Coffee with the Bag Lady
Jamie Lewis, founder of JLEW Bags
Three weeks ago, I was stuck in trying to figure out a way to write a story on Heather “The Heat” Hardy without rewriting what I had written on her just a week before, and without regurgitating what other publications, including Rolling Stones, had published about her. The writer’s block was in full force. Until I stumbled on the idea of interviewing one of Heather’s sponsors.
At first glance, JLEW Bags would appear to be an unlikely sponsor of a professional boxer. JLEW is a luxury hand bag maker and its bags are not what I would typically lug around the city with my sweat-soaked workout shirt and damp hand wraps. When I saw that JLEW’s signature hand bag sells at $695 a pop, I was even more intrigued. Why is a luxury hand bag sponsoring a professional boxer turned MMA fighter?
I requested for an interview with JLEW’s founder, Jamie Lewis, through the company’s generic email address, and was pleasantly surprised to get a response on the same day. Jamie would love to talk to me (yay!) and that I could arrange a schedule for the interview with her colleague, Brenda. And that’s how I found myself at Think Coffee’s Tribeca cafe on a Friday afternoon after the 4th of July holiday weekend.
Jamie arrived shortly after 4 pm. We recognized each other at the same time. She was, of course, carrying what I knew is JLEW’s signature hand bag, but what I would later discover is called the Heavyweight Triangle Tote. A smaller version is named the Welterweight Triangle Tote, which should give you an idea that someone knows something about boxing.
Jamie explains she just had gum surgery and cannot laugh as much, but we nevertheless, ended up laughing quite a few times during the course of the conversation. She gives me a hug and I realized she was a kindred spirit. I suggested she put her bag in the seat beside me. I’m honestly the type who doesn’t want a bag that costs more than $50 on the floor. When she placed the bag beside me, I saw it had boxing gloves. A sister in boxing, I thought. I liked her already.
I went to explain what I was doing and what story I would like to write about Heather. I explained this was not even a freelance gig but more of a labor of love, a love for writing and boxing. I wanted to get the views of one of her sponsors, especially an unorthodox one.
Jamie is a big fan of Heather and what she has achieved. “She’s a single mom, she’s a rape survivor, she changed the course of her life on her own hard work and determination at a very late age, she’s been homeless. Any story line, she’s been there. And she’s persevered. Who can’t relate to that? I don’t care who you are, you’ve had some kind of hardship, you felt like it was over and it felt really hard to get through it and this woman has done this again and again and again, and she’s not gotten bitter through that period,” Jamie says.
They met through a mutual friend who suggested that Jamie invite Heather to a JLEW fitness and wellness event in January 2017. Jamie had assembled a group of women to speak at the event. But a friend pointed out she was missing someone important, Heather Hardy, a boxer from Brooklyn with a perfect 18–0 record at that time, and was looking to cross over to MMA. They met and Heather spoke in the event, and stood out among the others.
“‘We can all be good’ is my favorite quote from that event and it comes from Heather. That’s what I love about her is her whole point has always been there’s room for more than one. There doesn’t have to be the best female, there doesn’t have to be a Ronda Rousey, we can all be good,” Jamie says.
And that’s how this relationship started. Jamie says Heather is the JLEW athlete with whom she spends most of her energy and time, but believes this is time well spent. When Heather signed up with MMA promotions company Bellator for her pro MMA debut, Jamie was there to support her. “People weren’t ready to take a risk on her on MMA because she was not yet proven, which is exactly why I raised my hand. I know she’s gonna be great. She doesn’t have to prove it to me. I know she’s a fighter. She fights daily, she’s gonna do her best. That’s the thing about Heather, she’s a warrior.”
“I’m all in Heather,” Jamie declares.
The biggest surprise for me was that the JLEW triangle tote was designed for women who box. The side pockets were specifically designed to fit 12 ounce gloves so that they can air out after use. How many luxury bag designers can give you these specs? I looked closely at the Heavyweight version and tried to picture it with gloves, shoes, hand wraps, headgear, workout clothes, a purse, a water bottle. It’s probably doable. The Heavyweight tote is deceptively huge, which is probably one of its selling points. No one wants to look like she’s carrying her kitchen sink to work and back.
JLEW fits an emerging mold of local, sustainable companies that produce minimalist but functional products. They cater to multifaceted women with families, careers, hobbies. I dare say, this is not your mother’s handbag.
“Everyone who’s pretty successful believes in health and wellness, and invests in it. This is what this (bag) represents. It’s an investment in you,” Jamie says. “These active, high-earning women tend to have fast-paced lives. They travel a lot, they’re doing a lot of different things, their life is so busy they need something to make it more simple. So the idea is, here is a bag with all these different compartments (that can fit) shoes, laptop, change of clothes, hairdryer. It’s a personal assistant. You don’t have to change to 10 different bags.”
Jamie knows a thing or two about these women because she was one of them. She started her career in Wall Street, working in investment banking then moving on to hedge funds. At one point she was working on her MBA at Columbia University while working at Deutsche Bank, operating on less than fours of sleep everyday. She transitioned to the hedge fund world where the hours, and the culture, were as grueling.
“I love strong women. I’ve had fight in me my entire life (like) fighting to get to Wall Street,” she says.
She started to box to let off some steam from a stressful career in financial services. Her first bout was in Boston, at a Haymakers for Hope event, an organization she continues to support. Since then she’s fought in a number of amateur and charity events, and continues to train six days a week.
“I would walk into a room and I’m the only woman in the room. But I would not skip my boxing so I would have my boxing gloves with me. And guys are like, what do we do with this chick? And she has boxing gloves, who is she?” she recalls. “So I needed a bag that I can take all my stuff, but also appropriate to take to work. All I could find were cheap tacky gym bags. I was bored, and this whole thing came to life.”
Many great ideas were born out of adversity, and JLEW was one of them. JLEW was born after Jamie hit low moments in her career and personal life. She started experimenting with fabrics and sewing, and ended up going back to school at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan to learn more about design. JLEW launched in 2016.
“It was going to be a labor of love for me. I never set out to be an entrepreneur. But if I have to make it, I have to manufacture it in America. So we manufactured them in the US,” she recalls. JLEW bags are manufactured out of a factory in Brooklyn.
JLEW is as much a business as it is a reflection of Jamie’s personal beliefs and advocacy. She chose athletes to represent JLEW and showcase strong, athletic women. In addition to Heather Hardy, JLEW sponsors amateur-turned-professional boxer Mikaela Mayer, the first JLEW athlete, and supports MMA UFC fighter Heather Jo Clark, amateur boxer Ginny Fuchs, navy veteran and Ironman winner Amanda Burrill, and pro Spartan racer Cassidy Watton.
“I hate the images (of women) out there and I fight it every single day. She’s too fat, she’s too muscular to be a model. These girls have big, strong backs. And our photographer would photoshop their backs. You can’t do that. No I want that muscle showing.”
She met one of combat sports’ dominant women, UFC fighter Cris Cyborg once, in an event in Las Vegas. Jamie was taken by how different Cris was from her fight persona. “Cris got up and spoke and she was so soft and approachable. She takes her fighting seriously, she’s so good.”
To Jamie, her brand is all about the contrasts that women athletes exhibit. They are moms, trainers, athletes, all leading busy, multifaceted lives.
Jamie acknowledges that choosing athletes to represent a luxury brand has its risks. Women who are likely and can afford to buy a JLEW bag are unlikely to be found in fighting gyms, much less like getting punched in the face. In reality, JLEW athletes and customers run in different worlds that rarely collide.
“I know I’m not conforming with that choice and I’m owning what that means. I’m taking this huge risk,” she admits. “It would be so easy for me to show these models (from the JLEW brochure) and take the easy route. But I want to build a brand and not just a bag business. I’m not Kate Spade, I’m not Tory Burch. I’m multidimensional. I have a lot of messages to get out there basically.”
A few days after Heather won her first MMA fight at the Madison Square Garden on June 24, Jamie penned a blog post to explain the connection between a bloodied MMA fighter and JLEW. The blog post drew 55,000 hits. Perhaps the gap between women athletes and JLEW customers isn’t that big after all.