Meet the Designers Behind 2016's Hottest Bag
It was freezing and rainy in New York City when I ventured to Chinatown to visit the Simon Miller showroom a few weeks ago, but any weather-related angst disappeared within minutes of stepping inside. Hidden three flights above the chaos of Canal Street, the showroom is a world unto itself: warm, golden-hued, and inviting. Incense burns on a long wooden table, red flowers in glass vases sprinkle the space, and the brand’s über-popular handbags are staged like sculptures on platforms at the far end of the room. It’s comfortably sparse, with stylish clothing racks on each wall carrying the latest women’s collection, a flurry of artful denim, luxurious knits, and robe-inspired outerwear.
A studio assistant offered me ginger-crystal tea (the best I’d never had) at the mention of a sore throat as Chelsea Hansford—who designs the line with Daniel Corrigan—showed me around the room. Unassuming and funny, Hansford has that cool-without-trying je ne sais quoi quality that fashion fiends are constantly trying to capture. It’s not surprising in the least that she and Corrigan (equally funny and charming) are the masterminds behind the year’s hottest handbag—the Bonsai. Having dominated the street style scene and been scooped up and celebrated by a plethora of stylish editors, the simple bag immediately became a force to be reckoned with. True to their character, though, Hansford and Corrigan have remained hidden behind its success—a unique move in a time when the fashion designer role is often on par with a celebrity’s. But the mystery of who was behind these killer bags and Simon Miller’s similarly enticing ready-to-wear line got the best of me, so I hopped on a call with them both to chat about the brand’s surprising evolution, the beauty of collaborating with friends, and how they work together from separate coasts (Corrigan is based in Los Angeles while Hansford remains in New York).
Scroll down to see what they had to say, and to shop our favourite Simon Miller pieces.
WHO WHAT WEAR: Can you tell me a bit about the brand’s evolution—since it was originally owned by Simon Miller and strictly a denim brand?
DANIEL CORRIGAN: I met Simon 10 years ago, and at that point, he was just talking about starting a denim line. I was still in college at the time, and I basically moved in with Simon and stayed with him a few nights a week and then was in school a couple nights a week, and we started doing the men’s denim together—but at that point it was really small; I mean, we only had maybe seven to 10 pairs—all very heavy, authentic men’s denim. So that was the start of it, and we worked together for about two years, and then [in 2011] he wanted to move on and do other things, and that’s when I took full control of the brand.
WWW: Did you know from the start that you wanted to expand the brand so much?
DC: No, I didn’t know what I was doing, to be completely honest. I believed in our relationship with our partners, our manufacturers, our fabric mills, and the actual end product we were producing, so I knew there was a lot of growth potential for the brand if we stuck with those principles. But it wasn’t until I started working with Chelsea that we fully grasped the potential of the brand on the women’s side.
CHELSEA HANSFORD: I think our goal was to convert the brand that was so focused on the one product to a lifestyle brand, so we focused on expanding categories—we wanted to introduce things that would speak to the original product, like accessories, and expand beyond just jeans. We had a heavy hand in indigo at the time, but we wanted to build out what we live and love.
DC: That’s such a huge part of the brand for us—that lifestyle component, which will be very apparent when we eventually open retail. [All of the collaborations we’ve done] really do speak to the brand and what we’re about, and we’re going to be doing more and more of that—everything from furniture to clothing.
WWW: It’s funny you say that because when I visited your showroom, it really struck me that you were selling a lifestyle more than just clothes—there was incense burning, I was served ginger-crystal tea, etc., and the whole experience seemed catered to a very specific type of person. Do you have a specific woman in mind when you design?
DC: Chelsea, basically. [Laughs.]
CH: I’m happy to hear that because we work so hard on getting that lifestyle across, especially with our shows—there’s no point in doing our show in a white-box setting; it just doesn’t really speak to what we’re trying to do as a brand. I think the girl we design for is laid-back, but with a sophisticated edge. Someone who’s eclectic, loves denim, loves the outdoors and city life, traveling the world—but of all ages.
DC: Yeah, it’s someone who really cares about product. I mean, we definitely take into consideration current trends and what’s relevant on the market right now, but I think that the people who buy our stuff, whether on the men’s or women’s side, are really more product-driven than trend-driven. We put so much consideration into the fabrics that we’re using and the methods we use to actually manufacture the goods—we want them to last … for people to have them for a long time rather than just being a trendy object.
CH: Someone once said that we design for “mature youth,” which I liked—there’s a younger attitude that’s seen in the casualness and spirit of the brand and the fact that it revolves around denim, but it also has this maturity and sophistication to it. We also try to mix a lot of masculine elements into the women’s line without necessarily using masculine fits—we try to make them flattering [for a woman] while still evoking that masculine attitude. But at the end of the day, it’s just someone who cares about the [quality of production]—we don’t use any synthetics, we use Japanese fabrication, and everything’s made in the U.S.
WWW: How has your women’s denim changed over time?
CH: I think we just got more focused. We had a lot more styles when we first launched, and I think now we’ve sort of cornered and owned the wide-leg.
DC: When we first launched, we did it as an exclusive with Barneys and we had skinnies and slim boyfriends with some stretch, which was what was relevant at the time but not necessarily relevant to us. So in the second season, we homed in on the fits we really wanted to use, no longer using stretchy denim, so our jeans are 100% cotton. Now it’s only denim that we really believe in.
CH: I think the whole market has also gotten a lot cleaner in washes, and you’re seeing a lot more vintage treatment. We have a lot of clean washes now—blacks and whites sell really well for us, nice clean grays, etc.
DC: It’s funny because we started as a men’s denim brand, but our denim is becoming much more ready-to-wear. I think we’re looked at less now as a denim brand—which I could not be any happier about. It was never our intention to be a big commercial denim brand.
WWW: Yeah, I mean, I don’t see you guys that way, and I was actually surprised that that’s how everything started. I think of your accessories and ready-to-wear first.
DC: Yeah, that’s something that’s been interesting to watch as the brand has evolved. It’s grown very organically, and it’s grown with the people in the company. We take great pride in the fact that we’re not this big, commercial brand. We’re a really small team; we all work really, really hard and care about the product.
WWW: The Bonsai bag has been an especially big hit. Were you guys totally blindsided by that?
CH: When we started prototyping it and came to the final [prototype], I knew that it was going to be big. It was just so cute and something that was unique on the market that has this modern edge/attitude to it. The price point was so good too, so I was really excited. I think our expectations were definitely exceeded, but we knew it was going to be a big product for us, and I think it gave us the confidence we needed to push forth and develop more [accessories].
DC: Yeah, I mean, now we can’t even keep the bag in stock! It’s crazy. But for us, even when we have something that works and is successful, it’s not about producing thousands of them and selling them to every store possible. It’s still about maintaining the quality of the product and controlling the distribution—we don’t want it to be everywhere. I’m sure it will get ripped off. … We’ve already started to see that, which is fine … but we’re not like Okay, it’s popular so let’s just mass-produce them. We do really want to keep things special under the Simon Miller name.
WWW: I think that’s really smart—and I wish more brands would adopt that attitude.
DC: Well, I wouldn’t mind selling a million of them and just calling it a day and sitting on the beach somewhere [laughs], but maybe later down the road we’ll do that.
WWW: Do you feel pressure to create the next Bonsai bag—something equally as popular?
CH: I don’t think of it as pressure—I feel more inspired. We have so many ideas, and I feel confident in doing more [now that] people have responded well to us doing something that was a little different, a little niche—you know, it wasn’t a standard tote or a bucket bag; it was a new idea. I think we have our work ahead of us, but it’s exciting.
DC: I think it gives you confidence. In this industry, there’s always some pressure to be on top of the next thing, and I think there’s definitely an element of that when Chelsea and I are developing the collection and thinking about new ideas, but we always go back to wanting the fabrication and the product to speak for itself. So we don’t always have to rely on it just being trendy; we can rely on the quality, as well—it’s about balancing the two.
CH: Something to note about our bags which is really special and that I think helped a lot with initial sales is that we use all hand-tanned French leather, so it goes through a process that’s very organic. It’s hand-waxed and -tanned, using no chemicals at the same tannery that a lot of the luxury houses in Paris use, so it’s very focused on quality and the simple design allows for good pricing.
WWW: Can you tell me about what inspires you most when you’re designing?
CH: In terms of colour palette, which is huge for us, it’s always from nature. It’s usually taken from a mountain range that we love, or some canyon or desert. We love pop colours, but they always have an undertone of earthiness to them, like a nice mustardy chartreuse or an oxblood red. So that’s really where we start, and then we have a bunch of Japanese fabric mills that we go to that are really unique, and we just start looking for fabrics that we really love—so we don’t focus on an era or anything like that.
DC: Yeah, and [at that point] we aren’t even really thinking about silhouettes or shapes.
CH: One of the things that people really love about Simon Miller is that our silhouettes are pretty approachable; they don’t change drastically—you know if you love Simon Miller one season you’re going to love it the next. We like to combine pretty simple modern cuts with really interesting fabrication.
WWW: How does the design process play out between the two of you on different coasts? In what ways are your roles different?
CH: We do everything together. [Laughs.]
DC: Yeah. [Laughs.] Obviously I have more input on the men’s side and Chelsea has more input on the women’s side, but we’re not like You’re in charge of this category and I’m in charge of this category. We just start throwing ideas around—we have a merchandise plan, which is this giant Excel spreadsheet and inspiration folders where we start compiling all of our thoughts, and then she’ll come out [to Los Angeles] and we’ll start narrowing it down.
CH: In terms of New York versus Los Angeles, a lot of the denim happens in L.A. because it’s a very hands-on, in-the-wash-house process and Dan takes the lead on a lot of that, and then a lot of our ready-to-wear we’ll do in midtown [NYC] with some pattern-makers we love. It really just depends on what the needs are, but we try to do everything together, and we probably spend 50% of the day on the phone with each other. We should be on a family plan. [Laughs.]
WWW: Chelsea was telling me that you collaborate with friends a lot.
CH: Yeah, we’ve done one collaboration with Moscot, which was a bigger brand—but we were still very close with them; I’ve had a relationship with them for the past five years, so we’re really friendly. But in general we just like to find friends who are really talented and easy to work with.
DC: Yeah, like two years ago we collaborated on a couch with one of my friends out here in L.A., Stephen Kenn, who makes these really beautiful couches. What I’ve always disliked about collaborations is [they seem like] someone’s just putting their name on another person’s product, and I don’t find that interesting—what makes a collaboration interesting is what each company brings to it. Chelsea has done an amazing job linking us up with friends of hers or making new friends who share our beliefs.
CH: That’s the fun part about having a brand. You know, you live in New York or L.A. and you’re young and you have so many talented friends, so it’s great to get them all together to make cool stuff.
DC: Although I’m not that young anymore. [Laughs.] … I look in the mirror and I’ve aged like 15 years in the last five days.
WWW: Haha, that’s fashion for you.
DC: [Laughs.] I know! I need to start getting weekly massages or something.
WWW: So how do you see the Simon Miller brand evolving in the next few years?
CH: I think that we really want to master bags, and then we’ll move to shoes because we’ve seen a lot of success from [our recent] shoe collaboration and how it ties the whole collection together. We’re not ready yet to be producing our own, but we’ll continue with collaborations because it means a lot for us, and down the road we’ll [make our own].
DC: And, again, we want the growth to be slow and organic—you know not opening distribution too much and getting really big, really quickly. We have a great team that we work with here, and we want to continue to really build that team and build the infrastructure so we aren’t losing any control over our products or just producing products to produce products. That’s so important for us.