Q & A with Julia Okun of Rennes


Julia Okun is the creative mind behind Rennes, an accessories and clothing label that started in 2008. I first stumbled across Julia's work a few years ago after a long search for a lambskin pouch. Since then, I've owned a few of her products including a duffel bag, a tote and a linen dress. I recently received several emails regarding the quality of Rennes bags and general production queries. I thought it would be apt to let Julia address these questions while providing us with further insight into how she creates her products and the standards she sets for them both in terms of aesthetics and sustainability.

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An ongoing theme on Assembled Hazardly is minimalism, environmentalism and sustainability. Tell us are you a minimalist and or an environmentalist? How does that influence your work? 
I know in recent posts you've talked in depth about minimalism - for me there are two kinds : one is a current aesthetic trend. The second I equate with being an environmentalist : you think about your impact on your surroundings. The two can overlap, but often minimalism (the trend) is a masquerade of tricking yourself into thinking you are environmentally conscious by buying "simple" two hundred dollar tee shirts. Currently, I can’t claim to be an environmentalist. But that doesn't mean I don't try. My point of comparison is my husband. He hates shopping and tells me he would rather watch paint dry than shop. Aside from finding it boring, he would rather have four shirts, three pairs of pants, one pair of shoes and wear them until they fall apart. There is no value to him in owning more than that - and to me, that is minimalism. As much as I strive to be like that, I know I will always find something I like, something I have to have. With that said, I do believe in quality over quantity. In terms of aesthetics, I consider my work visually minimalist. When I first started my business 6 years ago, I could not find a bag that didn't have hardware and studs all over it. So my goal became trying to make things without all the extra stuff on them.

Walk us through the creation of one of your bags from start to finish.
I design in my head, then I make a pattern. I'm not great at drawing so it's better for me if I just make the pattern. After I have the pattern, I make a prototype in cheap leather. At that point I'll figure out which things work and which don't, and tweak the pattern accordingly. Then I will try to make the actual item in the real leather I want to use.

I use 8 oz leather for most of my bags. If you start with a thick leather you can always thin it down. If you thin down the entire pattern piece, it is called splitting. If you only thin down the edges, it is called skiving. I got a skiver about a year ago and it's life changing! It allows me to do many things I wasn't able to before, like double fold the leather for the pouch toggles so there are no raw edges. I want to get a splitter, but they cost between 10-40 grand and require a lot of maintenance- so it's best for me to rely on the factory for that type of work.

Once I've made that prototype, I work with the pattern maker at the factory (who is wonderful!) and he works to refine my pattern and makes his own prototype. Depending on how complicated it is, that development work can cost between $1-1.5k. Once the pattern is approved, it is mailed to a place in New Hampshire and they make dies for every single pattern piece of the bag. (A leather die is like a big steel cookie cutter - this is how the leather is cut.) There can be anywhere between 2 to 20 dies for a bag. A die set for a pouch might be around $300, but a die for my duffle bag would be around $2k. These are pre-production costs - so you don’t have any product to sell yet. The factory then calculates the raw cost of the bag (leather square footage + overhead costs + labor = raw cost).

When the dies are in, production can begin. First the leather is cut on a huge die press with the new dies. The fabric is also cut this way if there is a lining. Each piece is then individually split and skived on different machines. When people think of a factory, they think everything is done by machines, what they don't realize is all these machine are all operated by skilled craftsmen/women. The components are assembled - either with a sticky double sided tape or contact cement. (You can’t use pins on leather like fabric.) Then the pieces begin to be sewn together- and eventually you get a bag!


Making of the Milo wallet: "Mike (the pattern-maker) and I have just finished glueing and assembling the whole wallet.  Mike is about to sew together the cover and inside lining.  The last step is to stitch the entire perimeter of the wallet. To do this you need to use a post machine - it lets you work the wallet in three dimensions, as opposed to the flat bed of a regular industrial sewing machine.  We made two wallets today from start to finish, and that took about 6 hours, so a lot of work goes into each piece." ~ Julia

Do you take into account sustainability, environmental protection and ethics when running your business? For example, where do you source your leather or textiles from, how do you choose the company that manufactures your (duffel) bags and how do you go about ensuring that your suppliers meet your standards? How much input do you have in the tanning process? 
I try to make my line as environmentally friendly as possible. Fashion itself is a wasteful industry, and a lot of it is hard to get around. Leather tanning is bad for the environment, period. There are many steps in the tanning process that use different chemicals. What many people don’t know is that vegetable tanned leather ends up being treated almost identically as chrome tanned leathers; only the actual preservation step uses tree bark, the rest of the process uses the exact same chemicals. It's sad, but leather isn't an environmentally friendly material. Even if I can’t have direct control in the tanning process, I do source leather from a supplier in California, and the hides I use are tanned in Wisconsin.

But, I try to be conscious about my line in other ways - mainly in terms of production. In transitioning from being a handmade line to outsourcing, it was important that my line be entirely made in Massachusetts. So many products are designed in the USA, but then sent overseas to be made because the production cost is much lower (and this is because workers are paid so poorly). I wanted to support and keep jobs in my state and I wanted to know workers were being paid fair wages. I wanted to make sure I could visit my factory frequently (usually 2-5 times a month) and make sure the working conditions were good. I've worked along side the employees at the factory, eaten lunch with them, etc - I'm not a “back-seat designer” who just puts together a tech-pack; I have my skin in game.

Speaking of standards, what are those standards? 
When I have leather hides shipped to the factory, I usually go there within a week to examine each hide to make sure we can get maximum yieldage out of the hide. This means looking to make sure there are not large areas of discoloration, excessive scratch marks, branding, etc. Leather is sold by the square foot, and hides are never uniform in shape so you never know what you’ll get. We check things like making sure the dye lots match up and the grain (the texture on the leather) is mostly uniform. Speaking of grains, I like when leather grains don’t match up and I think it makes for an interesting product. This wallet has card slots that have larger pebbled areas and smoother areas, and I enjoy that contrast. However, my factory disagrees with me: they insist on matching the grains closely and are perfectionists about it, even when I tell them I like it the other way!

Like them, I’m also a perfectionist. If something isn’t right about a shipment I get, I try to get it fixed or modified for the next round. For instance, I don’t like contrast stitching, and a few products ended up with thread that was much lighter in hue than the leather it was used on. Other things that come up are stitches being uneven, something being made incorrectly even though the sample had been correct - but I always try to nip these things in the bud before production starts. I also write emails detailing everything that we talked about in a meeting. As the factory owner told me, “I’m the nicest pest they know.”

What do you feel are the obstacles you face when trying to produce a more eco-friendly product?
Very limited resources. Since it is ethically important for me to produce domestically, there are very few factories that have all the equipment and machines needed to produce leather goods, and when you do locate a factory, chances are they are very busy and if you are small you won’t always be a priority. Also, if you are a small company only ordering 20 of product X, you are going to get charged more per product than a bigger company ordering 1,000 of product X.

In terms of materials, the more eco-friendly a material tends to be, the more expensive it is. The more expensive materials you use, the more the product is going to cost for the customer. All customers have a sense of perceived value, but often times that value doesn’t match up with domestically made items. We need to re-think how much things should actually cost. We have gotten used to paying sweat shop prices, and because of that we consume so much more.


How do you price your bags and can you explain the reasoning behind the recent price hike? 
There are two basic business models you can use in retail:

The first model is that products should be purchased through a third party in brick and mortar stores: These stores buy products at wholesale costs from designers. The designers purchase these items at raw cost from the factory. Let’s say the raw cost of a button up shirt is $75. The designer will pay the factory for this shirt, and then ideally mark it up 2-2.2X to get the wholesale cost. So this shirt’s wholesale cost is $165. This mark-up is to cover the designer’s time, overhead for office space, employees, etc. Then the retailer buys the shirt for $165 and marks it up 2.2-2.3X. The shirt then costs the customer $379. Different designers will offer varying suggested retail prices, but often a brick and mortar will decide their own mark up based on their overhead costs. So at the end of the day, the store ends up making the most profit per item, assuming the item isn’t discounted in a sale in this specific example. In short, a product gets marked up 4-5 times before it reaches the customer. 

The second model is newer and becoming popular with online shopping. I will give three different scenarios A, B, and C - so choose your own adventure!:

A.
  1. All of the sudden you don’t need to have a brick and mortar store to sell your items! You can sell online! 
  2. People, like me, cut out the middle man and become their own sweatshop. We design, sew, and sell all of our product. 
  3. We try to fill wholesale orders to get our brand name out there, but in doing so, cut our profit margin considerably: taking wholesale orders when you make everything yourself makes no sense economically because one person can only do so much labor. But, stores are happy because they are getting handmade products at much better price (remember, the factory is being cut out!). 
B.
  1. All of the sudden you don’t need to have a brick and mortar store to sell your items! You can sell online! 
  2. You have spent 6 years designing, sewing, and selling all of your products. You need help, you can’t fill orders on your own, so you find a factory to outsource your production to. 
  3. Since you’ve added the cost of having a factory, you now pay $200 to the factory for each bag. You used to make this bag yourself and sell it for $400. You want to be able to do at least a 2X mark up from the raw cost. Your brand needs to be carried in brick and mortar stores to grow, so your MSRP will need to go up. Your wholesale cost is $400, the brick and mortar store does a 2.2X mark up and the retail cost is now $880. Your current customer basis is sad, but now they can actually see your products in person in shops, something they’ve been wanting to do since you started your business. 

C.
  1. All of the sudden you don’t need to have a brick and mortar store to sell your items! You can sell online! 
  2. You have spent 6 years designing, sewing, and selling all of your products. You need help, you can’t fill orders on your own, so you find a factory to outsource your production to. 
  3. Since you’ve added the cost of having a factory, you now pay $200 to the factory for each bag. You used to make this bag yourself and sell it for $400. You want to be able to do at least a 2X mark up from the raw cost. You don’t want your customer to experience a price increase, so you decide to never wholesale your items to brick and mortar stores. Your customers will only be able to purchase online, and it will be more difficult to raise brand awareness in the long run. 

Brands like Everlane are using a model similar to C - they are only selling directly to customers and not to brick and mortar stores. I love when they added the transparent pricing flow charts to all their products recently. People in the industry never publicly reveal these things and customers rarely see how much the retail store are making in mark ups. I’m not saying retail stores have it easy, but I think it’s rarely acknowledged how little the designer actually makes. With all that said, when you are trying to grow your business and have limited start up capital, the best thing to get your brand out there is sell your product wholesale and have your line in a store. Unless you have access to large funds, it is hard to start a business model as great as Everlane’s - you need a lot of financial backing to do something like that - and many online ventures go under quickly.

So, I’ve picked model B for Rennes. I’m all for being transparent, so I’ll give you the mark-ups for the duffle bag:
Materials Cost: $49.50
Hardware Cost: $9.26
Labor & Factory Overhead: $152.00
… = $210.76 (Raw Cost)

$210.76 X 1.8 (my mark-up) = $385 (Wholesale Price)
$385 X 2.1 (retail mark-up) = $810 (Retail Price)

First I’ll point out my mark up from the raw cost - it’s 1.8, much lower than the industry standard of 2-2.2. I keep that as low as possible to let the retailer mark up the product more than 2X - I’m suggesting a 2.1X mark up. This is a low mark-up for a retail store, but if I suggested the normal 2.3X mark up it would end up being an $890 bag. There are many things I could do to change the design of the bag to make the raw cost lower so I can offer a 2.3X mark up, but I don’t believe in compromising quality and taking cheapening shortcuts.

I have been slowly increasing prices over the past year to account for being able to wholesale to have my line in stores. The final adjustment I did this past month to account for stores picking up the line this winter and spring - prices need to be the same across the board, I can’t sell the products for less on my website and have them cost more in stores - this kind of behavior upsets retailers.

When I think about the bigger picture, it’s unusual to watch a brand progress over six years. The internet has made my line an open book (and I’ve wanted it that way), and people became accustomed to my products costing a certain amount of money. If Rennes was to emerge tomorrow as a new, super cool minimalist leather bag company with prices between $500-$900, many wouldn’t bat an eye because the quality of the new line is taken for granted; the price a new company is charging is assumed to be right if people see hype around it. The price is assumed to match the value. It’s much harder for people to accept a price increase as an increase in value.


How do think a Rennes bag differs from the products by other American-made leather companies and what gives it that special edge? 
I try to always use the best materials I can find even if I lose money doing it. I use Riri zippers for all products now and the cost is so high I end up eating it. Each zipper costs $4-6 and on top of that there is a hefty 20% import tax and shipping! I hope people can notice the difference. They run so much smoother; trust the Swiss to make high quality machineable parts! I’ve looked at a lot of other zippers on bags out there, and most people use YKK, or YKK Excella or Everbrite (which are definitely better than standard YKK). Still, the Riri ones just look really classy. I just picked up a pair of boots in a shop yesterday, and they were $1200 with the cheapest brass YKK zipper for a closure. Seriously, what’s up with that?

Another difference is linings; most bag lines use cheap cotton canvas, or don’t line bags at all. I think canvas often doesn’t sit well in leather bags as it’s too stiff. I use linen because it drapes better inside a structured item. It also looks more natural and adds a nice texture.

I use folded edges for the pouches, Milo wallet, Duffle bag, and Sophie tote. This uses more leather and takes more work to make, but it will last much longer. Most American bag lines I can think of use raw edges or raw edges with edge coat. Edge coat is a latex and will most likely crack and fall off over time, unless it applied with machine that heats / buffs it as it applies. But, with vegetable tanned leather you achieve a really nice buffed edge with gum tragacanth.

I hate branding on the outside of products. It cheapens them. I don’t want to hot stamp “rennes” in small gold letters underneath my zippers. I try to find other ways to add branding that’s more subtle, like the knot toggle.

Any chance of suede lined duffel bags?
I would love to! Maybe in a few years. Right now I’m trying to keep the prices as low as possible, and something like that would probably add between $150-250 to the retail price. If there is a large interest though from many people, please let me know!

You recently included other brands/designers in your online shop. How did you choose these brands and how do they align with your vision for Rennes? 
I decided to do this for two reasons: I thought it would make my shop more interesting and bring in new customers, and I wanted to raise capital to finance manufacturing my own line. So far it has been pretty successful! I started with just a few lines for this fall. I wanted to pick lines that I liked and aligned with Rennes’ aesthetic: ones that were well made and timeless pieces you could wear for years. For the spring I’m adding a few more - Samuji, Pip-Squeak Chapeau, Ichi Antiquities, Pla, and a few more.

What is the fundamental message you want to get through with your design and your work? 
Take your time and get it right. And, be excellent to each other.

What is the one thing you would love to design and make if resources were no object? 
For me personally : A small home with lots of windows with a small conservatory attached to the house. For Rennes : Expand to make leather jackets and shoes.

What are some key things we should be expecting from Rennes in the future?
Hopefully more clothing. Ideally I would like to have an entire range of products including clothing and homewares.


What is the one singular item from your collection that you would recommend to anyone looking to make their first Rennes purchase? 
The Milo Envelope Wallet. It’s not as expensive as getting a bag, and it’s more exciting than just a pouch. Plus, you can use it as a clutch too. A lot of work goes into this piece and there are many components, yet the design is simple and classic. We’ll be making a bigger version as a bag for spring! [See below for a discount on the Milo Wallet!]

And finally, just so your customers can make an informed decision, David Tennant or Peter Capaldi? 
The hardest question is always last! David Tennant. He’s perfect at the role as he’s not clearly good or evil, which I think is the best kind of Doctor. Capaldi is a close second. He reminds me of Captain Nemo.
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I hope you enjoyed this very transparent and in-depth Q&A with Julia (who is by far one of the most patient and accommodating small business owner and maker I have ever known) and you can always email her with more questions: info@rennes.us

Also, from Tuesday, 11/25/14 - Saturday, 11/29/14, Julia is offering Assembled Hazardly readers 15% off the new Milo wallets that are available for pre-order! Enter the code "DOCTORWHO" at checkout.

*All images and video on this page provided courtesy of Julia Okun ©Rennes. 

Mid-week procrastination

What I'd much rather be doing...
 
I have nothing really important to say right now - though I do have a few semi-interesting posts to share in a few weeks. However, I felt that plagiarizing Kali's meme would be good way for me to take my mind off things as I sit here noshing on lunch, and to answer several mind-blowing questions that will change how you view me as a person... I think. 

1. What are you wearing?
Araks robe, Uggs slippers, Target tank top & modal capri tights from The Gap.

2. Have you ever been in love?
Many times

3. Have you even gone through a horrible breakup?
Nah, I'm a pretty amicable person. 

4.  How tall are you?
5 ft. 1in. 

5. How Much do you weigh?
Seriously? 108 lbs on a good day.

6. Do you have tattoos?
Nope. 

7. Do you have piercings?
Just the ears. 

8. What is the ideal couple to you? 
Paul Newman and Joanna Woodward! An ideal couple would be equal parts lovers and equal parts friends. 

 9. Your favourite TV show?  
Favorite  TV show ever was Fawlty Towers though I actually just caught reruns of it twenty years later. I was also a huge fan of Quantum Leap (Oh, boy!). Newer favorites include the perfunctory Sherlock, The West Wing, Arrested Development and Boardwalk Empire. I don't actually watch very much TV anymore *sad face*

10. Your favourite band? 
My all time favorite bands are Blur and The Divine Comedy. Current favorites are Owen Pallett,  Fanfarlo, Ramona Falls and The New Pornographers.

11. Something you're missing?
Food from home (and my mom). 

12.  Your favourite song?
EVER? Interpol's 'Obstacle 1'. It's my drunk song. And 'Speedway' by Morrissey.

13. How old are you?
31.97

14. What's your astrological sign? 
Scorpio

15. An essential quality for a boyfriend?
I don't know... being mind numbingly smoking hot?

16. Favourite Quote?
'To have great wealth means to live sparingly with a clear heart; small wants are always met'
- Lucretius, De Rarum de Natura, Book Five, Line 1115-1116

17. Favourite Actor?
Of all time? Cary Grant!!!! I also used to really like Robert De Niro and John Cusack, but I have no idea what happened to them. Recently, I'm having the hots for James McAvoy and sometimes Christian Bale when he isn't being weird.

18. Favourite Colour?
Grey.

19. Do you listen to music at a low or high volume? 
Medium.

20. Where do you go when you are sad?
I snuggle next to my dog.

21. How long do you stay in the shower?
Depends on what I'm doing. Some things just take longer.

22. How long does it take to get ready in the morning?
Ten minutes - Brush teeth, rinse face, toner, moisturizer, eye cream, sun block, lip gloss, brow gel and brush unruly hair. I always wake up late, so I don't spend too much time getting ready.

23. Did you ever get in a fight?
A fist fight? I think when I was six, I threw someone's backpack out of a moving bus. He was understandably displeased. That's the last fist fight I remember. I get into arguments a lot though.

24. Something that seduces you in a man?
Being very, very smart.

25. The most repelling thing in a man? 
Entitled douchey-ness.

26. Why do you have a blog?
To make lots and lots of money... no, just as a form of procrastination and a place to air my thoughts and get feedback. 

27. What are you afraid of? 
My dog dying.

28. The last thing that made you cry?
The thought of my dog dying.

29. The last time you said "I love you"?
Sometime in the last 30 seconds. 

30. What does your blog name mean?
It's a song by The Foundry Field Recordings off one my favorite albums from 2006.

31. The latest book you read? 
'A Collection of Essays' by George Orwell.

32. What are you currently reading?
'Predictably Irrational' by Dan Ariely.

33. The latest TV series you watched?
Downton Abbey and Broadchurch.

34. The last person you talked to?
My advisor.

35. Who did you last text with? 
Kimmie from Blue Paper Lanterns

36. Your favourite food? 
Fried chicken. 

37. Places you want to visit?
Japan, Sardinia, Scotland, Iceland and Prague. 

38. The last place you visited?
Oahu, Hawaii.

39. Are you currently sweet on someone?
I'm not 16. 

40. The last person you kissed?
The dog, I think. I kissed my husband this morning.

41. The last insult you were told?
Why is it taking you so long to finish grad school? *cries*

42. Your favourite candy flavour?
Watermelon sours.

43. Do you play an instrument?
No, but I want to learn the violin!

44. Your favourite piece of jewelry? .
My first anniversary gift from husband - a Blanca Monros Gomez ring.

45. The last sport session you practiced?
Tabata kickboxing. 

46. The latest song you sang?
'Crazy for You' by Madonna.

47. Your favourite catch phrase?
'McFly.... hoverboards don't work on water, unless you've got power!'

48. Have you ever used it?
Every single day, it's how I greet my husband.

49. Your last evening out?
I don't even remember anymore. I go out for lunches but I think the last time I went out in the evening was three weeks ago.

50. Who are you tagging?
Anyone with something interesting to share! This was really fun.