by Samantha Thompson Hatem
photographs by Chris Fowler
Holly Aiken is talented at many things. Making cool handbags. Creating captivating window displays. Trailblazing where others wouldn’t.
But singing her own praises? It’s not part of Aiken’s style. Yet her modest, unassuming personality is likely a big reason for her success.
While fashion brands come and go, Aiken and her eponymous handbags, known for their clean, thoughtful designs, have endured. Ten years after opening her first store in Glenwood South, Aiken this summer opened a second store in Wilmington. She’s gearing up to expand her wholesale business beyond her current 25 locations. And this spring she plans to deliver a collection of bags that stray from her signature colorful vinyl.
Despite all her accomplishments, Aiken, in her typically understated way, says she still gets a kick out of seeing people carrying her bags. “It’s a good feeling that someone’s supporting me,” she said.
Raleigh has supported her and then some. Her distinctive bags can be spotted all over town. Massive diaper bags on playgrounds. Slender clutches at nightclubs. Practical totes in the office. Even the N.C. Museum of History has two bags in its permanent collection.
“It’s impressive that people still carry her bags 10 years later,” says Ashley Harris, owner of Vermillion, which sells women’s fashion in North Hills. “People took her under their wings and are proud to carry her bag.”
At 41 and now living in Wilmington, Aiken has hit her stride. Gone are the days when she would scrape change out of her car ashtray before heading to the bank. With almost 10 employees, including a creative team helping business grow to the next level, Aiken finally has some breathing room to explore new ideas. Aiken succeeded early on by breaking rules and trusting her instincts. Build a fashion brand without living in New York City? Aiken was willing to try it. Move downtown with few other retailers? Aiken did it.
“I think she is almost successful in spite of herself,” says Pam Blondin, who owns DECO gift shop on Hargett Street, which sells Aiken’s bags. “I think she is very reticent about her success and I find that endearing.”
Aiken’s corner shop at Hargett and Wilmington streets, Stitch, is a destination for locals and tourists. Blondin calls Aiken’s bags “high-end souvenirs,” a must-have Raleigh item for visitors.
Her second store has potential to do the same for Wilmington. Located in the landmark Crocker Marine building near the Wrightsville Beach drawbridge, the store doesn’t have Raleigh’s foot traffic, but with 3,000 square feet of space, it’s ideal for production. It’s also non-traditional and quirky, much like her other retail spaces, her bags and Aiken herself.
“It would have been forced for me to go anywhere else,” she said. “It’s got to be somewhere off the beaten track.”
A trip to Raleigh’s Stitch can be daunting. With more than a dozen styles, from wallets to backpacks, the choices are endless. Custom order one with in your favorite colors, or pick one in stock with your favorite cut-out pattern – the Bird or maybe the Paspartou with die-cut dots and wavy stitching.
Her bags function as well as they look. Made from vinyl that won’t mold or retain moisture and wide black webbing straps, the bags can be (and have been) run over by a car with little to no damage. Wipe away stains with a squirt of Windex. Some people clean theirs in the dishwasher or with a hose. You’ll likely get bored with the color before it wears out.
“I can go anywhere with a Holly Aiken bag and I feel great about it,” says Terri Dollar, Artsplosure’s program director and what Aiken calls a “superfan.”
Dollar says she has at least 10 Holly Aiken bags and she’s always dreaming about her next purchase. “I love supporting local businesses and it’s a good feeling about the fact that the bags are made here.”
Dollar isn’t alone. This year, voters in the Independent Weekly’s annual Best of the Triangle contest named Aiken best local designer, beating out “Project Runway” finalist Justin LeBlanc and Raleigh Denim.
Local fashion roots
It’s no surprise Aiken ended up in the fashion business. He mother is Patsy Aiken, the children’s clothing designer who, with her husband Joel, built the successful children’s brand, Patsy Aiken, popular with Raleigh families for decades.
Holly was 8 when Patsy started Patsy Aiken above the family’s garage in Coronado, Calif., where Joel was a Navy pilot. Holly and her brother, Weston, were early Patsy Aiken fit models. When they moved to Raleigh after Joel retired and joined his wife running Patsy Aiken, business took off. After school, Holly and Weston frequently went to the “factory,” as they called it, where Holly would pull fabric and make clothes she describes as “hideous.”
One day, Holly asked her mother to trace around her small body on a big piece of paper and help her cut out the paper so Holly could make a dress out of fabric. “She sewed it up and actually wore it to school,” Patsy recalls. “I remember being nervous that it would not stay together all day, but it did. No pre-made pattern for her. She always had her own style.”
At the height of Patsy Aiken, there were three production shifts running 24 hours a day, something Holly, as a small business owner, is in awe of. “I’m like ‘How did you guys manage all of that?’” she said.
Holly says her entrepreneurial spirit was apparent early on. There were lemonade stands and play productions. “I was always making something and trying to sell it,” she said. “We’d say ‘Let’s put on a play and have everyone buy a ticket.’”
At Millbrook High School and later at the College of Design at N.C. State, she honed her artistic skills, first with pottery, then building furniture.
Initially, Patsy said, Holly wanted to design furniture, and she won several awards. “She had a great sense of how things work, how they balance, how to stabilize them and make them comfortable,” Patsy said. “To Holly, it was always about making something practical and usable out of a material most would never consider.”
She ended up with an art and design degree from State, and after graduating put it to work creating websites.
Around the same time, she started sewing handbags on the side. Third Place coffee shop was among the first to sell her bags. A few years later, she took a part-time design job in Brooklyn, but spent the rest of the time walking around Manhattan with big boxes of her bags trying to sell them to boutiques.
She was there six months when 9/11 happened. “I just kind of decided it wasn’t a good time to start something new,” she said. “It was such a struggle living in New York. It was just one of those things I had to get out of my system.”
Taking a chance
Back in Raleigh, Aiken refocused on her bag business, eventually taking a chance on a small store on North Street in Glenwood South with production space in the back. When the weather was nice, she’d open the building’s garage door and her yellow Lab ReyRey would sun himself on the concrete floors.
Raleigh quickly caught on to her bags. The Turbo and the Coupe became top sellers, and Aiken’s store became a destination for those looking for Raleigh’s homegrown, must-have fashion item. But after only a few years, Aiken grew weary of retail and was ready to explore wholesale. “I was burned out on retail,” she said.
Then she was approached about opening in a corner store downtown, which for years was known as the Goodman’s Ladies Shop. “It was kind of a random series of events about how I ended up downtown,” she said. “I’m happy it happened. It’s a perfect fit for my company.”
She opened in August 2008, a month before the global financial meltdown. For several years, she was one of the only retailers downtown, but one by one, they’ve arrived, many inspired and encouraged by Aiken’s success, including Blondin.
“It was one of the most unassuming, gutsy moves,” Blondin said of Aiken’s decision to move downtown. “Her instincts are so spot-on that she doesn’t realize how naturally good she is at this.”
Not only did she prove retail could thrive again downtown, Aiken managed to survive one of the toughest retailing climates in generations. Sales are stronger than ever, and Aiken’s finally at a point where she has time to imagine her future.
That future will soon include bags in canvas and leather. Aiken hopes to reach new customers with the new materials, but her challenge has been incorporating the Holly Aiken signature look. “I’m trying to design something that will have an element that might tie the two brands together,” she said. “There’s been a big learning curve. But we’re having fun doing it.”
Expect to see even more Holly Aiken bags around the country, too, as Aiken looks to boost her wholesale business with a possible visit to the Atlanta apparel market. Locally, her bags are sold at stores such as Main & Taylor, the Umstead Hotel and Spa and Nofo.
Aiken also has been taking time to enjoy her new coastal home and being close to family, including her parents, who relocated to Wilmington last year and have scaled back their business.
“Things are going really well right now,” she says. “Sales are good. I feel more in control of it. I’m excited for what might come in the next few years.”
Holly Aiken bags can be found at Stitch, 20 E Hargett St, (919) 833-8770, and at HollyAiken.com.