From inspiration to an international brand, Lee Coren's path
Kindly note that the interview was recorded in Hebrew. This post features a free translation of parts of the conversation I found most interesting.
"Lee translates images of urban surroundings and natural landscapes into textiles under her vegan accessories brand LEE COREN. After graduating with a BA in visual communications, Lee started working in a graphic design studio. The truth was, up until then she thought that was her dream, but still something was lingering on - a longing for textiles. Slowly she found herself learning how to start a business on her own, yes, including complicated spreadsheets. So how did she manage to launch a business that gained international interest, momentum and success that even she didn't expect? And how do you find time for creation while running a business?" (Popcorn Podcast)
'When you meet Lee Coren, it's amazing to hear that behind her there's a brand sold in Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie. She's so humble and peaceful yet she knows exactly what she's doing.
An entrepreneur was born
Lee: In second grade I recognized a market among my classmates for second hand Barbie dolls. It was a coveted product that was very expensive at the time in Israel; I decided to seize the opportunity! Unfortunately, the business shut down quickly when one of the moms called my mom, who found out where I was getting my supply... I took dolls that my sister didn't play with anymore without her knowing. I had to refund my classmate, who btw kept the doll, and had to buy my sister a new one. I learned my lesson, my future businesses were legit.
Handmade women's bags inspired by world travel
Lee Coren is a vegan handbags, backpacks and wallets brand, however another aspect of the brand is that not only the shape of the bag is my original design, but also the print on the textile itself; A few are digitally printed, but the vast majority are printed in the traditional technique of hand screen printing.
While my bags are inspired by world travel, they are meant for everyday use. This needed balance of the two - the urban and the natural, the everyday and the need for escapism and a breathe of fresh air, is the foundation on which LEE COREN was built.
Lior: It's like using the bag makes me feel like I'm traveling along, like a precious souvenir from a trip.
Yes! My bags usually have several uses, for example a bag that is both a backpack and a shoulder bag, that the whole way it is built is to be theft-proof while on the go, on the train or at busy markets. I pay a lot of attention to the functional side of the product.
Wait, how did you end up in women's bags and wallets?
I studied visual communications at Shenkar. During my third or fourth year I had a course that sent the students looking for their personal language. A very open and difficult course, find your personal voice.
How the hell do you do that?
Honestly, I struggled with it throughout the semester. The only direction the lecturer gave us was that she wants us to relate to the environment in which we live in, whether that's political or social. At wits' end, I set down to look for inspiration in my bookshelf. I love relaying on content in my designs. That's how "Designing Design" by designer and lecturer Kenia Hera came into the picture. It's a book about projects he had conducted with his students and the ideas leading them. One of the projects in the book was Ex-Formation. The intent is to extract information in order to re-understand it. The premise of the process is that in our daily life in order to communicate with each other and to conduct ourselves in a world of visual clutter, our brain filters information and simplifies it for us. We don't pay attention and rethink it every time we encounter it. It basically means we miss a lot of information, and aren't familiar with the world around us as much as we think we know are.
For example, it's hard for me to remember now if the sidewalk in Dizengoff st. is wider or narrower than the sidewalk in King George st., because my mind tells me 'it's a sidewalk - go here, that's a road - don't go there'. But maybe they made an extension to the road and there's a bike path? Maybe in one street they planted trees or grass?
I asked myself what if I looked at the environment around me in fresh eyes? During my student years I commuted frequently on the axis of Jaffa, Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan and Givatayim. I took the camera along and started capturing elements that are so common and obvious in typical Israeli cities we don't see them anymore, not really, like plastic shutters. I started looking at them on bus rides and while walking in the city, and started to recognize musical rhythms in broken shutters, or in ones that weren’t quite open. Each window has it's own line, and the entire apartment building created a song. I photographed and collected buildings and windows, and started extracting graphic elements from the different rhythms that different neighbors create in apartments and buildings of different sizes and places.
I repeated the process with window bars and mailboxes. In many of the old apartment buildings in Israel you'll see that each apartment brought their own mailbox that answers to their personal taste, but they're all bunched on the same wall so each building entrance features a unique collection.
I created new prints and patterns from these photos, and the project that emerged was meant to bring these new designs back to the city as bags and scarves.
The course and the degree came to an end, and I got a job working in a graphic design studio that was focused on books and magazines, something I thought at that point in time was my dream. Alas, I felt that this project was lingering in my heart and mind. Don't get me wrong, I don't regret working there at all, it was an experience that helped me a lot later - it's where I initially learned studio management A-Z, customer relations, supplier relations and more.
Trust your gut
I told my boss I need a weekly day off and took different courses on it, such as screen printing and sewing. After the screen printing class ended I wanted to rent some studio work hours to keep playing with it, but was surprised by how much that would cost. I looked at my work desk at home, which was very big and inviting, and called up suppliers to check for materials cost. I realized that for the price of 8 hours of studio work outside I could buy all the equipment and materials needed to work from home for a very long time. Being practical, I felt I needed a good reason to purchase all that, a justification. I looked at the textiles I screen printed so far and the techniques I was starting to develop and said to myself - hey, there's potential here, I should start a business! From there when I actually opened the business several months have passed, in which I consumed amounts of information on topics related to and on how a business works, how to price and online marketing. I loved this learning part.
I opened an online store on Etsy thinking to start selling small and slow, but things took off faster than I expected. Already on my first year in business bloggers and magazines contacted me, as well as stores from all over around world who wanted to purchase my bags and scarves. I think I had something fresh to offer, and I had some very good photos that bloggers liked to share. Once they started sharing, more shared and it spread. Once the business was picking up speed I had to quit my day job; I found myself running around a lot and was feeling suffocated. Between my day job and running from one supplier to another, running to the bus and missing another, I was reminded of the landscapes from past trips and holding on to those gave me a breathe of fresh air and motivation. I thought it would be so awesome to incorporate this into my items, to have a piece of this feeling on a daily basis. This idea later developed into a complete collection of landscape designs, and is to this day an integral part of the brand's mission - to lighten your days and insert a travel mood feel to them.
By the way, at first I didn't emphasize at all that the bags are vegan (the whole brand became vegan a bit later). There was a time when I was terribly afraid that it would hurt my business. These were different times, I'm taking 2012, and in Israel. Suddenly I started getting responses of 'I'm happy you're designing vegan bags!', 'I'm excited there are solutions that aren't leather!'. One day a blogger I contacted wrote to me that she was so happy to find out that the bags weren't made of leather, and why didn't I advertise it louder? It was then that I realized there's an audience out there that appreciates my decision and relates to my ethics.
Wait, you got the email from Anthropologie, what did you do? Did you jump on the bed?
It does not matter if it's Anthropologie or another store or customer, every time an order comes in it makes me so happy, really. It's still not obvious to me that there's an audience of women who connects and loves the items I design, and it's not obvious at all that this is my job. I appreciate every order that comes in :)
On the creative processes, inspiration, operating an independent business in Israel, planning, working with stores and more - in the full interview on the podcast (Hebrew).