Built Oregon -Oregon's Entrepreneurial Digital Magazine

Author - Mary-Frances Makichen

Minnie + George: Crafting a quality lifestyle brand one handmade product at a time

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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.P1030640

Pinterest inspired

“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.

IMG_2358-2That 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.”P1030634

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.”

IMG_2471-26Lori 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.”Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 11.29.57 AM

Be happy

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.

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 11.41.19 AM“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.”

Lori and her team discuss brand strategy in the studio

Lori and her team discuss brand strategy in the studio

For more information, visit www.minniegeorge.com, like them on facebook and follow them on Pinterest, twitter and instagram

Grayling Jewelry designs a sparkling merger of business and community

Grayling Built Oregon Grayling copyright Nicholas Peter Wilson

There’s a rather cryptic looking building in Portland on the corner of NE Sandy and 31st Street with a banner at the top that says simply, “The Bindery.” Inside this shared space is a beautiful mix of wood, glass and high ceilings that together create an airy, open vibe. This eclectic setting is home to Grayling Jewelry—both its corporate office and showroom. Katy Kippen, its creative force, designer and owner, has been passionate about jewelry making since she was a young girl.

“I grew up around rocks in Montana where my grandfather was an avid collector and stonecutter. He made pendants and rings for friends and family as a hobby. I loved it and started making jewelry too.”

That love of jewelry design has been a constant in Kippen’s life no matter what else she was doing—and this hard-working woman has done a lot. After graduating from business school she began work as a buyer’s assistant for high-end boutiques in Montana. Over the next seven years Kippen went from assistant to lead buyer and eventually operated as a partner in tandem with the owner.

“I didn’t know it at the time but everything I did as buyer, every trade show I attended, and all the jewelry lines I reviewed were market research for what would eventually become Grayling Jewelry. I got an amazing education on the wholesale and retail side of the fashion industry as a buyer. I’m really lucky to have that foundation. There are so many valuable insights you pick up just by doing the job every day.”

Big scary leap

By 2009, several things happened that made it clear it was time for a change. After seven years with the same company Kippen was burnt out. She’d been living and breathing the business and intuitively knew it was time for a change. The recession had also hit and the vision for the business was moving in a direction she wasn’t interested in following. Kippen stepped down, with a big question mark about what would come next.

“I knew that I could design and sell jewelry. It was something I had done all my life off and on. I also knew all the jewelry lines out there from my years as a buyer. Even though I’d been working independently and really operating as if I was the sole owner, I wasn’t. The idea of now starting my own business all by myself was very scary.”

Despite that anxiety, Kippen knew in her gut that designing jewelry was the right next step for her. She shared her concerns with good friend John Rink, a gold and platinumsmith.

“I told John how much I wanted to go back to making jewelry and he offered me a bench in his studio, plus access to all of his equipment, for just $200 a month. That was an amazingly generous offer, and just seeing all the tools he was making available to me was inspirational.”

Jewelry Stores Portland GraylingThat was the very beginning of what would become the thriving wholesale and retail business that is Grayling Jewelry today. Kippen is quick to point out that she did not make this journey alone. She had help, especially from her husband, mentors and customers, all of whom supported and contributed to the early days of the business.

Kippen believes the unique consumers here in Portland, who support high quality, handmade products, helped shape the direction she took.

“When I first sat down at that bench in John’s studio I had no idea what kind of jewelry line I wanted to produce. In the end, I decided to design for myself, and people like me, who are sensitive to metals, can’t necessarily afford fine jewelry, but really value locally made quality pieces. I knew I wanted jewelry that was fun, expressive, versatile and timeless.”

“Oregon is a unique place with an educated consumer base and a lot of support for entrepreneurs. I’m not sure that Grayling would be as successful as it is today if it was based anyplace else in the country. I’d like to think I could have done this anywhere but really I think the collaborative thinking that happens here has been a key to our success.”

But it wasn’t until Kippen took her collections out in the world and started to get feedback that she was able to really hone in on what would ultimately become her signature collection.

“Don’t be afraid to listen to customers and ask a lot of questions,” advises Kippen. “I’m a huge fan of asking questions because to me there’s a synergy in those conversations with buyers that helps you understand what does and doesn’t resonate with customers. We tried a lot of different things and kept refining our vision based on customer feedback until we got to the point we’re at today. Finding people who are willing to share their opinions is golden. Some of our most popular pieces came to be based on those conversations.”

Portland helps make (and grow) the maker

For Kippen, collaboration comes in many forms, including organizations like the Oregon Small Business Development Center (OSBDC). “I’ve had brilliant experiences and met some of the most inspirational people through that organization. I wish I had known about them much sooner. I’d encourage business owners to check out the classes there. I’ve found them tremendously helpful.”

The OSBDC is just one of the ways that Kippen believes that Portland uniquely supports entrepreneurs in becoming successful.

Katy Kippen

Katy Kippen (photo by Jeremy Kirby)

“One of the most incredibly special things about living in Portland, and I can’t speak to the rest of Oregon because I’ve only lived here, is the great network of people who have deliberately chosen to live here and come to the table with amazing experiences and are willing to share them. There is an unspoken ethos here that if you were helped by someone, if someone gave you that kernel of knowledge that helped you grow your company or made your life better, it’s only right that you do the same and help the next person along their journey. I truly think that idea of community and collaboration is very unique to Portland.”

So with a thriving business poised for continued growth how does this entrepreneur define success now that she has six years of experience under her belt and a national customer base?

“I don’t really believe in the traditional definition of success anymore,” says Kippen. “I even stopped subscribing to business magazines because the theme always seemed to be that there’s more to do, grow larger and faster, think big. The message is meant to be inspiring but it supports this perpetual idea that we’re not doing enough. I remind myself that I’ve blown out of the water the dream I had as a 16 year old to own a jewelry business, and that I’ve surpassed what I dreamed of achieving. Business success to me means surrounding myself with people who embrace an ever changing vision of Grayling and help me execute on it, so that we can all have lives filled with family, friends and adventures.”

And just in case you were wondering, the name Grayling comes from a gray freshwater fish, similar to a rainbow trout, only its “rainbow” is on its dorsal fin—a fish with an accessory. According to Kippen, “Their colors are absolutely brilliant, so full of shimmer and shine, just like I want all of my designs to be.”

You can find out more about Katy Kippen and Grayling Jewelry on her website, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and on Twitter.