Brandon Blackwood Talks Scaling Handbag Business, Working With Saweetie, and Where He Finds Inspiration
Working with Saweetie, Doja Cat, and Halle Berry has helped Brandon Blackwood create a Black-owned handbag empire. Here, he talks how he didi it.
Image via Complex Original
Brandon Blackwood is building a handbag empire. After trademarking his name and launching his handbag collection in 2015, Blackwood, who was born and is currently based in Brooklyn, has since received attention and praise from celebrities and major publications alike. Early in his career, Academy Award winner Lupita N’yongo wore one of his bags, but after launching his “End Systemic Racism” tote, which Kim Kardashian wore in October 2020, he gained significant buzz. After initially launching 500 bags and selling out in two hours, he expanded the tote line into 37 other colors and materials, helping the brand gain $3 million in revenue that same year. Blackwood was later tapped by Saweetie for her “Fast (Motion)” music video, which features several products from her favorite Black-owned brands. She circled back around to collaborate with him on a handbag that she held a giveaway for to celebrate the Saweetie McDonald’s meal.
Although he received negative backlash earlier this year for some poorly constructed bags, Blackwood addressed the matter in an Instagram Live, saying that the brand is scaling very fast, which can lead to mishaps. Since then he’s continued to drop products and has gained the trust of celebrities including Normani, Doja Cat, Winnie Harlow, and more, working with them on his social campaigns.
With a backdrop of colorful bags lined up on a wall, Blackwood greeted me cheerfully, as we sat to talk about the growth of his brand, his newfound publicity (good and bad), store partnerships, and the need for Black designers and artists to take risks and represent us in all spaces.
How did you see being raised in Brooklyn in a Jamaican household fully reflected in the work that you do?
I would say it lends itself into the overall styles, but also like, the colors, things like that. I feel like Jamaican people as a whole are very loud, bright, very expressive people. With my work, I try to do that for myself at least. So I think, yeah, that’s where you definitely see that. And with Brooklyn, and all over New York you’re thrown into seeing so many different people from so many different backgrounds and ways of life. And I feel like it’s almost impossible, especially as a New York designer, to ignore that, you’re pulling from different outfits. You know, when we go outside, when we take the train or whatever, you literally see five different people, five different aesthetics, and they all look good, you know? So it’s like you pull from that constantly. I think New York always constantly feeds.
For sure. With being influenced by all those different aesthetics that we see daily, how were you able to really hone that into developing your aesthetic?
Well, I feel like my aesthetic has always surrounded modernity, but with functionality. I think the bags I make should be functional. I don’t have anything that really doesn’t serve a purpose. But in terms of that aesthetic, when I first started, I just referenced things like my girlfriends, my family, and what they were wearing, you know, what they would wear on the weekends versus what they would wear to work, and I’d try to make something that worked for all those things. And I think as my customer base got larger, you see the tagged photos, you see the IG stories, you see how everyone’s styling them and my customers literally helped mold the brand and mold my ideas. I never would make an orange bag before and now burnt orange is one of my favorite colors. Like aqua blue suede, that rich kind of blue, I never touched it before until everyone was like, “Yo, you need to be making this. I got these blue shoes. I need a blue bag to go with...” And I would start making them. And I fell in love. So, my customers keep like, kind of pushing me out of my comfort zone and I think it’s done nothing but wonders for myself and the brand.
That’s amazing. And with the brand gaining exposure, how did the celebrity campaign that you guys released this past May come about?
Honestly the brand was doing really well and everything was blowing up. And I was like, OK, well, you know, we can just post the collections, we can do a regular presentation, but it’s not as impactful. I wanted to find a way to get everybody whose work or aesthetics or visuals I love in one place and I wanted to get a cast that really represented the Brandon Blackwood world or aesthetic that I was trying to go for. And that’s where it happened. We were like, OK, let’s get a bunch of people on board and whoever says yes says yes. And it’s crazy because everyone we asked said yes, which I didn’t expect. When Halle Berry was like, “Sure, let’s do it,” I’m like, “No way, lil’ ol’ me?” It’s just iconic, you know, having Doja Cat, Normani, Joan Collins, and all these different icons and influencers and just, you know, tastemakers of today being a part of something from my brand that was insane. They all looked great so it all looked amazing.
With the campaign and with the social media influx, you’ve now had more exposure. But how has it helped with your goals as a designer and normalizing Black luxury?
All that press and publicity has really helped. Honestly, there aren’t a lot of Black and POC people that have handbag lines, especially like, you know, kind of at this level right now. And I think everyone kind of pushes that narrative and says things like, “Hey, look what this kid’s doing, it’s actually good,” I think it says so much. I get a lot of DMs from customers and random people just being like, “Oh, you inspired me,” and it’s so weird to hear because I don’t ever feel like I’m there yet or whatever, but it’s carving out my little, tiny piece of fashion history. I’m really, really proud of that.
For sure. And truly it’s in your head, you know, we’re from the city. So when you’re from the city, it’s like, it’s a non-stop hustle at all times. So, you will never feel like you’re there even when you’re there.
I’ve never sat back and been like, “Oh, OK. Yeah.” I’m always like, “OK, what’s next? Oh my God, everything’s going to go to waste tomorrow. Like I got to keep working, working.” But I think you also need that little bit of hustle to keep it going, you know?
For sure, ‘cause without it you lose the drive. Once you think you’re there, you become comfortable.
And I never want to be comfortable.
And that’s important. I realized your bags are now sold in Saks. So I was wondering how that partnership came about, and are you looking to expand into any more stores or can we look forward to a flagship maybe?
So with the stores, it’s really interesting. Every store that we’re in, they reached out to us. They just emailed us like, “Hey, we see what you’re doing. We’d love to carry you guys in the store.” And we’ve been pretty selective, like we have a great relationship with Kith, Saks, Bloomingdale’s, Shopbop and we’re going to be in a couple of stores in Tokyo and France, so we’ll be making that announcement soon. I think in terms of flagship, we’ve been playing around with the idea of a pop-up first and this sounds so weird to say, but we always get nervous because I’m like, I don’t know if I could physically stock a physical store because our stuff sells so quickly that I wouldn’t want to do a store opening or a pop-up and then like, the first day everything was gone, you know what I mean?
So it’s like, we need to figure out how we would do that. I would love to have a store or some type of location where the customers can go and see everything and kind of just have a real moment, you know, just making a whole world around the brand where the bags are. So that’d be fun, but I don’t know, I’m ready to do it now, but it’s just so tricky with how we would have to make it run smoothly. I think maybe next year we’ll do a traveling pop-up or something, we are always coming up with a different idea, so it will happen. Just when it happens I want it to be right.
Speaking on demand and product, you recently just announced that your summer collection got pushed back to next spring and that the fall collection is in production. What has that process been like? And what can we look forward to with those collections?
So basically, the summer collection was ready to go, but I just felt like it was missing some pieces. I kept coming up with more and better ideas. And I was like, you know what? I don’t want to do this when I’m not super-duper happy with it. I feel like the customer would be happy, but it’s because they don’t see the other options I’m thinking about in my head. So, I was like, no, if I’m not 1,000 percent with this one, I’m not going to do it. And we already had Fall in the works. So, it was like, we’re going to push it back and we’ve never done that before, but I was like, let’s just knock out fall, which is going to be insane. What we’re planning to do is probably going to be one of the biggest things we’ve done for the brand, that’s going to really show my design abilities and what we can really, really do. So, we’re going to do fall and then from fall we’re going into spring and making spring like three times as big as it was going to be.
If you made it, it’s the right decision. You also just worked with Saweetie and McDonald’s on her meal launch, what was that experience like?
It was great! I immediately said yes when she called me up to create something special to commemorate the collaboration. The dope part is if you just download the McDonald’s app and order the Saweetie Meal, you’re entered to win the custom bag I designed for her McDonald’s TV commercial and a second bag to give to their best friend.
Shoutout great marketing! I know in the past you’ve spoken about business ventures that seem to only want a token Black designer and just overall performative allyship that exists with large companies or with celebrities and I just want to know, how have you been able to navigate that space as the brand flourishes?
I mean, when it comes to any partnership I do, whether it’s like outside of the design world or a direct collaboration, my key points are always working with companies that obviously employ higher-ups that are Black and POC. But on top of that, making sure that I scroll through their Instagram or their website, and if I don’t see any Black or POC people on the site, it doesn’t make sense. It’s very transparent what’s happening. I have a younger, Black and POC customer base and I think for a lot of these companies, especially bigger companies, they don’t necessarily know how to target them or market to them where it’s happened so organically for me, because I’m Black, you know what I mean? I think they see that, and they just get the little greedy fingers and they’re like, give us them, you know? I feel like I’m like the gatekeeper in a way, so I just try to keep my brand pretty much on the straight and narrow with everything, and if I feel like it’s fake or if I think it’s just super performative then I just always say no.
I also wanted to know, just based on your history, of going to Bard College and secretly majoring and doing fashion work pretty much throughout college, and literally just with launching the brand, I feel like everything in some way, shape or form was a risk, whether it’s low risk or high risk doesn’t matter because you’re kind of just betting on yourself. With that, to young Black creatives, whether they’re from the city, or whether they’re worried about taking those risks and putting their passion forward, what would you say is your best, key of advice for that?
It sounds so cliché, but you have to take the risk. You have to take that jump, because that’s the only thing that’s going to get you to where you want to be. And on top of that, just make sure that whatever you do, make sure you’re living for yourself and not someone else. I think it’s very, very, very important that you’re happy with yourself and the decisions you make at the end of the day. So, if you want to make that T-shirt, if you want to make that shoe, if you want to make that bag, you have to do it. I think my biggest fear in life is growing up and looking back and being like, wow, I regret not taking a stab at this or not trying this. I don’t want to ever be that person. So, anything that comes to my mind, and you can ask my team this, I’m like, OK, let’s do it. ‘Cause I just, I don’t know, I have crazy FOMO and I think younger kids and designers should also just have that mindset of if you believe in it, try to do it.
What do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t designing bags?
You know what I would probably do, skin care, I love skin care. I would love to own a spa and then have my own skin care line. And you know, it’s really funny and this is really random, but I was like, “Oh, there’s no Black owned house products.” Like, give us a Black Windex, you know what I mean? A Black paper towel, I’d probably do something like that too, because it’s full circle.
I like that. That’s very out of the box and it overall just speaks to your creativity as an individual. But my last question is, what do you want your legacy to be overall?
I mean, I don’t necessarily know what it will evolve into because just look at me now compared to two years ago, you know? I think it’s almost ridiculous to kind of say this is what’s going to happen, but I just want it to be out there. I want people to look back and be like, “Wow. He did it his way. He’s really authentic about it and it looked great. It was great.” I just want good feelings to come from whatever people think about when they think about me five, 10, 30 years from now.