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November 27, 2022 | Shannon Smith

100Knoxville | Laura Faye is the next big luxury handbag brand

By Shannon Smith, Teknovation Assistant Editor, PYA

Jessica Robinson loves all things fashion.

“I actually fell in love with fashion in high school,” she said. “In 11th grade, I was nominated for best dressed.”

She got a degree in fashion merchandising, went back for a master’s, and ended up at an internship with Dillard’s, where she started the company that would lead her to where she is today.

“That’s where I met someone, and she and I partnered up and started a jewelry line,” said Robinson. “And we together thought it would be cool to add handbags to our line.”

Robinson borrowed a sewing machine from her mom’s friend, went to YouTube, and taught herself how to sew bags. That first company split ways. Her colleague took the jewelry, and Robinson took the bags.

“I just fell in love with making handbags. And I was like, okay, I actually may be able to turn this into something for myself for real.”

Jessica Robinson with some of her designs.

That’s when her handbag brand Laura Faye came to be. Laura is Robinson’s mom’s middle name, and Faye was her grandmother’s name. She wants their names to be synonymous with luxury.

“I think the appeal for any brand is really how you market it. My company is marketed to be a luxury leather brand, catering to the luxury lifestyle,” said Robinson.

It didn’t start that way. Robinson launched her handbag line with vinyl and faux leather bags. It was a chance encounter with a helpful stranger that got her into the world of leather.

“I met a man in the fabric store who did upholstery and leather. He brought me to his shop and taught me how to use an industrial sewing machine. The next week I ordered one,” said Robinson. “He was a godsend. I talked to him that once, saw him one time, and I’ve never heard from him again, but he gave me so many little tips in that two-hour session.”

Once Robinson got comfortable with leather, she brought her designs to a boutique in Virginia Beach where she was living at the time.

“The managers said, ‘we want you to design a collection for our store,’” said Robinson. “And so I got all the leather, and then I came home, and I stared at it for like a week because I was so terrified. When you are cutting fabric, if you make a mistake, it’s not that big of a deal. But when you’re cutting leather, you can’t put it back together.”

Robinson got over her fear, and within a few weeks, one of her bags in the boutique sold for $450.

That’s when she knew she was on to something.

Since then, Robinson opened a very successful kiosk in a mall in Norfolk, Virginia, redesigned her brand, debuted in her first fashion show in New York, and transitioned from making everything herself to working with a New York-based manufacturing company.

Robinson did all this while moving to Knoxville, working through a pandemic, and raising her teenage son as a single mom.

“It took a long time for me to actually believe that this could be something that I would be able to do,” she said.

In an effort to grow her business, Robinson applied for and was accepted into a couple different programs.

She was one of 300 businesses chosen for the Support Black Businesses TikTok Accelerator Program, where she was given ad credits and taught how to market to customers through TikTok advertising.

She was then accepted into Cohort 5 of 100Knoxville, an initiative to help double the revenue of local Black-owned businesses through the investment of time, talent, and access to social, political, and financial capital. 100Knoxville’s goal is to help Black-owned businesses in Knoxville grow by $10,000,000 in five years.

“The five weeks flew by,” said Robinson. “I learned so much more than I thought I even needed because I’ve been able to build up the foundation by myself.”

Aside from help with branding, marketing, accounting, and other business needs, Robinson said the networking 100Knoxville brought her has helped her get connected.

“Knoxville really is a place where they really rally around you. They want to see you succeed,” she said. “I think this is the place where I solidify the foundation that I’ve built for myself.”

Part of that foundation is laid on generosity. Laura Faye is partnered with ChildFund International, where some proceeds from sales go toward sponsoring a few children in Ethiopia.

“One of the biggest reasons for doing Laura Faye and continuing with it is to give back. I really want to open my own nonprofit organization,” she said. It’s still in the works, but she said the goal is to feed, clothe and help people who can’t help themselves.

Laura Faye, known best for its mini clutch handbag, is growing online and in Knoxville. Robinson’s 16-year-old son Khalil takes all her product photos for her website and social media.

“He’s such an integral part of my business and I’m so thankful to have him,” she said. “I have a really great support system.”

Robinson is hoping people can see his photos and her products in person in a storefront soon. Her goal is to open one in two to three years.

Until then, she’ll keep designing bags. Because Robinson knows one thing for certain.

“I fully, wholeheartedly know that this is the next big luxury handbag brand.”