LATIN AMERICAN HANDBAGS WEAVING THEIR WAY TO THE US.
By Laura Kemper
After more than twenty years doing business in Venezuela, the time has come to look for new horizons. This story starts with a dream: my mother’s dream; Clarisa Kemper’s dream. We moved from Argentina to Venezuela in 1980. As an only child, I had always been very attached to my mother. She had an entrepreneurial spirit and very creative hands, the main tools to begin a growing business. During the day, she worked in a French company and during evenings and nights she wove cords, strands, ribbons, leather and made her first belts and handbags.
By 1983, Clarisa Kemper was already a trademark, and what began as a home business moved to its headquarters in an industrial area of Caracas where the administrative office still works. Meanwhile, I shared my social communication studies with the design of shirts and sweaters, also spending evenings and nights hand painting and sewing sequins and stones. Very soon, our designs were distributed all over Venezuela and in countries such as Panama, United States, Argentina and Canada.
I’ve always enjoyed being part of our family business. I must recognize that working with family is not always a piece of cake, but Clarisa taught me very important lessons: Focus on what we need to achieve, work consistently and follow intuition. The basic premise for us had always been to respect each other and be “partners” more than mother and daughter.
Our company was blooming, and in 1990 we had the opportunity to open our first shop at the International Airport in Maiquetia, Venezuela’s main airport. Our second retail store opened in 1991 at the National Airport in Venezuela, with the name Laura Kemper.
In 2007, while building our third store next to boarding gate 23 at the International Airport, Clarisa suddenly passed away. I had no choice but to continue alone with the fabulous work we had developed during those years. I had to honor her memory by following her steps and by continuing to do everything I had learned from her.
In 2009, Naturaleza Urbana (Urban Nature), a new concept based on fair trade, recycling, and conservationism was opened as our fourth location at the airport. Two weeks after the opening, I moved to Miami.
Pursuing a dream is based on perseverance and a lot of patience. Coming to the United States was completely starting over. All my knowledge went back to zero. During the first six months I was frozen. How would I start? Where? When? Nobody would give me answers and anyone who shared advice would simply make things more complicated. Who I was in Venezuela was worth nothing here, so I had to start building my company again, but this time, just on my own.
I believe that each individual should learn from his own experiences. No case is alike; no situation is even similar. We are constantly changing and everything around us changes as well. Based on that premise, I decided to act based on my own instinct. What I couldn’t leave to my instinct were the laws, permits, insurances, regulations and everything that’s a must-know to start a business here. First step: Find an accountant who you definitely trust and know by references.
There is no improvisation in this country, because each mistake costs lots of money. I found a place and started my small business. I wanted to be conservative, so I looked for a point of sale in a pretty good location where I could also have my office and a comfortable warehouse to continue my daily work with the handbags manufacturing and the management of the stores in Venezuela. The next step was to find people. No company can stand or grow without the right group. The hiring process here is much different from what we know in Latin American countries. I had to make people understand they were entering a company already wellestablished in another country. Today, I direct six employees in Miami and eighteen in Venezuela.
Then, I had to decide what to sell and pick the right mix of designs to attract the new customers. Our brand is well known for handbags and accessories, but I needed to offer something more. That was another lesson to learn. I traveled to fashion shows in Las Vegas and New York and was overwhelmed by thousands of vendors. I had never sold clothing before, so this was the opportunity to get the necessary experience. After attending some of those amazing tradeshows, those who once looked at me like a stranger now know me, finance my purchases and are becoming my friends. I’m gaining a place as a company again and I’m starting to see the feedback of all this effort.
Now, I’m consistently growing the company with the opening of the second store in Miami and developing the web page www.clarisakemper.com. I’m also starting with the manufacture of my signature handbags locally. The initial fear turned into encouragement.
After more than a year operating my retail stores in North Miami Beach and Bayside, I must say that every step I went through was necessary to be where I am standing today. Along the way, I made many mistakes, many changes, invested lots of time, lots of money and worked many days and nights to achieve these great results. It’s possible, only if you can dream it.