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Aimee Kestenberg: ‘You Need to Work Your Butt Off’

The Australian-born designer looks back on a year of taking her handbags and accessories brand global—and marrying her business partner.
August 20, 2014

A native of Australia, Aimee Kestenberg had already made a name for herself in the fashion industry before she took part in the American Express OPEN Rising Stars of Fashion competition held at MAGIC Market Week 2013. No rookie to competitions or to building up her own brand, Kestenberg took part in the American Express competition, where three emerging stars in the world of fashion took their designs from sketch to finished handbag in three days on the show floor. Kestenberg has since parlayed the exposure she’s earned through such competitions into a nationally-known brand that makes unique handbags and accessories, which are now available in department stores worldwide.

On the eve of this year's Rising Stars competition, I spoke with Kestenberg—who recently married her business partner, Sean Elan—to talk about the experience of launching her own fashion brand and working with her now-husband to change the face of fashion by turning luxurious and fully-functional items into a global brand. (And to share some of her photos from the past year.)

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Kestenberg promotes her growing brand on television

So how did you get started in the fashion industry?

I moved from Australia to New York in 2007 when I was 20, to attend design school. I majored in accessory design, but I had been studying industrial design back in Australia prior, which gave me a unique perspective in the world of design and manufacturing.

Did you know anyone in the United States when you moved here?

No, I didn’t know anyone. But I was the oldest of five kids and I saw this as the chance to make something for myself. I originally only had a student visa that lasted four months, so I knew I had to make something happen fast so I could stay longer. So, after attending my classes, I did anything I could in terms of internships and apprenticeships to maximize my experience and skill set and make relationships in the industry.

You ended up working for some fairly prestigious brands, right?

Yes, while I was at school, I interned and designed runway collections for many renowned brands. I was then handpicked to work as an apprentice for three years at a custom garment tailor. All of those were unique and special experiences that gave me a rounded head start in a frenzied industry and helped me learn on a “real” level the daily operations of a successful fashion brand.

When did you start thinking about starting a brand of your own?

While I was in school, I actually started my own brand for couture accessories called Jatalika, which is a name of all the women in my immediate family. It was also my thesis project. One of the pieces from that collection actually won an independent handbag design award in 2010, which really opened a lot of doors for me and gave me a lot of press coverage. I was even invited by the government of Singapore to showcase my thesis collection at an exclusive luxury trade show.

It also helped you land a prominent job, right?

Yes, after I came back to the U.S., I was hired as a designer. And it was there, in an elevator, that I met my now-husband, Sean Elan. Sean worked for the company and was responsible for strategic growth and operations of the accessories business in Asia and the United States. When we started dating, we realized we were Yin and Yang to each other. We had the same goals and drive to succeed and decided to venture out to start our own business. With my design and creative expertise, and Sean’s strategic positioning and business expertise, we make the perfect team.

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Kestenberg sketches a new collection at her design studio

And those experiences eventually gave you guys the confidence to do your own thing full time?

Yes, Sean and I saw the white space in the marketplace for something new and unique that really fit my personal design aesthetic. We made it our mission to make that vision come to life. I love ergonomics, fashion, and luxury at a great price and there was nothing for women or men that had both a luxury aesthetic and quality and was also engineered for a modern lifestyle. Having a point of difference is important in order to be relevant and shine amongst the competition.

Did you see immediate traction once you launched the brand?

We launched the Aimee Kestenberg brand 18 months ago and it’s been hugely successful. We were picked up by many department stores in America, in addition to TV retail partnerships. Being selected for another award by a well-known finance magazine in 2014 has also helped to further my career and give me the ability to use my expertise for the greater good, such as using fashion to fundraise for not-for profit charities that aid in helping women and children succeed in their careers.

So what was it like to compete in the American Express OPEN Rising Stars of Fashion competition last year, where you had to make your bag in front of a live audience?

I am very competitive by nature and thought it was a lot of fun. It was very interactive and inspirational to have so many people coming by the booth, asking questions about the process, and asking for advice about launching a brand or furthering their careers as designers. It was really cool to be a part of something that showcased the amount of work and craftsmanship that goes into making a product like a handbag. I love inspiring people. It was really rewarding to showcase my abilities and to be able to help others.

How common is it today that designers actually make their own products, in addition to designing them?

A lot of designers aren’t taught how to construct accessories. It is one thing to be a talented designer, but I’ve found that it’s so important to also understand how pieces are made. Having an understanding of how to hand make accessories helps drastically in improving efficiency in the development process as well as effectively communicating. Knowledge is power, and the more you absorb, the stronger you will be as a businessperson.

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Kestenberg shows off her ‘Tamitha’ backpack

Do you think it can be difficult for creative people to make the leap to become entrepreneurs?

I do think many designers struggle from not having any training in business. I am fortunate to have a lot of business experience for a 27-year-old. My dad had an import-export business when I was growing up and I was exposed to so much of the business at a young age. I assisted him working at trade shows from the age of 11. I think that to be very successful, you of course need the talent, but you also need to understand business—especially if you are doing it on your own. Designers should do things like take a class on business or entrepreneurship because it’s so important to understand every aspect that’s going on in your business.

What other advice would you give to aspiring designers-turned-entrepreneurs?

I think a lot of people don’t realize how much hard work goes into being successful. They seem to think it just happens overnight. I didn’t just wake up and get here. I have done everything from designing to cleaning to running errands to being the delivery girl—whatever needed to get done. You need to work your butt off to be a successful small-business owner. There are many opportunities out there and you need to go out and grab them.

Congratulations on your recent wedding, by the way. What do you and Sean have planned next?

We are a dynamic duo. We are constantly moving forward and growing and looking at new opportunities. We’ve actually just launched a new business that is separate from Aimee Kestenberg called the Affordable Luxury Group. It’s a creative-consulting firm that offers services in design and business for companies that are interested in taking their brand to the next level but don’t really know how. We’re excited to build a family company together.

Photos from top: Shutterstock; Courtesy of Aimee Kestenberg