Hi there. I'm Jenny, the human behind Freja :)
In a world that values growth and finding the next bigger/better/faster thing, I wanted to build something high quality, slow, meaningful, and personal.
One year, 2 sold out collections, 124 heartfelt email threads, and 371 handwritten holiday cards later, it’s safe to say we’ve found a tight knit community of individuals who feel the same way. Somehow, even though we only launch a few times a year, you keep choosing us and cheering us on. Seriously - you are awesome.
Freja is a love letter to all the dreamers. We exist to advocate for a meaningful, inclusive, and sustainable future. To empower like-minded people and brands. And to create beautiful, modern, functional bags that bring a smile to your face :)
PS: the name Freja (pronounced frei-ya) is of Scandinavian origin and means “love.” I thought it was beautiful and fitting given our mission.
THE JOURNEY TO GET HERE
It was my second to last semester of college. My friends were getting job offers left and right, and I felt the pressure.
It was during yet another night of interview prep when Freja was born. I had turned my closet inside out trying to find a sleek tote for the most important interview of my life, that would also fit a change of clothes for an event afterwards. Do I go with the one that fits everything but has somehow developed unsightly permanent creases? How about the oversized black hole of a bag where pens and business cards disappear forever? Where were the beautiful, understated totes crafted with attention to the little details? I started dreaming about creating something of my own. Something small, something interesting.
But I was supposed to decide whether I wanted to be a consultant or an analyst. My family encouraged me to move to China and begin my career there. So I did what any rational person would do, and packed up my stuff into 4 boxes, found a sublet apartment in NYC, and started working on Freja. Mostly at night, because I had also committed to a marketing internship that summer.
Everyone told me it would take at last 6 months to develop our first product. I thought that sounded slow, and set a goal to launch in 3. Spoiler alert - it took us a full year to launch the Linnea.
That summer I ran off sheer excitement and nervous energy - the kind that makes your heart race and palms sweat. Everything was new to me, shiny, hopeful. I didn't know what I didn't know, and spent my days wandering the garment district looking at fabrics and trimmings. I wanted to make my version of the perfect everyday tote bag for our first launch.
While I didn't know anything about tech packs or sourcing, I did know one thing. I wanted to make bags of the highest quality using the best ingredients available, and build a brand I could be proud to represent.
The first order of business? Finding a high quality vegan leather that wasn't PVC or PU based. Not only are these materials extremely harmful to the environment, they also don't age gracefully. I think most of us have experienced sticky, melted, peeling PU. No thank you. After two months of initial research, I told my best friend (who was studying abroad in London at the time) about my plans to launch Freja. I knew her family worked in textiles, which I assumed meant cottons and linens and fibres, but boy was I happy to be proven wrong. Her family's factory was an industry leader in ultrafiber - a leather-like, breathable fabric made by layering resin over microfiber, and commonly used where durability and premium performance is a priority like airplanes and sporting goods. Used by luxury companies like Gucci and Louis Vuitton for the linings of their bags, and BMW for their seats. Jackpot. Alexis is the best.
A month later, I picked up our now infamous first sample from a Brooklyn-based sample maker (image above). It cost $2,000. My favorite part is how the handles aren't even made from the same material. I think it adds a lot of character! The next couple samples were somewhat improved, but not by much. The fourth sample was beautiful, but way too heavy…and it took another four months of tweaks until I was happy with it. But through it all, my blind optimism persevered.
In the beginning, I thought "ok Jenny, you need to find the one perfect material, and the one perfect factory, and that factory can make perfect bags for you."
But in reality, there are so many things to take into consideration. Certain colors look better on certain finishes. Certain linings work better with different materials. Do we choose a softer vegan leather that feels more luxurious, or a stiffer one that ships well and will hold its shape better?
And that's just the beginning. Weight of materials, size of pockets, depth of pockets, strap length, stitching vs gluing, zippers vs buttons, how the bag sits when empty, how the bag feels when filled…it takes so much time to find what’s just right. Most good things do!
And the design - minimal but not boring. Classic, but with modern details and thoughtful interiors. Made exceptionally with animal free materials. Bags that set the tone for the day, everyday. Bags that you can be proud to carry.
For me and all the hands involved in making our bags, Freja is personal. Our vegan leather is milled by my college best friend’s family. We visit our factory twice a year. My parents quality check each bag before they’re shipped to me, and I inspect each one meticulously before packing it up and sending it to you. We make everything in small batches, and I'm proud to say not a single bag has gone to waste.
BUT DOES THE WORLD REALLY NEED ANOTHER HANDBAG BRAND?
I went back and forth over that question for weeks. I knew I had to do things differently. Everything has a cost, and just because you don’t see all the hands that worked on your bag doesn’t mean they don’t exist, that they don’t have a family counting on them to help make ends meet. Much of fashion is an unsustainable cycle of excess and waste and exploitation, but it doesn’t have to be. And I knew as the sole decision maker of a small brand that was starting fresh, that I could do things my way.
I want Freja to stand for responsibility and transparency. I wanted to manufacture close to home - and that meant either the New York or China. We initially wanted to manufacture in New York City, and had our first sample made here, but the cost was astronomical (I was quoted $300 per bag for a 24 bag production run) and the existing infrastructure is not suitable for vegan leather bags. So even if we wanted to make the bags here, the materials and hardware would still need to be imported. My second choice was China, because that's where I'm from and where my parents currently live. I I asked friends in the industry to introduce me to possible partners. I researched dozens of factories and narrowed down ten factories to tour. My dad and I visited each and got to know the people who worked there, and ended up choosing four to make a sample for me. I did not end up choosing the most established, biggest factory. I did not choose the factory that took me and my dad out to a fancy lunch. I chose a small, family owned factory of eighty workers. They took the longest to deliver a sample, but that was because they reworked it three times before deciding it met their own high standards.
My dad and I visited in June, when it was almost 90* out. This factory only had electric fans throughout their factory and offices, no central AC. While it wasn’t unbearably hot, it was uncomfortable. When I asked why, the owner said it was because they couldn’t afford it. He said as production costs in China have risen, many companies have moved production overseas to countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam, and India. Small factories either closed down, or merged with bigger factories to survive the shift. When I asked him why he hadn’t merged with a bigger factory, he said because this factory had been passed down for generations in the family, and he wasn’t willing to give up quality or control. He had a responsibility towards everyone who worked there. Then he wiped his brow and said it was time for him to have lunch with everyone else at the cafeteria. He lived at the factory, and only went home every other weekend to see his wife and three kids.
So while this small factory might not have the most advanced technology, they have the most heart. And you’ll see that passion through every bag they make. I think it’s more impactful and meaningful to support a smaller factory trying to do the best they can, rather than add to the bottom line of a bigger factory that has an advantage in every way. While we will never place the biggest orders, I hope we can become another long term client they can rely on.
We plan to use a portion of our profits towards installing an A/C system along with making other improvements at the factory. We’re all in this together.
And to be completely transparent - the factory team is paid by hour, not by piece, and earn 2x minimum wage. This was important to me because it means that the workers are compensated for the quality and skill they offer, rather than productivity and output. They work from 8:30-6pm with a 2 hour lunch break, there is a daycare available for young children, meals are covered, and everyone has Sunday off, as well as every other Saturday.
So. Let's talk animal leather. Most leather is not a “byproduct” of the meat industry, as we’re lead to believe, and the tanning process can also be deadly to the workers and those who live downstream of tanneries. But the alternatives aren’t perfect either. Commonly used animal-friendly substitutes like PVC and polyurethane are plastic-based, non-biodegradable materials that aren’t made to last. And while strides are being made in the industry (cork leather, mushroom leather), they are still early stage, prohibitively expensive, and limited in the appearance and texture - I wasn't even able to get ahold of samples! Being sustainable is only one part of the equation; the end product also has to be something people would be excited to wear and cherish, and priced fairly.
That’s how we landed on ultrafiber. Not only does it look and feel incredibly supple, it is made-to-order in small batches by my college best friend’s (and roommate!) family’s factory, who is an industry leader in fiber research and technology and worker’s conditions. Because to me, vegan means avoiding all exploitation - of animals, humans, and the earth around us. You can read more about ultrafiber here.
My choice to use ultrafiber is a reflection of my own priorities and values, and an evaluation of the options available at the moment. I’m hopeful that in the future we can make even more sustainable material choices.
THE FIRST LAUNCH (FEB 2020)
We made 300 bags for our first launch, in the colors latte and black - named after my newfound caffeine addiction. It's important to me for Freja to be a meaningful, lean operation, and to keep it that way even as we continue to grow. That means only ordering what we need, carrying low inventory, having little overhead, and minimal waste. It’s much more expensive than mass manufacturing, but it’s the only way I want to run my business. I get to connect with the most wonderful people, and I get to put my time, care, and love into every single item. You receive a one of a kind, quality bag you can cherish for years.
Everything has a price, and if that price is too low, someone didn’t get paid along the way.
I don't believe in compromising between design, functionality, and our responsibility to the planet, and hopefully this little brand will be one step in the right direction. We still have a long way to go, and we’ll never stop striving to be better.
OUR SECOND BATCH (SEPT 2020)
At your request, a restock of the Linnea tote in latte! It’s a small one, just 100 bags.
OUR THIRD BATCH (JAN 2021)
A batch of 500 bags in two new styles — the shoulder bag and the Paloma tote! All shipped to our small quarantine apartment — floor space is overrated anyways, right? Also, meet our newest color caramel and pebbled ultrafiber..
OUR FOURTH BATCH (MAY 2021)
A Linnea tote restock + the Paloma in black like you’ve been asking for + cardholders! 700 bags in total, made in a velvety soft, matte vegan ultrafiber. I’m thinking this might be the last time we make the Linnea tote...so many designs floating around in my head :)
THE FIFTH BATCH (expected JULY 2021)
Two new styles coming at you soon, including one we designed in collaboration with a very special (and very stylish) person!
If you've enjoyed our story, you might like our newsletter. It's about all the messy, scary, fun, and rewarding moments that come along with building a business the sustainable way. Written from the heart, with highlights delivered to your inbox every few weeks. Thank you for coming on this journey with us.