Treesje's Laura Darrah and Sheila Nazarian: From Bridesmaids to Business Partners

Laura Darrah and Sheila Nazarian met at a mutual friend's wedding and discovered a mutual love of fashion. Today, their line of handbags can be found on the arms of Heidi Klum, Lauren Conrad and other celebrities.

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Drawing board: Laura Darrah and Sheila Nazarian came up with the idea for Treesje after meeting at a mutual friend's wedding.

Women notoriously love bags and shoes -- and many dream of taking that passion and starting their own lines. But there's a whole lot of work to be done before these coveted accessories land on the shelves of fashion emporiums like Neiman Marcus and trendy boutiques like Kitson. And navigating the waters of the fashion world can be tricky. Fortunately, Laura Darrah and Sheila Nazarian, the co-founders of Treesje, are making the journey together.

The two met as bridesmaids at a mutual friend's wedding and bonded over their love of fashion and desire to start their own labels. Neither had any formal fashion or design training, but that didn't stop them from launching Treesje (pronounced "tray-jhuh" -- it's the middle name of the bride whose wedding they were in). Their first collection launched in 2005, and has been seen on the arms of A-listers like Heidi Klum, Lauren Conrad and Britney Spears.

For Darrah and Nazarian, both working moms, the accidental partnership continues to work because of complimentary skill sets and a common creative streak.

How did Treesje come to life?

Darrah: After I got my MBA, I didn't want to get a real job, so I traveled and I went all over South East Asia and Australia, and I brought back these amazing handbags. I knew I wanted to start a fashion company, and I didn't know how I was going do it -- until I met Sheila.

Nazarian: I had gone to fashion shows in Paris and Italy -- my mom and dad are in the fashion industry -- and since I was a little girl, I'd been traveling all over Europe. They taught me the ways early on. I, too, wanted to start my own company, and when we met, I knew I could sell all those bags for Laura. So we did, and that was my way of getting in the business. And now six years later, we have a very successful handbag line.

When did you start designing your own collection -- and how did you know where to begin?

Darrah: After our first season launched, we realized a lot of our buyers and customers were asking for new designs. That put the pressure on us quickly to design our own line. Coming from no real design background, Sheila and I quickly put together our first collection, and amazingly, it was a hit. We've learned to really conceptualize from beginning to end, we've learned to flat-sketch, we've learned to source fine Italian leathers and Italian hardware. A design concept can come to fruition three-dimensionally really quickly, or it can take six or seven prototypes just to get the right shape down. In our mind, we know exactly what we're looking for, and it's really hard to get a two-dimensional flat sketch proportionally correct, so it can take up to six to eight weeks to really nail something. Sometimes we're lucky in a week and we nail it right away.

Nazarian: Usually the bags that we come up with in a week are our bestsellers -- Laura and I work best under pressure. But we really learned just by trial and error. Laura and I just found a way that worked for the two of us. We work as a team and everything we do is as a team. She has her way of doing things and I have my way, and we bring them together and learned our way through.

How did you finance everything?

Darrah: When we first started the business, we said, "OK, we have to open a checking account, and we should each put in some money." So in fall '04, we both put in $1,000 and we were like, "Ugh, we better make it because this is a lot of money!" We were in our early or mid 20s, so that was a big investment!

Nazarian: Nordstrom placed an order after our first trade show in January 2005, so we went to our parents and said we needed some money. But the whole company's been organically grown. Laura and I have put money in, but other than that, it's a matter of just selling product and selling off inventory to keep the business alive. We've never had a third-party investor, because we haven't been ready to give up a percentage of the company.

Darrah: We've done some private-label work, too. It's not a huge part of our business, it's maybe 10 percent. But we'll meet with companies and we'll source and create a line especially for them, which really helps inject capital in the company and allows us to grow the Treesje brand.

Treesje bags are colorful. Where do you get your inspiration?

Nazarian: We do a lot of trend forecasting. I also think Laura and I are very plain dressers -- we're both wearing black and white right now. We always felt like our bags should be the color aspect -- it really just brings out our personality, so we like to build on color. People are getting bored with black bags, and we've felt that way for a long time, so we try not to be that black or brown handbag company. We really try to come up with a couple great trend-point colors and we go with it.

In a two-person team, how do you divide the roles and responsibilities?

Darrah: To run a smart business, you need to bring two partners together who truly have strengths in two different parts of the business. The partnerships that fail are those that have partners who are too similar -- they're both heavily creative or they both want to be really involved in the same aspects of the business. We've been so blessed -- we know our strengths, we know what we like to do and we act on it.

Creatively, it's 50-50 -- we don't design bags without each other, and I think that is what the success of our brand comes from. We really come from two different design places with different tastes. Although over the past six years, our tastes have kind of converged. Now we see leathers and we jump at the same thing, so the Treesje brand has become a real mix of the two of us. In the company itself, Sheila takes over the personality and the sales aspect of the brand. I do more of the production and back-end stuff.

Nazarian: But as a whole, from our marketing campaign to our website and the social media, it really comes from both of us. Roles are divided only when you get down to the operational stuff.

There seem to be a ton of photos in People and US Weekly of celebrities toting Treesje bags. Is that paid for with fashion PR, or do the celebs actually buy Treesje in stores?

Nazarian: It's a little bit of both. We've had the stars who've gone to Kitson and picked out the bags, but then there's always the fashion PR end of it, too. The celebrities will have friends who see the bags on them and they're like, "Oh my gosh, I love that bag," and want to go buy it.

Darrah: There's definitely the business aspect to it, too, where the bags are given out and so forth, and everybody in the business does it, but then you also get that special treat where there's a picture of someone walking out of a store with the tag still on the bag. That's always pretty cool because you know that they just paid full price for your bag, which is great!

Does it help to have celebrities wear your bags?

Darrah: Oh yeah, definitely. They're trendsetters, they're the look-to, It girls, so it's amazing how much of a following they can bring. On Twitter and Facebook, if there's a picture of a celebrity wearing your brand, you'll see thousands of click-throughs -- it's pretty amazing.

There are a lot of leather goods and bags companies out there. How is Treesje different?

Nazarian: I feel like Treesje is very different from a lot of contemporary handbag lines. The $700 of yesterday is the $500 of today, so people are looking for more inexpensive bags, but with the same quality. When you see our bags, you see a lot of decorative elements on it, you see chain looped through, chain wrapped, things that Balenciaga and Chanel and other big brands are doing, but we offer it at a very contemporary price point, and I think that makes us very different than anyone else in the marketplace.

Going into business with friends can be a risky move. How do you balance being co-workers and friends?

Nazarian: Knock on wood, Laura and I are very blessed. I think maybe once we've gotten annoyed with each other -- I'm sure internally we get frustrated! -- but we both know how to respect one another's aspects, and we are very respectful of one another's needs. And we respect Treesje more than anything.

Darrah: We figured out really early on that we need each other. This business is truly what's important to us -- this friendship is 100 percent important to us, too -- but we would never cross the line, and I think that's been really really helpful for our business.

What advice do you have for friends who are going into business together?

Darrah: Keep a respect for your business, and you'll respect your business partner. Try not to let the friendship and the emotion and the side-baggage get in the way. There are personal issues, there are family issues, there are always things that you're going to be worried about. But at the end of the day, you have to put the business first, and by doing that, you're putting the business partner and their needs first.

Nazarian: I also think it's important to find two people who are equally hard workers. Laura and I are compatible because we both know what the end goal is, and we both want to achieve that goal.

What's the hardest part of starting and running your own business?

Nazarian: It takes over your life, especially for a woman who wants to be a mother and get married. Laura and I have been blessed throughout this entire process -- we've both gotten married, we had our first children, Laura's now expecting a second child. But I think it's really hard to balance out both lives, to be a family person and a hard worker. And this industry has a lot of travel, especially because we live in California and a lot of fashion goes on in New York, so we go there five or six times a year, and then there are trips to Paris and Italy.

Darrah: I agree, being a working mom is really difficult. You want to be everything, you want to be a great wife, you want to be a great mom, you want to be a great business owner, but there's only so much time for everything. Plus, we work with Italy and China, which are hours and hours ahead, so it's tricky. iPhones are next to our beds, and there's a lot of, "Hmmm, it's 3 a.m. and I can't sleep, I wonder what China's up to!" We work pretty much seven days a week, no matter what, especially because everything is so deadline-driven. If you're not staying in touch with China and Italy, you could be losing a day, and losing a day could be losing an appointment, and so on. It's such a fast-paced industry and you have to keep up with it.

What's next for Treesje?

Nazarian: We always wanted to make Treesje a lifestyle brand, whether it's just the two of us or whether it's with investors -- we haven't decided yet. But our ultimate goal is to expand into sunglasses, cosmetics, clothing and other aspects.

Entrepreneur Spotlight

Name: Laura Darrah and Sheila Nazarian
Company: Treesje
Ages: 32 and 33
Location: Los Angeles
Founded: 2005
Employees: 7
Projected 2011 Revenue: $4 million

Tags: best handbags, business partnerships, Entrepreneur Spotlight, handbags, Heidi Klum, Kitson, Laura Darrah, Lauren Conrad, leather goods, luxury goods, Neiman Marcus, Sheila Nazarian, starting a business, starting a business with friends, Treesje

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