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Vera Bradley branches out with signature pattern baby line

A Plum Crazy Get Carried Away Tote from VerBradley.

A Plum Crazy Get Carried Away Tote from Vera Bradley.

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Updated: January 29, 2013 8:25PM

They look like they were birthed in grandma’s attic, cloth bags stitched together with a fabric hodgepodge of this and that.

In reality, they hail from Fort Wayne, Ind. and may be the first fashion item in history to appeal equally to a certain set of moms and their tween and teen daughters.

Love them or hate them, Vera Bradley bags are a 30-year-old retail phenomenon that show no signs of slowing down. The distinct floral patterned bags — from “The Weekender in Portobello Road” to the “Tablet Hipster in Va Va Voom” — are available in 65 Vera Bradley stores, 11 outlets and 3,300 other retailers, like the 563 college bookstores that carry the brand, including Northwestern, Illinois State and Loyola University Chicago.

The Chicago metro area has four standalone Vera Bradley stores and an outlet — a number surpassed only by New Jersey and Texas.

The brand’s steady success is rooted in it’s cross-generational appeal.

“I am an old person secretly,” joked Hayley Schlinsog, 18, a Batavia High School senior who recently bought a carry-on bag for an upcoming trip to France at the Aurora, Ill. Vera Bradley outlet. “I like the patterns.”

Also shopping at the outlet store was Lisa Ekren, a 53-year-old Naperville mom who has been a loyal Vera Bradley customer for years.

“I love this stuff, the patterns, the designs of the bags, the quality,” she said.

Her daughter, in college, is also a fan, carrying cash and her school ID in a Vera Bradley wristlet.

“That’s her life in that little zipper bag,” Ekren said.

While there was a woman named Vera Bradley, she didn’t start her namesake company. Her daughter, Evanston-born Barbara Bradley Baekgaard did, along with her neighbor Patricia R. Miller. The two met when Baekgaard moved into Fort Wayne’s Wildwood Park neighborhood, where Miller also lived and served on the welcoming committee.

“Barbara asked Pat if she knew how to hang wallpaper,” said Melissa Schenkel, Vera Bradley’s spokeswoman, of the women’s first meeting.

That question led to a friendship and the pair’s initial entrepreneurial venture, a custom wallpaper business called Up Your Wall. In 1982, on a layover in the Atlanta airport after a trip to Florida to celebrate Baekgaard’s father’s birthday, Baekgaard and Miller discussed why there was no feminine luggage. Vera Bradley, the label, was born with each woman chipping in a $250 investment.

“The very first people they sent it to were Barbara’s daughters and friends, who were in college at the time,” Schenkel said. “Their friends wanted some.”

Miller, 74, and Baekgaard, 73, had a hit on their hands. The brand steadily built a cult following, culminating in the Spring 2006 release of the pattern “Java Blue,” a brown and turquoise blue pattern that was one of the company’s best-selling until it was discontinued in 2010.

Vera Bradley branched out into aprons and eye wear. Miller retired in 2012, a fiscal year were company revenues were more than $460 million, 26 percent more than the previous year.

New York-based research firm RetailSails named Vera Bradley its fastest growing store in 2012, besting chains like lululemon athletica and Kate Spade. Vera Bradley stores rank eighth in a list of top 10 companies with the highest sales per square feet, according to the RetailSails report. Apple tops that list.

The company’s secret to success? There isn’t really anything else like them out there, said Mark Heller, one of RetailSails’ managing partners.

“What I love about them is that they are absolutely — and this is part of the key to any business — are really attacking a white space that is not being serviced by any other retailer,” Heller said. “Their ownership of prints and the uniqueness of the design makes them a little special. They have a huge following that they’ve tapped and I think they have a lot of life to it.”

The brand’s next major move is to reach out to a whole new untapped market. In March, Vera Bradley is launching Vera Bradley Baby complete with floral onesies, booties and bags specifically for baby, like a “pacifier pod.”

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