Company: Via Vegan Ltd.
What it does: Designs women’s and men’s handbags made out of recycled plastic bottles
If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to wake up every morning and face seemingly insurmountable barriers to getting your brand recognized on the international stage, just ask Inder Bedi. It’s his daily reality.
Bedi competes in the high-end fashion accessories market against such powerhouses as Burberry, Prada, Gucci and Chanel — whose marketing budgets dwarf that of his firm, Via Vegan Ltd., designer of the thriving Matt & Nat line of vegan handbags. (Vegan handbags? They’re made out of recycled plastic bottles rather than leather.) But since Via Vegan’s 1996 launch, the Montreal-based firm has held its own against haute couture heavyweights, grown a runway-worthy reputation among its core market of 30-something females and attracted such celebrity fans as Charlize Theron, Natalie Portman and Sir Paul McCartney. (Yes, the firm makes bags for men, too.)
Via Vegan also boasts a lifelong reputation for attracting foreign buyers. Thanks in large part to the company’s unique products and environmentally conscious message, exports consistently accounted for 25% to 30% of revenue in its first 12 years of existence. “We believed so strongly in the potential of our product as a world brand that it didn’t make sense not to launch in other markets,” says Bedi, Via Vegan’s founder and co-president, of his company’s early and deliberate drive to sell abroad.
But last year was Via Vegan’s biggest ever — helping the firm earn the 2009 Canada Export Achievement Award for Quebec. After several years of hard and smart work, Matt & Nat bags finally found their way into high-end department stores, including Saks Fifth Avenue in the U.S. and Selfridges & Co. in the U.K. Those breakthroughs helped push Via Vegan’s export revenue to $4.9 million — a jump of $2 million from the year before, and 45% of the firm’s total sales of $10.9 million.
But if Bedi hadn’t gone global from the beginning, he might have been forced to eventually. According to Bob Kirke, executive director of the Ottawa-based Canadian Apparel Federation (CAF), burgeoning Canadian fashion firms such as Via Vegan have little choice but to look abroad to grow. “The issue is finding the luxury market,” says Kirke. “There is virtually no luxury market in Canada, compared with the U.S. or U.K.”
Successfully navigating the intricacies of exporting has helped, too. “In any country, you need to find the distributors and sales representatives with the connections who are established and have enough staff to make the sales happen,” Bedi explains. To locate and contract the right foreign distributors and sales agents, Via Vegan used help from industry organizations such as the CAF. Company executives frequently travelled to key markets for Matt & Nat, including the U.S., Germany, France and Scandinavia, to uncover emerging fashion trends and nourish the distribution relationships that can make or break any exporting effort.
Bedi and co-president Manny Kohli didn’t stop there. They worked with marketing shops in major export markets to understand the demands of local consumers better, and the pair consulted foreign law firms to sort through the legal implications of selling abroad. They then packaged relevant trade insights — everything from employment laws to export regulations — into an employee manual to facilitate operational consistency, knowledge of trade terms and compliance with foreign regulations. This, explains Bedi, gave Via Vegan a standardized system with which to manage its export business and ensure strong customer service and product quality, while giving him the freedom to focus on marketing strategy, fashion trends and new product design. As for production, it’s outsourced to Asia.
Now that high-end retail chains have joined the legions of independent retailers that sell Matt & Nat, the CAF’s Kirke believes Via Vegan will benefit from a massive credibility boost and the experience of working with major customers. “Once you become a capable supplier to Saks, you’re a better supplier,” he says. “If you can make it there, you become less parochial, less narrow in your focus. You look at yourself in a different way.”
This could explain Bedi and Kohli’s plan to push into emerging markets such as Russia, China and India, although Bedi offers a simpler rationale: “If there’s a new market emerging and there’s a lot of opportunity there, why wouldn’t we pursue it?” The pair also plan to branch into recycled jewelry and eco-friendly outerwear. But Bedi concedes that the right paparazzi shot still trumps the smartest sales strategy: “A celebrity wears [one of our bags], and the next day it’s sold out in stores.”