Minnie + George, a hand-crafted leather goods company in Portland, might not exist if not for a terrible economy and a job with limited creative possibilities. That was the position Lori Caldwell, owner of Minnie + George, found herself in several years ago following her return to the United States after six years of travel throughout Mexico, Europe and South America.
“At the age of 33, I gave up my apartment and the majority of my possessions and began a life of travel—me and my backpack. While living in Argentina, after years of being abroad with just short trips back to the U.S., I started to feel a little homesick. I felt the desire to make some roots again.”
Lori returned to the states and stayed with her parents in California while she figured out where she wanted to live and what she wanted to do next.
“I started looking into the Pacific Northwest and quickly zeroed in on Portland. It was instantly attractive because it seemed to be a place that would understand, nurture, and support an independent and creative spirit.”
Although Lori was grateful to find a job in a tough economy, it didn’t provide the creative outlet she needed from her work. That prompted her to take a step back and figure out what she did want for herself.
“I began creating vision boards of what I wanted my life to look like both personally and professionally. Through that process, I realized three things: 1) I wanted to be my own boss 2) I wanted to do something creative that involved design and 3) I wanted it to be craft based.”
As she continued honing her vision, Lori was struck by inspiration on Pinterest, “I had been pinning some DIY craft projects and came across one for a leather clutch bag. That pin got me excited and interested in both handbag production and working with leather.” She loved the idea of leather because it lasts over several lifetimes. Plus, leather doesn’t add to the current landfill culture of short-use goods with a long-waste life which was also an important consideration.
That was the creative moment that Minnie + George got its start. Even though Lori had zero experience in sewing (beyond stitching a button in place) or leather working, she didn’t let that stop her. She forged ahead unfazed by figuring out how turn her vision into reality.
“To be honest, that was never a big concern. A skill can be learned. Just because you don’t know how to do something, doesn’t mean you aren’t able to do it. You simply lack the information and experience. Both those things can be attained if you have the right incentive, motivation and commitment.”
Lori took private sewing classes at Modern Domestic on NE Alberta, and developed a relationship with the incredibly knowledgeable staff at Oregon Leather Co. to learn the requisite skills. She moved away from machine sewing to traditional hand-stitched leather working, watched a lot of instructional YouTube videos and read a few manuals.
“Creatively, I felt like I knew from the beginning what I wanted to achieve in both design and aesthetic. I’m most attracted to classic, minimal design. I knew I wanted my pieces to have simple, clean lines, and be fashionable without losing a high level of functionality. For example, one of my first designs was my 3 in 1 Drawstring Bucket Bag. It’s a classic design and most every handbag company makes some version of it. I love it’s style, but wanted to increase its function, so I designed it to be able to convert from a shoulder bag, to a cross body bag, or to a backpack depending on how one wants/needs to use it.”
Retailers and crafters make it happen
When Lori originally decided to move to Portland she knew that it had a thriving craft-based community, and that weighed into her decision to move here. She credits that community plus local retailers for making businesses like Minnie + George possible.
“You endure a lot of rejection, but gain a stronger business backbone, and eventually, if you’re persistent, someone will take the time to talk with you, and you’ll get a foot in the door.”
Lori believes there really are no mistakes if you have the right attitude about them. Every “mistake,” roadblock, or hardship (and there have been many) she’s faced has led to incredible breakthroughs both personally and professionally. Lori has learned that a difficult situation often requires a creative and innovative solution. The process of finding that solution has helped her build confidence and a mountain of experience.
“It’s also important to note that Portland has a very high number of small, independent retailers who support local makers, enabling us to make a living. This isn’t something you find in a lot of cities. Small boutiques in major cities still tend to buy from major wholesalers, which doesn’t allow for a lot of economic opportunities for crafters in those places. That combination of a large creative community supported by local business makes Portland a pretty powerful draw.”
The Minnie + George website launched on June 10, 2014 with a small capsule collection. That also happened to be the same day as her parents’ (Minnie and George) 48th wedding anniversary. Yes, Lori named the business after her parents.
“I don’t think I would have been able to believe that I could do the things that I’ve done had I not had the unconditional love and support of my parents. They’ve never expressed reservation. When I talked about doing something that sounded crazy, even to me, their response was always, make a plan, be happy, and let us know that you’re okay. They’re the inspiration for everything I do, so it seemed only fitting that I’d name the business after them.”
They continue to offer support to their daughter with advice that all entrepreneurs can take to heart.
“The hardest thing for me has been to accept help,” says Lori. “I’m used to being fiercely independent and there have been a number of times in this process where I’ve had to lean on the shoulders of other people, especially my parents. I remember one particularly bad financial crisis when I had to ask my parents for help. I was crying and feeling so guilty. My mom told me that it was a blessing for them to be able to help me and that she knew when I was able to, I’d use my own success to pay it forward in the same way. So, that’s my goal, to be able to accept help when I need it and then pay it back by paying it forward.”
With a slew of opportunities on the horizon it’s very likely that Lori will have ample time to pay forward everything she’s learning and the support she’s received. Between partnerships with other businesses for exclusive leather goods, and her own Minnie + George expansion plans, she’s gaining a lot of experience on managing rapid growth.
“I’d really like Minnie to become a full lifestyle brand. I already have a small home collection designed, and have some sketches of a few apparel pieces. All of it will be based in leather, as I’m committed to keeping traditional leather working techniques alive. I feel like it’s a bit of a dying craft, especially the hand work. I think there’s really value in learning how to make something with your hands. I love that I’m not dependent on a machine and that it’s a skill that can be passed down to others that want to take up the craft.”