Fashion Designer Clare Vivier

We’ve all heard the saying “necessity is the mother of invention,” but we doubt there has ever been a more perfect application than in the case of fashion designer Clare Vivier. Her necessity? A laptop case that would fulfill all of its duties without sacrificing style. Her invention? A leather bag that became the cornerstone for her eponymous line of totes, cases, clutches, and accessories.

From an early age, Clare felt a force like gravity pulling her towards the world of fashion. Committed to bringing her dreams to life, she even listed “Bag Designer” as the occupation on her marriage certificate application—long before her design career began. “I knew I had to live up to this official document!” It’s this special breed of determination that has made Clare Vivier a globally adored brand in just a few years, all the while maintaining that California-cool reputation.

Today, Clare shares her fascinating story, from her life-changing stint in Paris to her brave career switch, her design inspirations to her responsible manufacturing practices. We know you’re just as thrilled as we are to get the inside scoop.

Name: Clare Vivier
Current title/ company: Clare Vivier, CEO
Year you launched the company: 2008
Educational background: University of San Francisco, B.A. English.

What was your first job out of college and how did you land that position?
After college I decided that I wanted to have that dreamy experience of living in Paris. I had never been there before, definitely did not speak any French, but I mustered up the guts and decided to just go! One of the first nights I was there I went to a party and was talking to a woman who was a documentary director and had a room available to rent. The stars aligned, and not only did I end up renting her chambre de bonne, but she introduced me to her friends who owned a production company where I ended up working! I took a month long French class and worked at a café for daily speaking and humiliation—no better way to learn a language. The sink-or-swim method. After I lived in Paris, I moved back to San Francisco where I had attended college and worked for the NBC affiliate website where I wrote about the extremely important affairs of pop culture.

How and why did you make the transition from journalist to handbag designer? Did you have any formal training? How far into your career did you make the switch?
I had always been interested in fashion, since I was very young. From dressing up as a kid, to parading around with my dad’s briefcase thinking I was a chic businesswoman, it was always something I loved. When I was filling out my marriage certificate, I wrote in bag designer even though I had not yet completely dove into making bags yet (I knew I had to live up to this official document!). I knew how to sew, I could make my own clothes and bags, but I did not have formal training. I bought a gorgeous skin of leather and just began experimenting, and at this time I also decided to launch a blog, which has been monumental in my career. I made a bag, posted it to the blog, and it sold out! I paused briefly when I had my son but soon after began working again, using my blog as a way to brand my company and it worked!

What advice do you have for people wanting to switch careers but not sure where to start? Or those that are worried they have no experience in the new field?
When I was beginning my career I would try to meet with as many people as possible to speak with them about how they got their start. Ask anyone you know in the field you are interested in to coffee. Or ask for an informational interview, and pick their brain about anything and everything related to the career you want. You can’t be ruled by your fears. The fear of no experience is a fear like any other, and you must just put one foot in front of the other. You will be surprised by how many people are willing to share their experiences and offer advice!

What role, if any, did living and starting a fashion business in LA have on the brand’s success? Do you think location is crucial for most start-ups?
Los Angeles has been hugely important in this brand, and it was fortunate that there was a manufacturing community in existence. However I think you could do what I do just about anywhere. You can find the resources you need wherever you are, there are factories and suppliers all over the country. Sure if you can pick up and move to New York, Paris, or LA go for it! But I do not think anyone’s dreams should be affected just because of where they live. There are successful people all over the country, in every city, and in every field.

The first bag you ever created was out of necessity. Describe the journey of creating your first piece.
I created my first bag because I was out in the working world and was having the hardest time finding a bag that was functional and stylish. I kept finding that you had to sacrifice one for the other and out of frustration I created my own.

Did you imagine that creating a laptop bag would have catapulted you to a successful career as a handbag designer?
No, I never took any kind of success for granted. I took everything day by day. I knew where I wanted to be, and I always think about where I want to be, it keeps you going. You can’t be sure of anything. You always have to keep working, keep trying, and keep testing the waters.

How has your design aesthetic been affected by your time living in Paris and now living in Los Angeles?
The chic simplicity of French design and their value of quality materials have strongly informed how I work. They believe in designs that are timeless, and I have definitely tried to translate that into my designs and the materials I use. When I was preparing to build our storefront I was inspired by the Parisian storefronts I love. It’s hard not to be inspired by Paris.

Describe your design process from mood boards to picking out fabrics to production.
My design process for each season always begins with the sourcing of materials and creating an inspiration board. I take photos from books, magazines, and combine them with swatches of beautiful pieces of leather. This allows me to see the bigger picture, to tell a story, and to imagine the girl I am creating for. I also spend a lot of time experimenting with the leather, seeing how it moves, the shapes it can take, and how it can be best put to use. Once the shapes and colors and materials are decided, it’s off to the three factories in Los Angeles we use. Every factory has different strengths, and we play to those strengths in order to get the best product.

How have you developed such a functional and stylish balance in your line?
Well I can thank my stylish friends! I always imagine that I am designing for them. They are all busy working ladies who need functional smart bags. Some are moms, some are designers, some are the girls who work here at the studio; their careers and lifestyles are varied, but one thing I know is that they need a bag that will last, looks good, and will hold their daily essentials.

How would you define your design aesthetic? What elements of design are included in each collection?
I would say it’s a mix of Parisian elegance and California cool. A good bag is always about proportion and quality of materials. I am extremely mindful of interesting proportions that are modern, smart, and current. Proportions change over time so you have to be constantly aware of what is current and rely on a classic sensibility.

As an ethical fashion designer, when and why did you make it your mission to manufacture your goods responsibly? What are the steps you’ve taken to ensure these practices are carried out from start to finish? How, if at all, did the financing and budgeting for this affect your business plan?
When I began making bags, I was using local production, and as we grew people kept saying to me how I would have to stop using local production and take it overseas, but I never wanted to do that because of the relationships I had created with the factories and how important it was to me to keep employing them. To be able to create and keep jobs in the community, have quality control, know the people making your bags, and being able to handle issues immediately is something I greatly value and is why we continue to produce everything in Los Angeles. We visit our factories on a daily basis and our reach extends to a wider community of vendors. We have a web of people we are in constant communication with who we work with to get our job done. From the paper printers, to the silk screeners, to fabric vendors, to the leather vendors, it’s all about utilizing local businesses and keeping jobs in the community. Producing in the US is more expensive, and that affects our budget, but we make up for it with the quality of the product. We have to be mindful of our production cost, but it’s worth it in the end.

How did you initially source materials and manufacturers?
I had to put myself out there and really just ask around. I asked people out on coffee dates and just got as much information from them that I could! Local merchants were also extremely helpful. For example, you go to your local fabric store and ask who sells leather, and then you go to the leather seller and ask them for references of great factories. I got the ball rolling and everything just fell into place.

Where do you find your inspiration?
Like I mentioned before my friends are a huge inspiration to me. So are the girls I work with. I love seeing what everyone is wearing and I draw inspiration from all of them constantly. I also am constantly looking at street style blogs to see what girls are wearing in different cities.

Breaking into the fashion industry isn’t an easy feat. What advice would you give to up-and-coming designers? Marketing tips?
The blog I created around the time I launched the line and still have today was monumental in helping spread the word about my line. I took a picture of that first tote bag I made with the caption, “I’ve got your summer tote,” and immediately friends and friends of friends were emailing me asking to buy one! I was lucky to come into the blog world at that time when there weren’t a lot of blogs yet, and I was able to become a part of a great community of girls who all have blogs and would help and promote each other’s personal endeavors. I used the blog to create an identity for the brand and to really give an inside look at my life and the behind the scenes information that people wanted. It was the cheapest marketing tool I had!  I also think that when you are starting out, you have a huge advantage with the press because you have a new story, and the press is always looking for a new designer to talk about. Email editors, pitch your story and products…do not give up! If your idea is strong, and you believe in it and that comes through in your story, then that is everything.

How do you balance your professional and personal life?
I won’t lie—it is extremely hard. I work a lot. I work when I am at home, and I work on the weekends. It is exciting, and I love working, but it is very hard on the family. I am incredibly lucky to have an amazing husband who has been able to take over more responsibilities at home as the company has been growing. He has been so excited about the growth and incredibly selfless in taking on more responsibility in our home life.

What is the most important lesson you have learned in your professional life?
I have learned so many important things! But I will go with something that has recently struck a chord with me. Something I have learned from launching our own flagship store. It is a big deal to run a shop that is open seven days a week no matter how small or large the store is; it requires time, patience, and an incredible amount of confidence. Because of this responsibility, I have seen how important it is to hire good people who will represent your company well, who you enjoy working with, and who really care about the brand.

What advice would you give to your 23-year-old-self?
I would tell myself to follow what your passions are. I always knew I wanted to be in fashion but I spent so many years trying to talk myself out of it, and I continuously stopped myself from turning my dreams into a career. While it has worked out, I wish I had not fought it for so long! If you truly love something, go out there and do it!