Buy Black Friday is a MadameNoire series that highlights the products and services of Black women-owned businesses.
Society tells us that life is to be lived but only for the young. We tend to discard people over a certain age. Which is particularly sad, given all of the wisdom we collect as we age. Thankfully, one woman didn’t buy into it. And as a result, after 40 years working in sales at AT&T, Dorothy Harris launched a handbag line, J. Harris Designs, at 69-years-old.
According to the handbag’s website, J. Harris Designs is a “collection of classic clutch purses. Each one is made by hand, reversible, fully lined, and comes adorned with a tassel and/or charm. Some of our fabrics hail from as far as Morocco.”
What sets these bags apart from your average cloth is the “Flip the Flap” design which allows customers “the versatility of two designs in one.”
After just a year in business, Dorothy, who serves as the co-owner and head designer, with the help of her daughter, won QVC’s “The Big Find” competition last year. Her prize will allow her purses to be displayed on the network.
J. Harris Designs will hit your tv screens on Monday, January 27.
In anticipation of the launch, we spoke to Dorothy Harris about the challenges of launching her brand and the importance of pursuing your dreams at any age.
MadameNoire: You started this business after you retired. Were you creative throughout your professional career or was your creativity something that was sparked by your retirement?
Dorothy Harris: It was sparked by my retirement, actually. I love creative things but I was not—I mean, I couldn’t paint. I couldn’t draw any of that. But I always had that creative spirit that’s really kind of blocked when you’re working. So, when I retired, it just seemed to come naturally.
MN: How long after your retirement did you have the idea for J. Harris Designs?
DH: It was about two years. I’ve always wanted a purse similar to that. And I was looking for a purse like that. You know, a sassy purse that kind of spoke to me. They didn’t have anything on the market so I just kind of—as my daughter says—made our own way and decided to do it ourselves.
MN: Where did the name of the brand come from?
DH: Johnson is my maiden name and my daughter’s maiden name is Harris.
MN: Where do you draw inspiration from for the designs?
DH: From fabrics. I love looking at the fabrics and being able to pair them. That’s what brings me so much joy, finding a fabric that I can not stop looking at and then being able to pair it with something that’s going to just make it amazing. And I also draw inspiration from the New York runway color palette. I go to that every season and I use that as my background and try to find which color is going to talk to me.
MN: What were some of the early challenges you faced in getting your business off the ground?
DH: Ha! Where should I start. Well, being 70, I’m not a person that knows about social media. And that’s why my daughter’s come on because she knew all that, social media, reaching out to different people. For me, I knew that was not something that was going to be in my wheelhouse.
I was getting ready to just stop the whole thing. I said, ‘There’s too much that I don’t know and there’s even more that I don’t know that I don’t know.’ So I decided that i was going to stop the business. And after our second grandchild was born, my daughter came on and said, ‘Hey, I can help.’ I’m like, ‘Really?!’ So my daughter and her millennial friends got my website up, got my social media started and that’s when it started to take off.
MN: Can you explain how you were able to participate in the QVC competition?
DH: Actually, a customer turned us on the QVC Big Find. My daughter submitted an application, they had us come up and we decided that we wanted to go in with what we had and let them see it. And they really enjoyed it. They had us come back again. After they decided what purse they liked, that’s what kept us in the competition. It was handmade, it was vibrant colors and it was reversible.
MN: What was QVC able to do for your brand?
DH: QVC is putting it on a national scale. We were doing pretty well regionally. But QVC was able to say, ‘We like this and we want to take it as far as we can.’ They’re bringing it on a national level which we’ve never had before. They ordered a smaller amount. And our hope is that on January 27th they will sell out. And they’ll come back and say, ‘Hey, we need more.’ They don’t have anything in their accessory category that is like this.
MN: During that time when you were thinking about quitting, aside from your daughter helping you, was there anything else that persuaded you to keep going?
DH: You know what, I did a lot of praying. Because I knew I had not been to a fashion school, a design school. I didn’t even really sew that well. But I had a passion and I knew that if I can get this and get this scaled, I would be fine. And then I realized that it wasn’t just my daughter, her friends and my husband supporting me. My prayers were being answered. I know that because every time I came to a crossroads and I prayed about it, the resources came. And everything was happening so congruently and so instantly, I knew that’s what it had to be. I knew that’s what it had to be. We’re going to do our best. And I knew if we got to this point in our lives, we would just continue on because, quite frankly, we knew that God had us.
MN: Can you speak about the fulfillment you get creating these designs and using them to empower other women in their fashion choices?
DH: It thrills me to do it. It gives me create joy. My true joy comes from, ‘I like your purse. I like your design.’ There are so many designs out there so for them to be gravitated to what we do, it’s just—it’s amazing to me. And at times, it can be overwhelming because more and more people are coming to us and thanking me for the inspiration I give to those who may be inspired by me or have a dream. And one thing I’m saying is, don’t give up on that dream. Don’t give up on it. And don’t have so many conversations in your head that you talk yourself out of it. Because if I hadn’t gotten out of my head and just went to my passion and my true desire to do this, I wouldn’t be where I am now.
MN: What would you say to women who may be feeling like their time has passed. They don’t have the time, the money or the resources to get their business goals accomplished. What would you say to women in that position?
DH: The only thing I can say, Veronica, is the same thing I said to myself. ‘If this is meant to me, it’s going to come to pass.’ And I hold my dreams and I have my ideas— I mean, at 70-years-old, there’s so much I don’t know about this industry but I knew that I was brought to this place for a reason. While I didn’t have all the money in the world, some of that was coming too. But for me, it was about getting to the point where I had more than just my daughter and my husband at my back…I just had this desire and I was also being moved by something stronger than myself.
MN: We often think when we have dreams they’re just for ourselves like, ‘Oh, I’ll make a little bit of money with this.’ But often times, they end up helping so many people.
DH: You are so right, Veronica, because yesterday at my church, my pastor asked me to come up and give a testimony. I told him, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’ Because I was emotional anyway. He said, ‘You have to do it. This is bigger than you at this point.’ You need to give inspiration to other people, whether they’re 70, 80 or 20.’ And certainly, after I did that, I’ve had several people come to me and say, ‘I’m next. I’m following mine.’ or ‘I just dropped out of school last week but because of you, I’m picking it back up.’
So I’ve realized that’s it’s more than just about me. It’s more about, ‘Can I help someone else?’
You can find J. Harris Designs on QVC on Monday, January 27. Check out some of the purses from the brand on the following pages.