The New Face of Vera Bradley
With a revamped brand, a new SoHo flagship store and four others across the country, Vera Bradley is ready to reach a new target woman—the “Daymaker”—and discover how #ItsGoodToBeAGirl
To understand how far the Vera Bradley brand has evolved, you have to understand where it all began—on a ping-pong table.
The brand, which now retails patterned and solid-colored cotton and leather duffle bags, purses, backpacks, scarves, pajamas, fragrances and more, began in the travel business in 1982 when the two founders—Barbara Bradley and Patricia Miller—went to an airport and noticed there was no great luggage for women. They went back to Bradley’s house, laying out and cutting brightly colored patterns on the ping-pong table in her basement. The creation was a duffle bag, and they sent it out to Bradley’s daughter in college—it became the first product for Vera Bradley, a lifestyle brand known for its signature cotton-quilted bags and a peppy and “happy” line that was embraced by the preppy crowd for decades.
For years, Vera Bradley (named after Barbara Bradley’s mother) was a fan favorite for customers who could be 8 years old heading to lacrosse practice or 80 years old en route to the airport. But, recently, the brand realized it had missed the mark targeting an in-between, style-savvy Millennial audience, and its new offerings and store designs are an attempt to fill some blank spaces. It also redesigned its brand logo into a less flowery, more approachable design.
“We knew that there was a blank space for us to expand our offerings both in the fabrication market, but also to further expand the lifestyle of the brand,” explains Harry Cunningham, head of store development at Vera Bradley. “It was really about defining a targeted audience for us that we’re calling the ‘Daymaker,’” an aspiration-driven, sophisticated Millennial woman, while simultaneously recognizing the sweet spot of targeting “women who were a bit older, who aspired a bit younger,” he says.
And what used to be a 100 percent cotton-quilted bags business is no longer. In fact, Cunningham says it only makes up about 50 percent of the business now, with new fabrics like leather and microfiber filling in the gaps.
With a revamped product assortment, it was time for new stores to house the expanded offering. Vera Bradley teamed up with San Francisco-based Gensler for its new store designs targeting the new demographic of shoppers, including its corporate offices in Fort Wayne, Ind., and its latest store openings in New York’s SoHo neighborhood; Waikiki, Hawaii; and at Disney Springs in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (The brand also redesigned and relocated its Colorado store in Park Meadows and launched an outpost in Schaumburg, Ill., at the Woodfield Mall.)
For the brand’s SoHo store, it was important the location reflect the warmth and welcoming vibe of the neighborhood, with the spirit of SoHo and New York’s art community woven throughout the retail environment, Cunningham says. The multi-level store features oversized windows and plenty of white brick. “It has a sophistication to it that’s not too overdone, and I think that’s what Harry and the Vera Bradley team really wanted to do—stay true to their brand, but with a nod to the neighborhood,” describes Sharon Lessard, senior associate and studio director of Gensler’s Atlanta office, who worked with the Vera Bradley team on its recent stores.
In rolling out so many stores at once, Lessard says that in addition to figuring out how to reflect each market in a special way, they had to consider unique architectural challenges and how to take advantage of them. From there, she adds,“They wanted to have a signature statement for each location.” But, of course, with a common design thread that runs through all of the stores.
For instance, the design team incorporated custom wallpapers and textures in all stores, but, Cunningham says, they “tailor fabrics and wallpaper choices more to market.” In Colorado, there’s a “woodsy” twist, while in Hawaii the wallpaper reflects the native palms and offers more casual seating.
In SoHo and Hawaii, “there are moments of pattern in the architecture,” Lessard says. But at the Disney Springs store, pattern is impossible to miss, running from front to back.
The conversation to open at Disney Springs began over a jaw-dropping demonstration, where a Disney representative started turning swirling colors on a white scale model merely with a wave of the hand (a demonstration so awe-inspiring that Cunningham asked to see it twice!). Then, the Disney rep said: “We really want you to excite your customers with your store as much as you just got excited about that model.” At that point, feeling about 10 years old, Cunningham replied, “We’re totally in.”
And so, color greets Disney Springs visitors at the door: custom hand-blown glass lights, each with a different brightly colored cord, are connected to oversized spools of thread, intentionally hung crooked, with 15 to 18 lights coming off the spools—an idea that seemed “very Disney” to Cunningham.
At Disney, there’s also a quilting-inspired fixture at the entrance, a monogram station and stacked books, each wrapped in a Vera Bradley pattern to act as a library. “The entire history of our pattern can be found running all the way around the perimeter of the store,” Cunningham says. “Anybody that walks in can very quickly look up and say, ‘Oh, there’s my pattern.’”
While the team went a “bit Disney crazy” in Florida, it was a different story in SoHo, which serves as the centerpiece for the overall brand rehaul. In the 2,700-sq.-ft. SoHo space, which is nestled between shops on quaint West Broadway, there’s a street-level floor and a basement level, and a giant elevator shaft that “basically pierced the center of the store,” Lessard explains. What could have been a serious design challenge became an opportunity to use the wall surface of the elevator as a large art piece where the team replicated the brand’s diamond stitch using their luggage tags, a modern homage to the brand’s bread and butter. “There are these subtle moments of using their diamond stitch pattern as a fixture feature, as an art feature, as a back wall,” Lessard points out.
The SoHo location features an artrium that brings the outside in, as well as boxed planters that help beautify the mundane. It also flaunts wall art to the tune of deer heads made from brightly colored retired fabric yardage and legs from antique furniture. All of the new and “refreshed” stores feature string art by Threadbare Arts (the team actually discovered them on Etsy). The pieces feature an outline of each state done in string, with each store’s city done in a Vera tote pattern.
“We wanted to keep this artisanal nature of always bringing artists into our stores,” Cunningham notes. To that effect, they also used a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based artist collective to create a cityscape sketch pattern and sell SoHo-exclusive duffle bags that are inspired by taxicabs, the skyline and the Chrysler Building.
Another effort to reach the “Daymaker” is splashed across the SoHo store’s walls—three digital screens that create movement instantly. Two feature digitized art and will be used to show seasonal fashion videos or kaleidoscope patterns, Cunningham says, while a third celebrates Vera Bradley’s #ItsGoodToBeAGirl social media campaign, which was launched in conjunction with the SoHo store’s debut.
“We’re collecting 1 million reasons of why it’s good to be a girl and capturing them on this hub, so people can share, read and celebrate the many reasons,” Cunningham explains. “And it’s been really fun to read all of the reasons why.” (“Because I get my wine poured first” is his favorite thus far, he adds.)
While visitors shop, they can touch the digital screen and browse posts in real-time—and hopefully have a little fun with it.
Speaking of having fun, the SoHo store (and the corporate office) features a ping-pong table as a tribute to where it all started in Bradley’s basement—the story is printed in the corner in vinyl. “People love that opportunity to play—we just give them space to do it,” Cunningham adds.
The playful and interactive store design avoids being “too clean,” which Cunningham explains is not part of who the brand is. “We’re not bright and shiny and jet-set, that’s not who we are by any means,” he says. “We’re not prissy. We’re kind of the ones that will show up to the party first and make sure that everything’s set up, and then make sure that everybody has a drink in their hand and is having a good time. That’s who we are.”
The merchandising team worked hard to map out and edit the assortment, interchanging varying solids and leathers among the sea of bright cotton patterns. Through organization and variety, the store avoids looking like a chaotic Chinatown fabric store. For example, since the company is still known for its vast assortment of travel accessories, an “approachable” travel wall was incorporated to showcase the range of goods.
With fresh new stores, an updated offering and an open-minded founder who warmly embraces new ideas and understands the importance of change, the Vera Bradley brand is poised to continue its successful retail evolution.
As Cunningham says: “We don’t need to be stuck in our ways, we need to be continually moving forward, finding new things and sharing them.”
SoHo, New York
CONTRACT DESIGN FIRM/ARCHITECT
Principal Builders Solutions
Array, edesign, Van Stry, Warner, Wood Technologies
Villa Lighting, Hennepin Made
Existing, Architectural Systems Inc.
Maya Romanoff, Miss Prints, Osborne & Little
Noir, RH Contract, Vintage
Amuneal, JMPA, Wood Technologies
Boussac, Osborne & Little
Farrow & Ball, Benjamin Moore
Blue Water Technologies
American Street Showroom, Surya