Focusing on customers and leading with compassion by Lainie Schreiber of Latico Leathers
Listen to this article:
Growing up, my mother pretended to enjoy shopping with me. Many times, when shopping for school or special occasion clothes, she said I would take 10 times longer than any normal person because I’d obsess over products’ stitching, construction, materials, and value.
Fast forward to my adult years, and my focus became leather bags. Vintage ones, to be specific: the ones with the buttery soft leather and that classic but modern look. Over the years, I’ve accumulated quite a nice collection from various European vintage markets. Eventually, those bags would become the inspiration for the Latico Leathers women’s collection, a leather goods brand I’ve grown with my husband, Paul, over the past thirty years.
Throughout that time, we’ve experienced our share of challenges, but I credit the thriving state of our business to the unwavering dedication of our customers, our heirloom-quality and meticulous attention to detail, our blossoming affiliate program, and our ability to be flexible with the changing times.
Latico Leathers: The beginning
My husband, Paul Schreiber, is the reason Latico Leathers exists today.
Growing up, Paul was not known as the studious type. While his brothers were supported financially by their parents in their post-college business school endeavors, Paul was on his own. So in 1984, fresh out of college, as charismatic and wildly energetic as he’s always been, Paul decided to found his own leather brand.
The drive to create Latico formed when Paul fell in love with leather during a spontaneous trip to South America, where he was visiting some college friends. While on his trip, Paul crossed paths with a man who had connections to the leather industry, and after visiting his leather factories, the idea to build a leather brand was born. The name “Latico” stands for “Latin American Import Company,” which is where all the leather was originally imported from.
Relentlessly working to create his company, Paul didn’t take one day off for the first five years. He gradually built a brand following, and one of the first accounts he sold was Village Tannery down in New York City’s Greenwich Village. As the Village Tannery was a shopping spot often frequented by celebrities, his genuine leather bags started attracting their attention. Bands like the Grateful Dead and actors and musicians such as Mia Farrow, Carole King, and Kim Basinger became fans of the bags he made.
Meanwhile, I had started my journey in fashion by helping a small designer launch her clothing label. But once I met and married Paul, leather bags became my sole fashion focus.
A major break for Latico came when The Frye Boot Company approached us when they were doing a study of potential licensees. After learning about our private label program and hitting it off, they invited Latico to create a women’s bag collection with them. Their one request: they insisted I be the creative director.
My work at Latico with Frye became my official “bag lady” origin story, and for ten years, Paul and I ran Frye Bags and the Latico label simultaneously.
Diversifying the product line
Always a family operation at Latico, marketing is our son Ben’s realm. Through his agency Brand Caffeine, he manages Latico’s digital marketing and advertising. He deals directly with paid social media advertising, email marketing, conversion rate optimization, PR, and content creation.
Our marketing is backed by the quality of our products, which are made with 100% genuine leather that’s environmentally conscious: we source our leather and make sure all of it comes from the byproducts of the dairy and meat industries. If we didn’t use it, it would likely get wasted or would simply be thrown away.
When it comes to design strategy and diversification, our decisions center on the customer. The customers of our worldwide wholesale partners and retailers act as our focus groups–we rely on the input we receive from them to determine what our customers are looking for in their leather bags, including what aspects of designs are and aren’t working for them.
The leather essentials that sell the best are the ones we expand upon, translating them into multiple colors, leathers, and sizes (our top-selling bag being the Bianca, which is available in multiple iterations.) Based on what resonates with our customers, we develop new products with modified (yet similar) features. Today, we have so many choices for bags that we now offer a personalized quiz for new customers who don’t know where to start.
Design inspiration for our bags comes from all over the place: art, found objects, authentic living, market trends, heirloom sensibilities, and both modern and classic vibes. As I am stringent about quality, aesthetics, and interior function, one bag might take me years to finish designing. If I get stuck on a design, I’ll keep tweaking it until it’s perfect, collecting user feedback along the way.
We are a detail-oriented company, and one of the most important aspects of our bags is the innovative, long-lasting, leather-framed interior organization we’ve developed. We believe everything about your bag should be elegant, functional, and ultimately make life better. Our company strives to be the obvious choice: the “bag you grab” for everyday ease and utility. As a result, we are constantly thinking about how to elevate and redefine everyday essentials.
Trial by COVID: Leading with compassion
As many businesses would agree, COVID has been the most unique challenge we’ve faced so far in our business journey. With global freight coming to a grinding halt, all acquisition of leather and hardware has proved incredibly challenging, forcing us to adjust our development and delivery calendars and remain flexible as new situations arise.
Throughout the time we were forced to close our doors, it was extremely important to us not to let anyone on our team go, a team we consider family. Although it was a financial sacrifice for the company, we managed to do that, keeping our entire team on board--a few of whom have been with us for multiple decades.
When food banks were experiencing shortages during quarantine, we also introduced a new program as a way to give back to the community and do our part to help families in need. With every purchase made on our website, we donate ten meals to Feeding America. Thanks to our loyal and steadfast customers, we’ve made it to 82,000 meals donated (and counting) since we began the initiative.
Must-know tips for growing a DTC brand
Starting a brand is a challenge, and the challenge only becomes greater the longer you’re going at it. Having helped my husband build and expand our now thirty-seven-year-old leather goods brand, I have some solid experience to back up my advice.
Here are five suggestions for how to build a long-lasting brand of your own.
1. Put the customer first.
The customer is important. They are the reason you have a business and a brand in the first place, and it’s their generosity that got you to where you are. Putting them first, listening to their needs, and accommodating their requests as best you can are how you can repay them for that generosity.
Adopting an affiliate program was one of the ways we did this at Latico. It has not only helped us connect with our most loyal customers in more full and creative ways but it’s also given those loyal customers more opportunities to be involved with a brand they love.
2. Trust the customer.
Trust the customer’s taste to guide your product expansion. Expand on what’s selling rather than reinventing the wheel for seasonal launches.
At Latico Leathers, we make sure to expand our product based on feedback from customers. We believe in quality over quantity, sustainable materials, and personal style rather than fleeting trends--and this ethos has fueled our product expansion decisions for many years.
3. Infuse the brand with your values.
Building a brand you believe in is hard work. It takes years, and a lot of dedication, creativity, and flexibility. To believe in your brand, you have to believe in its values. Therefore, infusing your brand with your values is an important way to pave the way for the years to come. You want to make sure it’s a brand that you want to put all that work into.
For Latico, that means making sustainability, affordability, and giving back a core part of the brand’s value system. Our motto is “passion over fashion.”
4. Empower loyal customers to spread the word.
Building an authentic community of brand ambassadors from our pool of loyal customers has been an ongoing project of ours--and is one DTCs brand should work on, too.
This program started organically: Without any suggestion from us, our customers became brand ambassadors and influencers via word-of-mouth referrals. They spread the word, telling their friends and friends of friends about our products. Putting our official stamp on this affiliate program was a way to give back to the people who have given to us, and to partner with people who are passionate about what we make and share our values
5. Harness the power of email marketing.
We drive over 50% of our revenue from email marketing today. How? By focusing on personalized emails and leading with value through our blog articles to constantly communicate and educate our customers.
COVID put us through a lot this year, but we persevered, coming out the other side stronger than when we went in with year-over-year growth of over 250%.
We achieved some big wins, too: Along with being picked as official celebrity gifts for events such as the Golden Globes, the Emmys, and the Sundance Film Festival, Latico has been lucky enough to get featured regularly in Access Hollywood and in Wendy Williams’s “Hot Picks'' for her “Trendy Wendy” fashion segments.
In 2020, we were also honored with the Carlos Falchi Handbags Designer Award for Lifetime Achievement, an iconic industry award we accepted with a huge amount of gratitude.
When it comes to the future of Latico Leathers, I want to keep doing what we’re doing–putting the customers first. We focus on providing the highest quality bags, sustainability, and giving back to the community and the customers who keep us in business. As the years go on, I look forward to building on that foundation. At the end of the day, Latico Leathers is all about connection. And the connection we experience through community is what we at Latico will always champion.