Our guest today is Beatrice Mac Cabe.

Beatrice is the Chief Creative Officer at Vera Bradley, where she oversees the brand’s product design and works closely with both the product development and technical design teams.

Prior to joining Vera Bradley, Ms. Mac Cabe served as Vice President and Chief Creative Director at Fossil, where she directed the design process for lifestyle categories.

Beatrice also served as a Design and Merchandising Director for JC Penney and a Creative Director at Vince Camuto.

Join us as Beatrice reveals what it was like working for major European fashion houses, how Vera Bradley maintains its iconic brand essence, and how the retailer is turning trash into treasure with innovative fabrics made from plastic bottles.

Episode 99 of the RETHINK Retail Podcast was recorded on August, 21. 2020 

 


Hosted by Julia Raymond
Researched, written and produced by Gabriella Bock
Edited by Trenton Waller

TRANSCRIPTION

Julia Raymond:
Hi and welcome to the RETHINK Retail Show. Our guest today is Beatrice Mac Cabe. Beatrice is the Chief Creative Officer at Vera Bradley, where she oversees the brand’s product design and works closely with both the product development and technical design teams. Prior to joining Vera Bradley, Ms. Mac Cabe served as the Vice President and Chief Creative Director of Fossil, where she directed the design process from initial concept for lifestyle categories. Beatrice also served as the design and merchandising officer for JC Penny and a creative director at Vince Camuto. Welcome to the show, Beatrice. It’s great to have you on today.

Beatrice Mac Cabe:
Thanks. It’s great to be here.

Julia Raymond:
Beatrice, your career began in Europe working for high-end fashion houses like Marnie and John Galliano. What was that experience like for you?

Beatrice Mac Cabe:
I mean, obviously it was amazing. I’m Irish. So I graduated from college in Ireland, and I went straight to Milan and I worked at Marnie, and then I went to John Galliano in Paris, and it was phenomenal. So creative, so theatrical, amazing to kind of have that proximity to such incredibly talented people and to see how it all worked because obviously coming out of college and coming out of Ireland, which is much smaller in terms of the retail industry, I really had never seen the creative process in work. And I think I had an idea of it as being one person and everybody executing kind of diligently to that vision. And to understand that it was such a collaborative process was really eye-opening to me and really phenomenal, honestly.

Julia Raymond:
And you said that it was a little bit different because the focus was not as much on the, you said commerciality of the product, but it was more on the creative process. So that sounds like a great place to start.

Beatrice Mac Cabe:
Yeah. And I think that’s one of the big differences, that in Europe, or certainly again, where I worked, I can only speak to my own experiences. The creative side of the business is really what leads the vision and people, the merchandisers, et cetera, execute to that. They bring to life the vision of the creative, whereas here very often the design team is led by the merchandising side of the business or the buying side. There’s a lot of conversation in America about is it design led or is it merchant driven? Whereas I think in Europe, it is more the design that leads the way.

Julia Raymond:
And do you think there’ll be a change because of that? With COVID we hear a lot about shorter supply chains and localizing the design process and getting things to the customer, maybe more on demand versus seasonal planning. Are you hearing anything about that?

Beatrice Mac Cabe:
Yeah, absolutely. I actually think that for everybody, it’s going to be the customer leading the way. It’s not going to be the designers or the merchandisers, it’s really is moving to this shift where the customer is telling us what she wants and we’re responding to that. I mean, you’re exactly right. We have a lot of conversation about how can we be more reactive to obviously, especially now, knowing that it’s so unpredictable, we have no idea what’s around the corner. I’m thinking about how we can simplify the sampling route. We’re doing a lot of things with AI and 3D. So we’re really leaning into the 3D technology, digital printing, looking to kind of shorten that cycle. I’m working with our insights team to get a lot of customer feedback so that we are creating things that meet her, where she is, and as her lifestyle is changing right now so rapidly and so unpredictably.

Julia Raymond:
Wow. Okay. So you guys are doing stuff with some AI and you said 3D imaging. Is that, it must be pretty difficult because I know a lot of retailers I’ve spoken to said the technology isn’t really there just yet.

Beatrice Mac Cabe:
Well, we’ve actually been exploring it for quite a long time. It’s something that I think the hard goods industry has been engaged in for a long time, footwear or watches, jewelry has really kind of led to that advancement. And now we have been actually working with some 3D imaging for about a year, 18 months. So we’re pretty far advanced in terms of accessories. It’s harder when you’re draping and when you’re soft threads, it’s less predictable how it’s going to turn up. You’re not talking about metal, it’s not as consistent. So I think the technology though is moving along incredibly quickly, even thinking about digital printing. We have some digital printers for fabric in our own, D.C. Here, in our own building, in our own design warehouse. And even two years ago, the quality was so different to where it is now. Now I think in a year or two, it’s going to be hard to tell the difference.

Julia Raymond:
Oh, wow. And is that just for samples when you’re creating some of the designs or can you actually print on demand.

Beatrice Mac Cabe:
Yeah, we can do both. So we also have a small manufacturing team here in Fort Wayne. So depending on the size of the project, if we want to do something to test it, we can do it that way. We can manufacture on print here. And obviously we also use Asia for digital printing. We can do digital printing wherever, but it allows us to be more responsive, but it also allows us not to have to meet MOQs or to test things with our customer and get those feedbacks. And then those feedback… Feedbacks? And get the feedback and then react.

Julia Raymond:
Feedback loops. Yep.

Beatrice Mac Cabe:
Yes.

Julia Raymond:
How do you get the information from the consumer? Because I noticed on your website right now, for example, you have a partnership with some of the Harry Potter designs, and is that something where you just, you’re serving your customer? Or how do you know, okay this will resonate with them?

Beatrice Mac Cabe:
That’s a great question. Yeah, we do survey our customers and obviously we’re also, we have a very robust trend team. So we talk a lot about what is that balance between what the customer tells you and also where you see things moving and where you believe they’re going based on, obviously not just gut instinct, but on your experience over 20 years. I think we call it gut, but actually a lot of it is experience and knowledge earned. So we talk, we have a core group of insiders. We call them the BB insiders and we survey them, but we also do broader surveys. We do customer intercepts in person, and we really are very engaged. We get a lot of feedback just through our social channels as well from our customer. And our customer has zero problem calling us up and telling us exactly what she wants and how she wants it. So, we have a very, very vocal consumer and we listen to her a lot.

Julia Raymond:
When people are traveling a little bit less because of COVID, I know you guys produce a lot of luggage and travel bags, and that’s been part of your messaging pre-pandemic. How has that shifted a little bit?

Beatrice Mac Cabe:
Yeah. That’s obviously been a big topic of conversation for us. Our customer tends to be a big car traveler also because a lot of our customers have, are family-oriented. They have a lot of kids, so we’re not as big necessarily in the rolling luggage. It hasn’t been as big of a pivot for us, but our customer also thinks about, she uses our bags for storage. They’re very soft, they’re squashable into small spaces. So I would say that it hasn’t been as big of a pivot for us, but we’re not seeing a massive slowdown in car travel anyway. I think she is traveling within the States, not necessarily as much via plane, et cetera.

Julia Raymond:
And perhaps even more right? People are doing more staycations.

Beatrice Mac Cabe:
Yeah, exactly. And the whole outdoor boom. I think everybody wants to get away. We were just talking about it two seconds ago. I’m dying to go somewhere, so happy to pack my bags, shove them in the car and go somewhere not too far away.

Julia Raymond:
But just to get out of the house. And like you said, they are squishy and you can pack them into small spaces. And that is definitely one of the reasons I love Vera Bradley. So it’s funny to hear you say that. And you come from the creative side. I remember 10, 15 years ago having my first Vera Bradley purse. And you can tell when you look at a Vera Bradley product, that it’s your brand. How do you work with the creative design team to keep things fresh while still having that iconic brand essence?

Beatrice Mac Cabe:
I think obviously our pattern is the most recognizable part of our brand. Yes, we have the quilt also, and we have a couple of silhouettes that are very recognizable, like the duffle or the tote, but really our pattern is what makes us as a brand. You’re right. It’s hard to constantly reinvent the wheel. But I think one of the things that is good is to have those guardrails, like we’re very, very clear on what is and what is not Vera Bradley. And then within that, I think it allows the teams to really be uber-creative, because they have these kinds of guardrails of it’s very home inspired. It’s very hand-drawn, there’s a lot of hidden whimsy. Our customer really loves to discover things. So we do a lot of research, obviously, which is a little bit more challenging now when we can’t travel as much, but we are very inspired by home, home textiles, the history of interior design. The team does a lot of drawing and painting.

Beatrice Mac Cabe:
So, new techniques, flower pressing, printing, et cetera, always trying to kind of find a way to reimagine to your point, like what is very, very classic to us? How do you do what, how do you do our brand with a twist? And our customer really responds to that actually. She’s shown us time and time again, that when we get the trend right or when we get the trend colors or when we do our very classic designs, but with that modern twist, she loves it. So it’s very encouraging to keep us kind of moving forward.

Julia Raymond:
And I like how you said there’s hidden whimsy and that customers respond well to that and they like to discover, because that just shows that you do really know your customer. And you mentioned, is it brand guidelines that you use to keep everyone in a certain circle of the brand without going too far outside of it?

Beatrice Mac Cabe:
Yeah. I think one of the first things, I’ve been here for nearly five years now, one of the first things when I started was that people have a very kind of instinctual reaction to our brand. They can understand and identify what a Vera Bradley pattern is, but they really struggle to articulate that. So we’ve done a huge amount of work around why, what is it, what is it that makes a Vera Bradley pattern unique to us? How can you speak to it? What is, and what is not? And then once you kind of have that ability to articulate it, you also have the ability to say, “That’s not right.” Or, “This is, that’s a hundred percent right. And push it a little further this way.” And that really helped, I think, the team to be able to work more independently as well, which is important.

Julia Raymond:
Absolutely. And on that same note, when you’re talking about creating new fresh designs, do you feel like influencers are part of that strategy, or just retail in general, do you have any thoughts on influencer marketing?

Beatrice Mac Cabe:
Yeah. I mean, I think it’s such a hot topic, continues to be. We’ve gone from the massive macro influencer then to the micro influencer, and now I think it’s really about finding those people who are engaged with your brand. We’ve had a lot of conversation even internally recently about how do we find those people who it’s not anymore just about finding somebody that you like that you think is going to do a good job of representing, but there has to be that kind of inherent connection between you and them. We have seen so much more success when we partner with people who truly have a passion for our brand and who are authentic about it.

Beatrice Mac Cabe:
We recently did a collaboration with Shawn Johnson, for example, and she has been a long time partner with us and fan of the brand, and we’re a fan of her obviously. And we did a really great, very small capsule, but the engagements that it brought, that she brought, because it really felt authentic. The customer can sense all these things. So I see that being just increasingly important that you can’t just pick people because you like and think they’re going to elevate your brand, but there has to be that two-way synergy between the brand and the influencer.

Julia Raymond:
Absolutely. I remember in New York, gosh, that seems like forever ago, but it was for NRF last year or this year, it was in January, and we had a dinner. We hosted at Rethink Retail and we asked the audience, “Do you think that influencers are real, a fad or hype?” And I would say that most of the retailers in the audience said it was real. So it’s interesting to hear, you said macro-influencers and now we’re at the micro-influencer level. Is it difficult to go find who the right fit is? Is that something you guys have someone dedicated to finding or what is that process?

Beatrice Mac Cabe:
Yeah, we do. No, we do. We actually have multiple people dedicated to finding it because it’s also not about, I think, anymore just reaching out and saying, “Hey, do you want to work with us?” It’s about having a vision for how you want to work with this person on how you’re going to, how it fits into their brand. Because now everybody is a brand as well. It’s not just the big brands, but the influencers themselves, everybody kind of talks about my brand. So I think it really is about having that pitch and knowing the end goal before you just start kind of striking up a conversation. I definitely think it’s very, very real.

Julia Raymond:
That’s great. And I like how you said everyone sort of has a brand nowadays because it’s so true. And I know some people say, “Okay, well, if you don’t want to call it your brand, you could call it your reputation.” But now with social media being so important, it really is like you have this separate branded version of yourself online.

Beatrice Mac Cabe:
Yeah, absolutely.

Julia Raymond:
When it comes to innovation—I wanted to take a moment and just switch a little bit—when you think about innovation at Vera Bradley, how do you approach that?

Beatrice Mac Cabe:
That’s actually really interesting. I think that for us, we talk about innovation broadly. We talk about fabric innovation. To us, cotton is the core of our brand. And it’s funny, it takes awhile. We have a very unique customer base. She’s extremely loyal. She’s extremely knowledgeable about the brand. And when we change things, she’s extremely vocal. So, when I first joined, I thought, we’ll do all this new stuff and we’ll try to do different things, but it’s taken me a little bit of time to realize that actually the core of our brand is what is so important about the brand.

Beatrice Mac Cabe:
You could say that about many, many brands, but I think innovation is really about taking what she knows and what she loves and moving it forward, tweaking it, making it better, making it relevant to her. It’s not about any more necessarily what I think is the coolest new thing. Our customer wants something that serves her daily life, that speaks to her where she is, and that is really, really useful and thoughtful and kind of reflects herself back to her versus having the brand telling her where to go.

Julia Raymond:
And how do you go about implementing different tools that support the whole process of being innovative? Some of the retailers I’ve spoken to have said, “With AI and different automation tools, we’ve really been able to free up the time to refocus on the core creative process.” And as you said, it’s so important to focus on the core when you’re being innovative. So has this been true for your role within Vera Bradley? And are there any product specific examples that you’re really proud of that you guys have produced?

Beatrice Mac Cabe:
Yeah, I think for us it’s less about product. I mean, product innovation is important, but for us, a lot of it is about the fabric innovation, is about what can we do within cotton? Cotton is such a broad sphere of, kind of a range, such a broad range. You can have a lightweight cotton, you can have a cotton canvas. And I think for us, that’s a huge opportunity. It’s this idea of fabric innovation and sustainability. And we have a, I think a lot of our innovation comes through our material team. And so they’ve been doing a lot of research and development on sustainability, which is obviously, massive buzzword, but also critical as we move, especially now this year. I might need to rephrase this. I think I’m waffling.

Julia Raymond:
No, that totally made sense. I love that you touched on sustainability because it is a huge buzzword. I think I talk about it almost every podcast because… But it’s hard, right? From a sourcing perspective, it’s really difficult to pivot and define what sustainable looks like and how that will progress this year versus five years from now.

Beatrice Mac Cabe:
A hundred percent, and it’s not just about the product anymore. It’s also about the entire supply chain. It’s about how you treat your associates, how you treat your customers. You know, it’s this whole bigger macro idea of sustainability as I think an ethical behavioral code, it’s about value sets. And so for us, we have leaned it. We started to lean into sustainability this year, kind of figuring out if it was something that our customer would respond to. Cause again, we surveyed her and she came back and we actually thought this was going to be a big initiative for our youth customer. We thought this was going to be really important for the younger generations, but actually all of our customers came back and said, “Yes, this is really, really important for us. We think this is something that Vera Bradley has a responsibility to do, that we all have a responsibility to do as citizens of the earth kind of thing.” And so-

Julia Raymond:
Oh interesting.

Beatrice Mac Cabe:
It was really interesting. And our first launch was this spring, spring 2020, we launched our first sustainable fabric, which is our reactive fabric, and the response was phenomenal. It’s a kind of a 600 D fabric made out of recycled bottles.

Julia Raymond:
And have you seen that process firsthand? What’s the actual material at the end of the process?

Beatrice Mac Cabe:
So the bottles are broken down into pellets and then those pellets are woven up into a fiber, into a yarn and then they’re woven into the fabric itself. It’s actually amazing. It’s really amazing. The technology is incredible. I think since it’s there, the fact that we manage to do it at scale is I think what’s so impressive about it. And obviously it is becoming much more part of the conversation, a part of the industry right now, but we were probably one of the first big accessory brands to do it because just when you think about the impact we can have with the number of bags, the number of units that we manufacture every year, it really makes you kind of stop and think we need to take this more seriously. So as we go forward, our next initiative is really leading into cotton and seeing what we can do there to be more sustainable and more ecofriendly. And it’s exciting. I think everybody feels extremely engaged because it is a meaningful initiative.

Julia Raymond:
And it’s something where you can feel good about the products. You buy a bag, you may have saved a hundred water bottles from being in the ocean or-

Beatrice Mac Cabe:
Exactly.

Julia Raymond:
Or however you want to think about it. Yeah, definitely. So with everything going on—moving back to the pandemic and pivoting—were there any changes that you guys have experienced with the back to school season? Because I know backpacks are huge for Vera Bradley.

Beatrice Mac Cabe:
Yeah. Backpacks are a really big part of our business. I mean, absolutely. This has been unprecedented is a word that I’ve never used as much in my life, as you can imagine. So yeah, we’ve pivoted so much. We normally talk about back to school, now we’re talking about back to wherever, back to wherever you’re going, whether you’re going to be going back to work or working from home or in my case, trying to work from home and trying to figure out how to be a teacher’s assistant. Yeah, we’ve pivoted a lot in terms of how we speak to her and how we show up on social, because we’ve also, I think, changed our tone of voice. We’re much more direct and kind of directly speaking to her versus kind of telling her things.

Beatrice Mac Cabe:
We’re really having that conversation back and forth and we’ve seen our engagements have gone way up. And I think she appreciates that kind of acknowledgment of this is tough. This is not easy for anybody. And then how can we help you? And the other thing that we’ve done, obviously, I’m sure you’ve seen, is we have a big mask business now, so we really pivoted at the very beginning of all of this. We kind of thought, how could we take our supply chains? Obviously we make soft goods, how can we make these masks? And I think it’s been very successful because it still allows you a little bit of happiness. Our prints are very happy. Our colors are very happy, kind of cheers her up a little bit. And it’s also, it’s that idea, I think, about caring for yourself and for others, which is so much a part of our brand and our kind of identity.

Julia Raymond:
And you said earlier you speak directly to your customers. And I know that maybe social media has enabled that for brands in recent years, but being in the fashion industry and the retail industry for so long, do you feel that there has been a huge shift in how brands connect with consumers? How have you seen that change personally?

Beatrice Mac Cabe:
Yeah, I think there is a big shift, but I also think Vera Bradley’s very unusual. It’s a very unique, we have a very unique emotional connection with our customer. She doesn’t just come to us. We’re not as much a status symbol as we are almost a comfort to her. We’re uplifting. We make her feel happy. It’s not about what she is projecting out to the world. It’s more for her. It’s a personal purchase to make her feel better. And I think when we shifted, right now we shifted our tone to be… I mean, not necessarily even consciously, it just happened through this entire pandemic that we found we were talking to her more, probably socially, more casually, a little bit more inclusively. And it has been interesting how she’s responded to that. She’s really much more kind of highly engaged.

Julia Raymond:
That’s interesting you say that because I know that new trends are emerging that were previously just for the luxury categories, such as video shopping and clienteling. Is that something that you guys are testing the water with or that you have been doing for a while in terms of trends that have been accelerated?

Beatrice Mac Cabe:
Well, Vera Bradley started out in the gift channel. So we kind of started in that very social space of the small boutiques. We have a very big business with kind of gift shops around the country. So we are in everybody’s kind of small village and small town. So I feel like that’s a different approach as well. We have always kind of come to meet her where she is versus being in the malls or in the big kind of urban centers. So I think that’s already a difference, but yeah, we’re definitely looking into doing more social selling. It’s something that we already do and we have really phenomenal sales associates, some of whom have been with the company since literally it’s inception. There’s this really strong, really, really strong relationships within Vera Bradley that are unusual.

Beatrice Mac Cabe:
And I think this is, has been an interesting moment for us because where other brands are kind of, have always historically it’s been about the brand and you are buying into the brand when you buy something that’s, you’re purchasing what they’re telling you, you need. Whereas I think Vera Bradley has always been about saying, “You’re fine the way you are. You’re great the way you are. Here’s something just to kind of make your day easier or to provide you a little bit more function and help getting around and doing what you’re doing.”

Julia Raymond:
Sure, it’s a refreshing approach, I think, compared to some of the other retailers out there, just the comforting and the happy prints. and how uplifting the brand is as a whole.

Beatrice Mac Cabe:
Yeah. And I don’t think it was even intentional. I mean, it just was very natural because our two founders, Barb and Pash, literally were neighbors and friends and they started this company because they just wanted to see some bright, colorful, happy product out there that they weren’t seeing. So I think it wasn’t something that they sat down and planned, but it was very natural to them and to their personalities.

Julia Raymond:
I love that. I love that story.

Julia Raymond:
So Beatrice, when you’ve looked at the retail industry as a whole, are there certain trends or innovations that excite you for the coming years?

Beatrice Mac Cabe:
Yeah, actually there are so many. I think it’s such a difficult moment right now, and for some people like truly difficult, but I think that there is so much innovation that’s going to come out of this moment. There’s so much kind of problem-solving and thinking around problems that we’ve never anticipated before, that it really is exciting to me what’s going to come next and who the next big kind of innovators are going to be. And I think as well, I do appreciate that this moment is making people kind of take stock and polls and assess what we really value, and this idea of having massive product assortments across multiple categories and just more and more and more, I think it’s going to be really refreshing and it’s probably really going to be difficult for us to make those perfect products, but I think we’re going to all focus a lot more on making those products that are really, really, really phenomenal versus a hundred very good products.

Julia Raymond:
So a little bit of a touch on sustainability, but also just on not over-consuming.

Beatrice Mac Cabe:
Yeah, exactly. And I’m obviously really, really intrigued by this outdoor trend that’s happening. I mean, I don’t even know if it’s a trend, but this move to the outdoors. I think this that’s such a massive shift as we embrace everything that we already have around us, but what’s that going to mean in terms of what are we going to need? What are we going to design differently in response to that? And what are the kind of performance needs going to be to really cater to that for our customers is so exciting to me to personally.

Julia Raymond:
Absolutely. Well Beatrice, Chief Creative Officer of Vera Bradley, thank you so much for joining the Rethink Retail Show.

Beatrice Mac Cabe:
Thanks. It was so nice to talk to you.

Julia Raymond:
It was great having you.