By Elizabeth Dunlop Richter
The handsome, leather bucket bag is a rich tangerine orange. Buttery soft, it sports a lemon yellow leather tie that snakes through grommets to pull the top closed. Two detachable shoulder straps, one in the same lemon yellow, a second in red provide the owner with colorful choices. A matching clutch echoes the same vibrant colors. You will never see these handbags at Macy’s or Saks or even Neiman Marcus. Each is one of a kind.
Were they made by a skilled leather artist in Italy? Perhaps displayed in an exclusive boutique in Paris? You will be surprised and no doubt happy to know they were made in Chicago and that the style, the leather, and the colors were chosen to show just one of hundreds of combinations you might select to design your own unique purse, wallet or backpack. And you can design it in person or online.
The bucket bag and clutch are currently on display at Laudi Vidni, a showroom/shop on Armitage Avenue in Lincoln Park that offers its customers a virtually unlimited selection of styles and leathers to be turned into purses, backpacks, evening clutches, totes, cross-body bags and a men’s line of dopp kits, briefcases, wallets and more. The brains behind Laudi Vidni? Not a European luxury conglomerate or a Chinese mega mogul. They belong to a talented and persistent Chicago entrepreneur.
Laudi Vidni is the brainchild of Laura Kofoid, a native of Joliet, Illinois, and her late business partner Grace Tsao-Wu. Armed with a marketing degree from the University of Illinois, her first job was with marketing powerhouse Proctor and Gamble in brand management. “That was transformational for me in many ways,” she said. ”I met all sorts of remarkable peers…one of whom would become my husband.” She also learned that the MBAs with whom she worked made more money than she did.
Encouraged by her friends and her husband-to-be, she decided to go back to school. “I realized that it would be impossible to be married to someone who had his MBA from Harvard, and I had to even the score.”
Kofoid’s interest in fashion started early; at age 15, she used her summer job money to buy her first issue of Vogue. In college, she really wanted to do something in fashion but didn’t think it was a legitimate career. She would soon change her mind. “When I got to business school, I discovered that there were legitimate jobs in retail,” she recalled. An internship at Neiman Marcus, and a series of positions at Dayton Hudson and Sears honed her skills in such diverse product lines as women’s plus-size dresses, athletic footwear and Craftsman tools. She learned product allocation, strategic planning, merchandising, and product positioning with million-dollar brands.
Among her first entrepreneurial ideas was a retail concept serving plus-sized women, who, she realized, were dramatically underserved consumers. Although she did not pursue this project, she was already thinking about starting her own business.
Soon married and based in Chicago with a one-year-old, Kofoid joined Chiasso, a modern design gift store as VP of merchandising. She watched the company struggle to transition to furniture as new competition hit the market. Three years later, she moved to Baker Furniture, which sold top-of-the-line handmade reproductions of 17th and 18th-century furniture sourced in European stately homes. Mentored by a British antique expert with his own castle, she learned what she described as life lessons in quality and engineering. In one review, an experienced colleague examined a sample table and commented, “I think it’s an eighth of an inch off.” Kofoid thought “You are kidding me, right? An eighth of an inch on a 56-inch round! What I really learned from that, sometimes those are the details that matter. Those are the details make something nice, [or] oh my gosh, it takes my breath away.” Shortly, in a management change, she was looking for a new job.
By 2003, now juggling her career and two children, Kofoid knew she wanted to combine her interest in fashion with running her own company. She explored buying a boutique, but the economics didn’t work. An acquaintance and coincidentally a fellow Harvard Business School alum, Grace Tsao-Wu, was starting the gift store Tabula Tua on Armitage Avenue. Re-meeting at an HBS alumnae event, they began talking about what they might do together. They eventually made an offer on a fragrance business, looked at a blouse manufacturer, but nothing initially panned out. Their search led them to Dick Rothkopf, who had made millions from Thomas the Tank Engine products. He suggested focusing on custom and had done research on a customized handbag business, but had no interest in pursuing retail. He handed them his research for $1! The potential was tantalizing.
The pair, however, was unprepared to execute the attractive concept. Kofoid said, “We didn’t have the contacts in China. Manufacturing was the first barrier.” Furthermore, the retail meltdown was in the future and custom products were not yet on the horizon. She and Tsao-Wu spent the first year being rejected by manufacturers. “We were literally turned down 40 times!” Factories in the US, in Mexico, in India told them it could not be done.
Kofoid and Tsao-Wu shifted their approach. “We started with ‘I’m sure this is a terrible idea, but if we were going to do this, how would you do it?’” They began to learn about the problems of the manufacturing process itself and discovered that one of the biggest issues was thread. Different leathers and linings use different weights and kinds of thread; each sewing machine is usually optimized for a specific thread. Every new order would require a new adjustment of bobbin tension, often a different needle, and another color thread. These steps ate up time and were labeled cost-prohibitive.
The pair almost gave up, but decided to try once more and was introduced to some Chicago companies, including AW Enterprises, a family-run business near Midway Airport. It made leather products like cellphone cases, radio cases, and gun holsters. Motorola had been their chief customer. “Well why not, let’s try,” said owner Ed Otrusina, son of the founder. Ed and his wife Betty were looking for more customers and saw a new opportunity. The process was new to everyone. Kofoid admits, “Nobody knew what we were doing. Our designer could sew bags in her living room but had no manufacturing experience. Bags were new to us, too.” The learning curve remained steep.
Knowing the importance of design and presentation, while they were sourcing hardware and leather supplies, Kofoid and Tsao-Wu hired a Florida firm to help them develop their brand and website. They were soon told that their name “Tote Suite” needed to change. The design team came up with “Laudi Vidni,” a name that suggested an old Italian brand with an aura of traditional fine artisanship. According to Kofoid, 100% of people encountering the name for the first time do assume it’s Italian. Have you figured out its origin? It’s “individual” spelled backwards! One can’t imagine a more perfect name for this product, created by the individual.
The business launched with trunk shows in friends’ homes and a website. They were met with enthusiasm from initial customers and realized retail would give customers the hands-on touch that would help sell the product. But problems began to emerge: limited website function, the designer’s lack of manufacturing experience, quality problems with the bags, no product development expertise, and style selection, to name a few. Kofoid and Tsao-Wu changed manufacturers and suppliers, looking for the right fit and the right process. They found a company in Skokie that solved some of their problems but was unable to scale the process effectively.
AW owner Ed Otrusina. AW Enterprises factory floor.
Meanwhile, Ed Otrusina had not given up the idea of working with Laudi Vidni. With a new key employee, he was able to improve their quality. Kofoid remembers he called to say, “we want to show you what we’ve been working on.” She was willing to reconsider and was amazed. “It was unbelievable…it was so much better than what we were doing.”
Today, the AW Enterprises factory has a corner dedicated to Laudi Vidni. It maintains an inventory of their leathers and collaborates in the design process. At a recent team meeting, Kofoid and Paige Hanson met with AW Enterprises to consider resizing an existing tote bag. Specific details like shape, zippers, interfacing, panels, length of strap and size all contribute to the length of time each bag takes to create. Time determines price. Laudi Vidni continually works to come up with new products, but will never compromise on the careful construction of each purse or bag.
Creative meeting at AW Enterprises. Thinking through a new design.
Creating a custom handbag is a complicated process, involving many steps and often several artisans. This visitor was able to watch the construction of what one might think of as a simple shoulder strap, but even this strap alone may take ten or more steps.
Leather is measured and cut. The leather strip is thinned.
A liner strip is glued in place. The strap is folded and shaped.
A new thread is loaded. The strap is stitched.
The Laudi Vidni and AW Enterprises teams collaborate closely to create an alternative to the standard brands for customers who appreciate quality and products made in the USA. Thoughtful design, careful calibration of the process, and continual quality control enable Laudi Vidni to sell custom products at prices comparable to national brands that sell high quality but mass-produced products.
Kofoid’s customers want something beautiful and individual. “They don’t want to see themselves coming and going,” notes Kofoid.
As she approaches Laudi Vidni’s 10th anniversary, Kofoid travels the country to do corporate events where companies offer a custom leather goods experience for their customers and top performers. She pushes to improve their technology that enables customers to create handbags online; one can even design a new bag on a smartphone. She leads alone now, having lost her business partner and best friend Grace Tsao-Wu to cancer in 2017.
Laura Kofoid has ambitious goals for 2020. In addition to adding more corporate clients and improving web technology, she hopes to expand partnerships and collaborations. With her well-trained eye, perseverance, marketing savvy and grace under pressure, there’s no doubt that anyone lucky enough to receive her call will hear about an opportunity worth exploring.