How This Affordable Bag Brand Became a Word-Of-Mouth Phenomenon

·Senior Editor
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Jemma ‘Emma Work Bag’ in Burgundy and Navy, $398, jemmabag.com.

When it comes to getting dressed for work, it’s no secret that women face challenges men don’t. For men, office wear is as simple as a prescription: navy suit, briefcase, and you’re out the door. The formula for working women is trickier to navigate: In corporate settings, we’re required to project professionalism, balanced by femininity, while avoiding any hint of sex appeal. It’s a tightrope some women spend their careers learning to walk. But now, a new bag brand aims to make at least one part of the equation easier.

Jemma aims to bridge the gap between practical and stylish. Founded in 2015 by entrepreneur Joanna Lau, Jemma launched with a modest two bag styles: the sleek, structured Emma Work Bag and the ladylike, vintage-style Jojo Life Bag. In case those names don’t make it clear, these little bags are packed with big ambition. Jemma wants its bags to serve the totality of a woman’s life, from 9 to 5, 5 to 9, and beyond.

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Jemma founder Joanna Lau with her Emma Work Bag.

And crucially, in a handbag market that’s seen prices skyrocket in the last decade, Jemma wants to serve its aspirational style at an accessible price point. The Life Bag costs $358, the Work Bag $398. While not cheap, these prices represent a welcome return to sanity in a market where even the most basic designer bags now come with a comma in the price tag. For many working women, Jemma’s bags can be saved up for in a matter of months, rather than paid off on a credit card for a year or more. Clearly it’s a value proposition that’s resonating with women. Despite being a newly-launched brand whose marketing is mainly word-of-mouth, several of Jemma’s styles have already sold out and been restocked since launch.

I tested out the Emma bag in burgundy, and found it to be ideal for work. It’s roomy enough to hold my 15” laptop, my full-size Moleskine, a paperback, and even a pair of commuting flats, while still looking polished (that is to say, it looked professional, even when I had it jam-packed with junk). It also feels special enough to carry on a big day, like to an important interview or meeting. And without being too show-offy, it still nabbed a few compliments from coworkers and friends. Simply put, it’s a big-girl bag par excellence.

We spoke to founder Joanna Lau about how she went from Wall Street to the world of fashion, how Jemma became a word-of-mouth hit, and what’s next for the brand.

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Jemma ‘Jojo Life Bag’ in Taupe, $358, jemmabags.com.

Yahoo Style: You have a background in finance. Tell us a bit about how you went from that world to founding Jemma.
Joanna Lau: I was previously an Emerging Markets Trader on Wall Street, and my daily problem was not having a proper work bag I could confidently carry, that not only met my working and personal needs but had the appropriate color, quality, and professionalism. I found myself having to accommodate to the constraints of my handbag, instead of the other way around. My girlfriends and colleagues had similar experiences, so I knew this was a void that needed to be filled. So I wanted to create Jemma for the modern working woman who doesn’t want to sacrifice style, convenience, or an entire paycheck for the right handbag.

Did you have any background in fashion prior to Jemma?
JL: I always had a keen interest in fashion. I worked part-time in PR at Tommy Hilfiger while at NYU, and completed a summer course in fashion design at Parsons during high school. I founded Jemma in October 2015, and launched my first Work-Life Collection in January 2016.

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A model with Jemma’s ‘Emma Work Bag’ in Burgundy.

What did you feel was missing in the women’s handbag market before Jemma came along?
JL: Jemma fills a niche in the women’s handbag market for a well-designed, high quality handbag that serves the working woman’s daily needs. There are a lot of beautiful handbags available, but I felt that fashion trumped function far too often. I owned many bags that were pretty and cool, but when I needed to carry my laptop or an important folder or file, it was awkward — which is both unattractive and unprofessional. I was frustrated that I couldn’t find a bag that addressed my needs for a functional accessory that was also gorgeous and appealed to all my senses like a luxury handbag.

It’s refreshing to see a quality handbag that doesn’t have a comma in the price tag. How are you able to do that?
JL: The accessible price point was of paramount importance to me. I think the notion of luxury in fashion is definitely changing in our generation. Women are smart and want to spend their hard-earned money in a sensible, yet exciting way. Through intelligent sourcing, designing in-house, and selling directly to my customers via e-commerce, Jemma is able to provide a high-quality leather handbag with the ideal functionality at a reasonable price.

The fact that several styles have sold out tells us they’re resonating with consumers. What kind of feedback have you received?
JL: It thrills me beyond words that they’ve been so well received. We sold out of two colorways within two weeks, essentially via word of mouth alone. Women are writing in telling me that they no longer have to carry an ugly laptop bag to work, and that even though other designers have attempted to create a fashionable and functional bag, no one has done it as well as Jemma has. Others have said they’ve been asked by strangers where they got their bag and they were shocked that it did not cost $1,000 or more.

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Jemma ‘Emma Work Bag’ in Black & Vanilla, $398, jemmabags.com.

Tell me about how you developed the Work Bag style — what features were important to you?
JL: I did a lot of market research and interviews with working women to find out exactly what their pain points were with existing work bags. Clearly an area for a laptop, file, or folder is essential, and a sleeve for a tablet is important too. Our key attachment snaps into the bag so they’re easy to find, and easy to grab. Our interior is light-colored to avoid the proverbial “black hole” of a larger handbag. A pen holder, a lipstick holder, and card slots were non-negotiables. For both style and function we have an optional cross-body strap, and a full closure top for those who commute via mass transit.

As a new company, what is the main driver of sales?
JL: As a newer company that sells directly to consumers via our website, strong product photography was very important for early sales, and we are so new at this point that our main driver of purchases has been word of mouth.

Who do you see carrying your bags?
JL: I see the Jemma woman as a working woman, but that means many things beyond high-powered attorneys and bankers. Women wear more hats today than ever before. Even college students have professional internships, some stay-at-home moms have their own part-time businesses where they have meetings or head to coffee shops to blog. We’re finding that women of all ages and lifestyles appreciate our bags’ functionality.

Thanks so much for speaking with us. Before we go, any plans to expand into other styles/colors?
JL: I’m always jotting down ideas and sketches. We’re working on a few exciting things now. Stay tuned!