Bag designer Claire Vivier isn’t afraid to be political

Few handbags make a fashion statement; Claire Vivier makes a political.

Vivier, 51, is the founder of Claire V., a company she has spent the past 14 years building a profitable business with 12 stores, a clothing line, and a cult following. While the brand is known for its French-inspired fanny packs and hats, it also stands out for advocating for progressive causes, from gun control to voting rights to reproductive justice. At a time when the country is more polarized than ever and PR consultants give advice to brands Vivier’s approach requires both bravery and business savvy to remain silent on controversial topics.

[Photo: Clare V.]

Wade, Vivier is today launching a T-shirt emblazoned with the word “eglit” (French for “equality”) to raise funds for reproductive rights center, a non-profit organization defending abortion. And as Congress tries to pass gun control legislation in the wake of the Uvalde shooting, the brand is selling a shirt that says, “Ça suffit!” In support of (“Enough!”) Everytown for Gun Safety, Every time the company vocally supports a cause on social media it leads to backlash. But while some customers have chosen to stop buying Claire V products because of this endorsement, sales have continued to rise — about 70% compared to last year. “I don’t like alienating people,” she says. “But I think we are on the right side of history.”

‘It was not acceptable for me to do a purely capitalist business’

Vivier’s parents paved her way for activism. Her father grew up in Mexico and came to America on a baseball scholarship; Later, he became a professor of law and Chicano studies at the University of Minnesota and was heavily involved in the civil rights movement in the 60s. He met his wife in junior high, but did not meet until he was in graduate school. “My mom is of white, European descent, and her parents didn’t love the fact that she was dating someone who was Mexican,” she says. “As a mixed race kid growing up in America, I experienced all the animosity that could be stirred up.”

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[Photo: Clare V.]

Vivier’s parents raised their six children in a progressive community in St. Paul, Minnesota, where they participated in protests and talked about politics at the dinner table. The children attended a school where social justice was the core of the curriculum. ,[Our parents] Always gave us the importance of civic responsibility,” she says. “It was clear that we were here to serve other people.”

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[Photo: Clare V.]

Vivier had not planned on becoming a designer. She studied English at the University of San Francisco and became a journalist, marrying Frenchman Thierry Vivier in 2002, after which she spent time in both France and American writing. However, in her spare time, she loved to sew. In the early 2000s, it was hard to find an attractive, functional computer bag, so she crafted an oversized envelope clutch out of padded cotton for carrying her laptop to work. Friends soon asked if she could make them one, and Vivier began to seriously consider what it would take to start a new career.

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[Photo: Clare V.]

He did not have the equipment to sew thick materials such as leather and canvas, and was short of money. She and Theri had just moved back to the Bay Area and had a newborn son, so she couldn’t justify spending the money on a better sewing machine. Then fate intervened. As she was walking around Oakland, she stumbled across four $100 bills. “No one was around,” she says. “I was looking for someone to return it, but to no avail. So I decided to take it as a sign that I should buy a sewing machine.”

Vivier began prototyping bags inspired by the classic, well-crafted French aesthetic he had admired since his time in Paris. Boutique orders came in for 50 bags at a time, and two years later, she realized she needed to increase production capacity. So she and her family moved to Los Angeles, and they found a family-run factory in Burbank, which she still uses today.

In 2008, Vivier launched the Claire V website, and the brand quickly took off. Celebrities like Katie Holmes and Rashida Jones began carrying their bags. (The bags start at $150; most cost around $300, which is on par with brands like Rebecca Minkoff and Kate Spade.) The company, which Vivier has bootstrapped, has been profitable since its inception, a brief run in 2020. Except for periods when sales had declined due to the pandemic. But even as the brand flourished, Vivier wanted to do right by her parents, who hoped their children would help solve some of the world’s problems. “It was not acceptable for me to have a business that was purely capitalist,” she says. “The question from the start was how would I use this business to give back.”

inevitable reaction

Seven years into running the business, Vivier decided to shift the brand toward activism. In 2015, he partnered with Christy Turlington’s charity, every mother matters, which works to prevent maternal mortality worldwide; She released a line of clothing in which 30% of the sale price went to the organization. But over time, she was eager to engage in more controversial issues. During the Trump presidency, when progressive activists talked about building resistance, Claire V released a shirt and bandana that said, “Vive la resistance,” donating proceeds to Planned Parenthood. In 2018, after the Parkland shooting, the brand advocated for gun control, donating to Everytown for Gun Safety.

By the end of 2022, Vivier expects the company to have raised half a million dollars for these causes since it first joined. But more than the money, Vivier believes she is helping draw attention to these issues.

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[Photo: Clare V.]

“It makes sense for brands to align themselves with nonprofits that specialize in driving change on the ground,” says co-author Afdal Aziz. good is the new cool, and founder of Conspiracy of Love, a consultancy for purpose-driven brands. “Brands can use the power of advertising to stigmatize a topic, which can affect culture in profound ways.”

But with each of these moments of advocacy, Claire V experienced a backlash. On social media, some followers applauded the activism, while others angrily said they would boycott the brand. This gave Vivier pause. She worried about losing the business, mainly because so many people now depended on her to survive. She visited her father at the opening of his second store shortly before he passed away in 2015, and was thrilled with how it was doing. “The biggest thing I got from my dad was that my business was in my own community in Los Angeles,” she recalls. “I [knew I] Must think about my employees. ,

This is a struggle many companies face. In the wake of a leaked Supreme Court document suggesting that Roe v. Wade could be reversed, some campaigners have quietly advised their clients to stay away from the abortion issue. one in StatementPR firm Zeno told clients: “…don’t answer questions about where your company stands on this issue.”

It seems that many companies are taking this advice. fast company published a series of stories about the business case for abortion use, and reached over 200 companies; Only 15 were willing to talk about their policies and stance on abortion. As I reported earlier this week, women’s health startup Stix reached out to dozens of companies to donate to a fund that would provide the free morning pill, and only two, Universal Standard and Mara Hoffman, are doing so. were ready for

Aziz points out that it is easier for small companies and startups to take a stand on controversial topics. “Smaller brands with very clear customer bases are better able to hit the ground running,” he says. “It’s tough for mass-market brands whose customers span the political spectrum.”

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[Photo: Clare V.]

Vivier believes that being small sets him free to speak. As Rowe hangs in the balance, she has been vocal about her support of abortion access, including a new shirt in support of the Center for Reproductive Rights. On one level it’s personal: Her brand bears her name, so she thinks it’s important to be true to her values ​​and stand up for what she believes in. But she has also found that some customers become even more loyal, while others choose to stay away. “It’s worthwhile for some people to buy things from brands they agree with,” she says. “And we want to be a brand that is not only posing, but taking a stand and standing behind our initiatives.” And, surprisingly, even those who don’t share his beliefs often stick around. “We are complex creatures,” she says. “We can love a conservative neighbor or family member even if we don’t share the same views. I think the same is true with brands.”

One of the reasons Vivier has been able to do this is because it has relative autonomy over its brand. Clare V. is privately owned, and Vivier has no venture funding. In 2012, it took a meager investment from fashion designer Steven Allen and Bedrock Manufacturing (which owns Shinola & Filson) to open the store; She says she chose these investors because they supported her values. “We are profitable, and our growth is slow and organic,” she says. “I’m comfortable with that because it means I have control over what the brand represents.”

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