It all started with a knock on the door four decades ago. It was 1982 in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Patricia R. Miller was stopping by to introduce herself to new neighbor Barbara Bradley Baekgaard.
“I happened to be the welcoming committee of one,” Miller told CNN Business with a laugh. “Barbara answered the door draped in wallpaper — because it was their new home and she likes to wallpaper new homes — and I said, ‘Welcome.’ And that was it.”
The women quickly became inseparable. A few months later, coming home from a joint-family trip to Florida for Barb’s mother’s birthday, a layover in Atlanta changed everything. The duo, known to friends as “Pat and Barb” looked around at passengers’ luggage and noticed it all looked rather dull, in shades of beige and black.
The idea for Vera Bradley, named for Barb’s mother, is now a $540 million women’s fashion brand that sells brightly patterned bags and other goods, was born right there in that Atlanta airport terminal.
“Growing up in Miami Beach, we had Lilly Pulitzer and Laura Ashley. I was used to a lot of color,” Baekgaard said in an interview. “You could call it a light bulb [moment] or a God-wink. I don’t know what it was, but we went back and started the company the next day.”
With a combined investment pool of $500 from their own money they bought materials from their local fabric store and got to work creating their first duffel bag on Baekgaard’s basement ping-pong table.
This was several years before the dawn of the internet, let alone social media — so they didn’t have influencers. But they did have Baekgaard’s two college-aged daughters, and they sent the young women off to Marymount College and Michigan State with the very first Vera Bradley duffels.
“The Kappa [Kappa Gamma women’s sorority] house at Michigan State, they kind of brag that they started the company,” Baekgaard said. “They were our first test market, and it just grew from there.”
Because the bags were so visible — and bright — they were “like a little billboard,” she said. Soon enough, Baekgaard and Miller received so many requests for duffel bags that they could hardly keep up with the orders. To meet demand, they hired local seamstresses who picked up kits containing a pattern and the components needed to produce each bag, then return the finished products to Barb and Pat.
It was clear: This was a viable business. And any business needs a name.
“We went through all kinds of names, but Barb’s mother’s name was Vera Bradley. My mother’s name was Wilma Polito!” Miller laughed.
The colorful patterns and paisley prints took off almost immediately, with their bright totes and luggage dotting college campuses and inside airport terminals. Over the next several decades Vera Bradley expanded to bedding, tech and home accessories. On Thursday the brand launched its first-ever footwear collection.
Last year, the company’s sales hit $540.5 million — a figure the duo could scarcely have imagined.
“I remember at the Atlanta Gift Show they didn’t get it,” Baekgaard said. “I remember one woman specifically saying, ‘You think I’m carrying bags with chickens on ‘em?’ Well, it turned out to be a huge success.”
Miller and Baekgaard served as co-presidents of the company from 1982 until the company’s stock market debut in 2010. Miller retired in 2012, and Baekgaard did so in 2017.
Even as the women look back at 40 years of Vera Bradley, the brand is looking ahead and pushing the boundaries of its duffel-bag roots. Earlier this month the company unveiled The World of Vera Bradley, a platform to teach women about Web3, and it’s also selling two NFT digital artworks to raise money for the Vera Bradley Foundation for Breast Cancer.
“We couldn’t have imagined cell phones and what we do now,” Baekgaard said. “Things come and go … I just hope that we can stay relevant and current, whatever that is.”