly passionate about them.
What resources can you share for budding designers and retailers?
I am constantly looking at fashion websites and magazines, and shopping the stores to follow trends. Two of my favorite websites are prêt a porter and farfetch.com; they are both so current and on the mark.
One thing that really inspired me was when I attended Chicago Ideas Week last year. I heard Rebbeca Minkoff speak. She is a designer of accessible luxury handbags, accessories, footwear, and apparel. Listening to her that day was so inspirational. She talked about how she got started and all the trials and tribulations that led to her success and where she is today. It made me realize that the road is tough, but as hard as it may get, you shouldn’t underestimate your dreams. If you really want it and have the will and dedication to take the journey of starting a new business, it will all be worth it.
What’s next for you?
I’m just at the beginning of this act so I don’t see another one in my future, however, I’ll never say never because if you would have asked me two years ago “where do you think you will be in two years?” the last thing I would have said was that I’d be an exotic skin handbag designer!
For now, I’m focused on J. Markell. I would like to grow my business so it becomes a “known” brand in luxury handbags. My ultimate aspiration is to see J. Markell handbags coming and going on the shoulders of women all over and designing an “IT” bag—such as Givenchy’s Pandora bag, Balenciaga’s motorcycle bag, or Chloe’s Marcie bag.
Contact Julie Neff at Julie@jmarkell.com