News & Runway

Blacksea’s Jane Lerman: Science Geek Turned Handbag Designer

JLerman Photo

Designer Jane Lerman

A perpetual over-achiever, Jane Lerman graduated pre-med from Boston University after only two years. Inspired by a trip to London, however, she opted out of medical school and instead pursed a career in public relations. At 22, she opened her own agency, L.E.R. Public Relations, which is now one of Manhattan’s leading lifestyle boutique firms. As a side hobby, Lerman began designing and producing her own handbags. When her friends began asking her to produce some for themselves, she knew she had something on her hands and Blacksea was born.

We spoke with Lerman to find out more about how she’s built her brand from scratch, how her background helped in developing Blacksea’s identity and where she sees her brand going.

theFashionSpot: Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

Jane Lerman: I’ve always been a big fashion enthusiast. I grew up making outfits for my dolls and saving all my piggy bank money to buy clothes and accessories, but because math and science came quite naturally to me, my parents always encouraged me to follow a more “stable” career path as a doctor. I knew the journey to become a doctor was a long one, so I doubled up in my undergrad classes at Boston University and received my bachelor’s degree with a psychology/pre-med major in two years. When I was out of college and only 19, I knew that I wasn’t yet ready to commit to medical school, so I took a year to decide what I wanted to do while traveling and interning. I went to London and was invited to attend a few shows for London Fashion Week, after which I felt like for the first time in my life, I had a clear vision of what I should be doing in life and that it was fashion.

I immediately started applying for fashion internships, was lucky to get one at a boutique fashion PR firm in London, and just a few weeks later I was calling my parents to tell them that I was not going to be applying to medical schools that year. I stayed in PR for a few more years (working in Sydney and New York after London) before opening my own boutique PR firm in New York in 2008, L.E.R. PR. That is and always will be my first baby, and it’s been such a rewarding experience watching the agency grow from just myself and an intern in a cubicle to a fully staffed agency with clients I really love, but a couple of years ago, that childhood desire to create started to come out again. I started sketching handbag designs because I was getting sick of spending a ton of money on handbags and then seeing every other girl on the street carrying the same one, so I figured if I am going to spend this much, why don’t I make something that will actually be truly unique and my own?

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tFS: At what point did you seriously start thinking about launching your own brand and can you tell us about the initial steps?

JL: After I made a few samples of bags locally here in New York and started wearing them around, I was getting a really positive response from my friends who began asking me to make some for them as well. I decided to do a small production run for friends and family, and when I started seeing people I knew wearing the bags I created, I became more inspired to really develop the brand around them. I created a website and a lookbook and things started to happen from there. I initially just had some samples sitting in my showroom, but didn’t do any promotion around them, just had them there should a stylist want to pull them for a shoot while they were at the office. Some of the editors and stylists that were coming in started using the bags in shoots, and as word started to spread, I felt like I had to start thinking about this more seriously. Since then, I created two more collections, but I still consider them capsule collections. For the coming seasons, I’ve partnered with some incredible manufacturers in Italy that are able to actualize some of my more complex designs, so I definitely plan on expanding the offering come Fall 2015.

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tFS: What does Blacksea mean?

JL: I grew up in Odessa, a port city on the Black Sea in Ukraine until I was seven. I lived right on the water those years and my fondest memories as a child have always been the minutes I would spend just staring out at the sea and the ships coming and going from the port. I would dream about where they were going and where they were coming from, so the Black Sea has been a huge inspiration to my imagination overall. The name “Blacksea” is an homage to my childhood dreams, my childhood home and the relatives I still have in Odessa.

tFS: Can you tell us a little bit about your design process and aesthetic?

JL: I’d like to think of my design aesthetic as “modern minimalist,” all of my shapes are very structured and geometric, but I like to have fun with colors and textures. To me, the juxtaposition of textures, colors and shapes is very interesting to explore and I guess a lot of it comes from the math and science geek still buried inside. I do also really try to think of functionality in all my designs, so my basic clutches, like the Blackwall, are actually quite roomy — you can fit everything you need for a night out (the little clutches that don’t close once you put your cell phone and keys inside them drive me crazy) and clutches like the Greenwich Clutch, which I see as a daytime clutch, are roomy enough to fit a standard iPad, among other things (I once stuffed an umbrella, wallet, iPhone, keys and cardigan into mine!). The design process for me tends to happen in spurts. Sometimes I wake up with an idea for a design and quickly sketch it in the morning before heading off to the office. Sometimes I sit for several hours on a weekend afternoon sketching and working out consistency elements throughout collections. Overall, though, I tend to come up with 20 to 30 ideas for each collection and then I do a round of extreme editing to pick out the designs I think work best together and that I think are most realistic to produce.

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tFS: How did you figure out all the production stuff?

JL: That was the hardest part. I spoke to friends in the industry at first to get general information, but most designers never give away their trade secrets, so it was more difficult than I thought to even get started finding the right manufacturer. I initially limited my search to local factories around New York, since at first I just wanted to make some bags for myself, but after I decided to expand on the line, I knew that some of the things I wanted to do could only be done overseas. I went to Italy and met with every manufacturer that I could. Some were referrals from leather tanneries, others were random names I found in Google searches (which was quite a task since most Italian manufacturers have everything in Italian on their websites), but in the end it worked out because I think I found some incredible resources and factories that work with some of the best brands, so I am very excited for the things to come.

tFS: Can you elaborate on some of the production challenges? 

JL: Everything from staying on top of the factories to deliver on time to working out kinks in first prototypes to make the shapes just right, you have to remain very patient through it all because it can be a grueling process and there are so many things that are out of your control.

tFS: What do you wish you had known before starting Blacksea?

JL: I definitely wish I had known just how expensive developing a brand could be. There are so many unexpected costs that occur when you are producing samples and doing full production runs that you just have to be prepared to spend double whatever your initial budget was.

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tFS: Your visuals are fantastic. How did you go about finding models, photographers, videographers, etc.?

JL: Thank you! This is where my PR background has been most helpful. I’m lucky to have developed a great network of people I work with on photoshoots, from photographers to model agents and other talent, so that’s been the most fun part for sure. My first two lookbook shoots were shot by talented photographers who are also good friends, Emma Reynolds and Louis Christopher respectively, so the days on set were always laid-back and fun because we always seem to be on the same page and there is a lot of trust.

tFS: Despite your background as a seasoned publicist, you mentioned not actively seeking press when you started. Is that still your approach? 

JL: My approach so far has actually been nonexistent! Because I started Blacksea very slowly, I didn’t want to go full speed ahead with PR until I felt really comfortable with the product, so all of the press on the brand so far has really been very organic. Not to mention that I also still had (and have) my hands full with other client work, so that’s always had to come first. I also didn’t want to put any of my editorial contacts on the spot and make them feel like they have to feature my brand because they know me, so initially I just had samples sitting in my showroom and when editors/stylists would come in to pull for shoots, if they liked them, they would pull them…and only after the shoot would I tell them the brand was my own in most cases. I guess I wanted to get people’s honest reactions before I told them Blacksea was my own creation, and when I started to see the reactions were positive, I began to open up. For the coming seasons, I have some creative things up my sleeve, so stay tuned!

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tFS: Are you trying to work on retail sales as well or focusing on your own e-commerce?

JL: I started with e-commerce only for the first season to test out the market and then we slowly started discussions with retail partners. We’re holding off on doing any kind of trade shows until our next season, which will be made in Italy, so that’s when we will be ready to really go full speed ahead with retail.

tFS: What’s your long term goal with the brand?

JL: I would love to continue growing the collections first in the handbag category and potentially expand into other categories as well like small leather goods, travel and perhaps other accessories. In an ideal world, I would love to see Blacksea as a fully integrated lifestyle brand that also has apparel and beauty, but I think it’s important to take things one step at a time and not rush into anything.