Boise entrepreneur Kim Mitchell-Catlett is making custom fashion more accessible
Necessity, the cliché goes, is the mother of invention.
For Bella Modi founder Kim Mitchell-Catlett, necessity hit the day the strap broke on favorite pair of shoes.
“I had this pair of shoes I absolutely loved,” she says. “I wore them out. I just killed them.”
With small size 5 ½ feet, Kim knew that finding a replacement for this fashionable, goes-with-everything pair of shoes wouldn’t be easy. “In my size, finding something without bows out of the kids section is really hard.”
And paying a cobbler to fix them seemed silly. “It wasn’t a really expensive pair of shoes, so taking them to a shoe shop never made sense.”
It was a problem that seemed fixable: when something wears out — especially on items like shoes — how do we replace the worn out part without throwing everything away?
After months of research, including trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to garner insights from industry insiders, Kim had the solution: a module system for shoes that would allow customers to customize all the major elements of the shoe — and replace them if they ever wore out.
But taking the concept from idea to reality proved to be very difficult. Even with her professional background managing large, complex projects for a technology company, it seemed almost overwhelming.
“I’ve been a project manager most of my adult life,” Kim says. “So breaking things down into smaller, manageable pieces is something I do. But the whole industry is very cliquish. Some people only know soles. So trying to find people who could think about the product holistically was very difficult.”
She spent three years working on the problem on evenings and weekends, developing a patent-pending system for attaching and detaching the upper part of the shoe from the lower part of the shoe. This is no small task considering the stretching, shaping and general wear and tear most shoes are subjected to.
The engineering challenges were and are tremendous. And the process of securing her patent, something she sees as critical to protecting her innovative solution to the problem, was painfully slow.
“I was sort of in a holding pattern,” she says. Then, one day, she walked upstairs to the coffee shop above her small office and workshop.
“I was in line at Java and overheard this lady talking about how awful it is to try to find a handbag… you always have to settle,” Kim says. “I totally agreed. There are a couple of companies that let you choose the color, but you can’t change the structure.”
Kim began thinking about how the solution she developed for shoes could apply to handbags. “I had always planned on doing shoes and handbags,” Kim explains. “I just didn’t know I would be doing it so soon.”
The result is Bella Modi’s new line of completely customizable handbags. The options go well beyond the ability to choose color or accessories. With Bella Modi, customers can mix and match the body, material, handle, pockets, closures and more.
“Bags are so personal,” Kim says. “They’re based on your lifestyle and what you do. Sometimes the little things can be really frustrating, like when you wish you had a zipper pocket on the front instead of the back of the bag.”
With Bella Modi you can choose.
“It’s so simple and obvious. Why doesn’t exist?” Kim asked to herself out loud before answering: “Because it’s very complicated.”
It turns out that creating a modular design that looks fashionable and is transferable across many configurations, is difficult in terms of both aesthetics and engineering. Picking a seven inch zipper pocket is easy, for example, but choosing a seven inch zipper pocket that fits in style and design across every bag in the line proved very difficult.
When Kim started on the handbags she knew nothing more than a typical handbag user.
Not being confident in her skills, she decided to hire a so-called professional to create the patterns and source all the materials. But after spending $3,600 she got almost nothing in return.
“I was not as assertive as I needed to be,” Kim says. “I knew what I wanted better than anyone else.”
She invested $700 in a commercial sewing machine, $400 in leather and taught herself how to make handbag patterns and, ultimately, handbags.
But as she dove in, Kim realized she didn’t understand the internal working of handbags. She went to the Idaho Youth Ranch and bought 10 or so bags and tore them apart to understand little details like seam allowances and structure. What she learned translated directly into better bags.
“Now I trust my gut,” she says. “I know that I can take a stab at it, get as far as I can get, then ask for help.”
And she did ask for help. In fact, Kim says, she found herself in a unique position because of her years working on shoes.
“The fashion industry is the fashion industry. A lot of the contacts I made are good in both,” she explains. “Many of the shoe people weren’t that open when I was working solely on shoes because they are so competitive, but now that I’m working on handbags they’re very helpful.”
Long-term, Kim hopes to sell both the handbags and shoes through a direct sales approach similar to Scentsy. But as she ramps up production, she is currently taking a hands-on approach, allowing customers to visit her workshop by appointment to make selections.
“For now, I want people to look and feel the leather and other materials.,” she says. “That way I get feedback directly. I get to hear by the tone in your voice not just if you like it, but how much you like it.”
By the end of the summer Bella Modi will launch its online configurator, which will allow customers to customize and order all online.
“They get to say ‘I designed it.’ They get to claim it,” Kim says with a smile. “If you are fashion savvy and those things are important to you, it’s an awesome experience to have that sort of control.”
Learn more about Kim and Bella Modi at bellamodi.com.
Photography by Shawn David of Wurldpix.