Indiana artisans craft national niche

January 5, 2009
Local fashionistas know Sakura Urban as a cute little Massachusetts Ave boutique, though it's slightly less little since its move last month to a space nearly twice the original size.

The exposed brick walls and vintage hardware are an appropriate backdrop for Sakura's slightly deconstructed-looking leather handbags that move so quickly shoppers rarely see the same one twice.

The store is doing well for itself, admits owner Theresa Goodwin. But by her choice, that's about all it's doing. Goodwin prefers to reinvest the shop's profit into more merchandise and earn her living in a different way.

The Sakura Urban storefront is meant to maintain a local presence for Goodwin's much larger wholesale business—a national market where her handmade leather bags are making a killing.

She's not the only local artist raking in out-of-state wholesale dollars. Chris Foster, founder of Fosterweld, sells most of the steel belt buckles he creates the same way.

Both were able to get the word out for the fledgling businesses via the Internet and by connecting with boutiques and other buyers through trade shows.

It's a strategy that's boosting many businesses with a narrow focus, said Bela Florenthal, assistant professor of marketing at Butler University.

"It's only because we have the Internet that it's easier for very specialized businesses to succeed since they are able to keep their inventory and investment to a minimum," she said.

Sewing a new career

Goodwin, 25, had never touched a sewing machine before she bought one on a whim two years ago. She was the catering manager at the Union Station Crowne Plaza, a hospitality career she began unintentionally while earning a degree in visual communications from Herron School of Art and Design at IUPUI.

"I needed to create something," she said. "So I just sat down and started sewing."

Goodwin began working with a cotton Japanese print that caught her eye. That's where the name Sakura Urban came from, which translates roughly to urban cherry blossom.

Goodwin loved her design, a boxy messenger bag with a thick strap and frayed edges. Little did she know a lot of other people would love it, too. She put the bags on Etsy.com, a site where artists worldwide can post their wares and make them to order.

Since Goodwin's goal was to make custom bags, allowing clients to choose their fabrics, she figured the online community was a good place to test the market.

Seven months later, bolts of fabric had outgrown Goodwin's downtown condo, which she shares with her husband, Joel. So she opened her store and a studio space in the Stutz Building.

Goodwin hadn't planned on taking wholesale orders, at least not yet. But retailers almost immediately started using her Etsy boutique to request her cloth bags and another version in leather. That's when Goodwin invested in leatherworking equipment and dove in. She quit her day job.

Sakura Urban's products range from leather flower rings ($12 retail) to large leather totes ($250). She now sells to more than 20 chic little retail shops across the country. The average first order is $350, she said, which includes smaller items like wristlets, coin purses and leather jewelry.

A $1,000 order shows true interest and includes a little bit of everything in Goodwin's repertoire: leather messenger bags, totes, pouches, wristlets and so on.

Career crossroads

Around the time Goodwin was getting her business off the ground, Chris Foster, a welder by training, found himself at a career crossroads.

He'd recently moved from Arizona to Indianapolis with his wife, Melanie, who was attending DePauw University. Foster began teaching at a trade school rather than continue his career as an industrial welder. Friends frequently asked him to fashion them metal furniture, which prompted him to go into business.

He learned quickly there's a very small market for custom furniture, even though the pieces he'd sold on consignment through Silver in the City on Massachusetts Avenue had moved in a month.

So he downsized, literally, to belt buckles and wristbands. Now, two years since posting his first buckles on Etsy, Foster, 28, has more than 40 wholesale accounts at independent retailers across the nation, plus one in Okinawa, Japan. Buckles wholesale for around $15 and retail for $30.

Britt and Kelly Asbury, owners of Loft 22 in Denver, made their first Fosterweld order at Foster's first trade show in Las Vegas two years ago. Since then, they say they've barely been able to keep them in stock.

"As a women's clothing store, I still seem to sell about 30 percent of my buckles to men," Britt said. "People just naturally gravitate toward them."

Britt owns three and says her boyfriend wears one of his three every day. She said Fosterweld is one of her top five sellers for the entire store.

"[Foster's] stuff just appeals to everyone," Britt said. "Women ages 20 to 40 buy them, and sometimes husbands and wives buy them together, saying they'll share."

In the beginning, back when Fosterweld was selling only three or four buckles a day, he set their wholesale price at $30 and sold them on his Web site for $60 to $80. But within the last year he's cut the price in half.

"I realized my price point was hurting me," he said. "If you sell a $70 buckle, maybe one out of 10 people who visit your site will buy one. If you sell a $25 buckle, that number grows to five or six out of 10."

Foster and Goodwin agree that online networking is a great way to spread the word about their products, but they say trade shows also are essential. Foster says his business started to take off after attending his first show.

That's no surprise to Florenthal, the Butler professor.

"Especially with art, consumers won't buy the product unless they can confirm the quality for themselves and establish credibility face to face," she said. "Trade shows are an excellent way to do that."

Foster said the shows have helped him realize his product appeals to an array of demographics. "I'll get the Goth store owner in my booth saying, 'Yeah, this stuff is so dark,' and then I'll get the biker store owner saying, 'This stuff is perfect, it's so American.' It makes me feel like I could do this for a long time, because it seems to be timeless."

Foster said a Web presence alone never would put his products in front of such a diverse customer base. To find Fosterweld online, a consumer would have to be browsing the bohemian Etsy site or enter a very specific search. (Fosterweld's Etsy site appears fifth in a Google search for "steel belt buckle") But the Web isn't much help connecting Fosterweld with consumers who simply are looking for cool stuff they've never seen before.

Building buzz

Now, buzz is helping Foster take Fosterweld to the next level. The head menswear buyer of Philadelphia-based Urban Outfitters has taken a strong interest in Foster's work, and the wardrobe stylist from "American Idol" has added Fosterweld belts to the performer closet for the upcoming season.

Goodwin also is getting more attention. This month, she'll be attending her third trade show, where she will debut her new line featuring hobo bags in pleated leather. That's in addition to her "poppy" line, which she developed last year. The poppy wristlet, a small bag adorned with three-dimensional leather flowers planted in a neat row, has earned her editor recognition on Etsy and stirred plenty of interest on the home front.

Goodwin recently received a $10,000 grant to make handbags out of the RCA Dome roof—a fund-raiser for the Indy Parks Foundation.

She doesn't expect to make a profit from the project, since the grant only will cover her costs, such as new equipment she purchased to sew the tough roof material. The bags will be sold exclusively at Sakura Urban, with the first wave hitting shelves on Jan. 22.

Goodwin says the dome bags are keeping her so busy that it's tough for her to keep up with orders for her Sakura line. But she says being part of this green project is worth it for a good cause and she'll get plenty of exposure for her business, even if none of that green comes her way.

Goodwin says the next step for her business is to hire a PR person and perhaps open another retail location.

Foster is hammering out a final idea for a logo to replace the font he simply downloaded from the Internet.

But Florenthal said neither company may look all that different in five years—unless they opt to bring in more artistic firepower.

At some point, specialized business owners have to make a choice between putting a cap on their growth or loosening their grip on the reins.

"There are only so many hours in a day and many artists aren't comfortable letting anyone else create the product," she said.

"On the other hand, if the owners are willing to restrict themselves to the design element and let someone else handle the construction, then there's no limit as to where they can go."
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