From day to night and everywhere in between, eco-friendlier, stylish, diverse Dagne Dover bags are made for people on the go, go, go. And that was just what Melissa Mash had in mind when she co-created the company alongside Deepa Gandhi and Jessy Dover.
Originally from Pepper Pike, OH, Mash now lives with her family in NY, the city that inspired and encouraged her love of fashion when she would visit her sister, checking out the creativity on Canal Street and beyond. So she moved to the Big Apple to attend NYU for undergrad. An internship at Coach helped Mash learn the wholesale business, and she was then hired to be an account associate. Eventually, she even helped launch the wholesale ecommerce channel before hopping the pond to London with her then boyfriend (now husband) to help manage Coach’s European location at Heathrow Airport.
It was there Mash saw the need for a brand rooted in performance materials, one that could go from day to night, one that was well priced, and one connected to customers directly through digital platforms. She’s made that all possible with Dagne Dover, and below, she shares more about how she and her team did it.
SBS: What is your mission with Dagne Dover?
Melissa Mash: My partners and I wanted to create something better than status quo that wasn't just a great looking bag or even a great looking bag at a great price point, but that hit the customer in different ways: through aesthetics, through the fact that someone in their teens or 80s can feel comfortable carrying our bags; that materials are able to be hand washed; and that they’re suitable for everyday life. Life is messy: Getting caught in the rain shouldn’t ruin the bag.
We say that our bags are made for humans getting the most out of life, and it's true. We have bags for people taking care of children, baby bags, and bags for people who are living very active lifestyles; a lot of athletes carry our bags, as well. So we have a wide range of people interested in carrying our products, some for work, some for hiking, some for being very active. Our mission is for our bags to keep up with people on the go.
Something else that’s very important to us is that we are always pushing our industry forward. For us now at this stage, we are looking to be the leader in eco-friendlier products and pushing our industry to do the same. Fashion is notoriously a very pollutant, polluting, dirty industry, and we want to make sure that everything we do is better for Mama Earth and everything we do is leading our industry to be a healthier one.
SBS: How did the trio of founders of Dagne Dover come together?
MM: My background is more on the wholesale and retail store side, while my partner, Deepa Gandhi, who is the COO, is on the operations and inventory and management side. Then Jessy Dover is obviously on the design side. She was an award-winning designer from Parsons, and Jeff and I have been friends with her for a long time.
Deepa and I were friends from New York, and we were at the same business school. That’s where we launched the brand. Jessy had shown up on my radar because she had won a very prestigious competition at Parsons, the Coach Accessories Design Competition. I knew that someone who could win a competition like that not only was a great designer, but also understood the business aspect of it. She was just far more sophisticated than any other designer that had previously worked with us. And what’s great about Jessy, and important and unique, is she values data and the analytical aspects in order to drive smart design decisions.
That’s one of the strongest reasons as to why our company has been so successful in having hit after hit, because one side doesn't overpower the other in terms of business versus design. Even within the business side, Deepa is a bit more of a traditional business person in that she started on Wall Street as a trader. And I’d say I am a more creative business person, where I had a typical entry into fashion into starting a company. It was really from retail and sales and the front-facing side. So we complement each other, and then on our side, we complement Jessy, as well.
Other companies can have a design forward-led direction that doesn't take the business side as much into consideration. And there’s certainly a lot of companies that take only business into consideration. We really try to make sure the alchemy of what we create is the combination of all of that being very balanced. I think that’s reflected in our team, as well, our leadership team and our founding team.
I think the dynamic is one of extreme thoughtfulness, and we think of every little aspect.
We’re not perfect, but we think we do a pretty good job in terms of managing the team and trying to think of problems before they start, whether that’s in our product or within our own team and growth. Three women are very into thinking about all these details. We talk a lot and we have weekly founders meetings, where we catch up on everything and make sure we are super aligned. I think that’s really important in a successful organization.
SBS: How is Dagne Dover unique?
MM: When we started the brand we wanted to create a brand for the 21st century. We didn't want to create something that was just a replica of the environment that we had grown up in. We wanted to create a company that would really be a leader in what the future of corporate America should look like. It should be inclusive. People, all the way up from insurance, should feel included in a conversation. Gen Z has a very important voice we need to listen to, and that is the future of retail.
In the places we had worked before, there was a hierarchy that is often a few-driven culture. And that’s not what we wanted from our company. We wanted to make sure our company was a place where people felt like they could really be themselves, where they collaborated with other teammates, instead of feeling like finance is always at odds with design, as can often be the case at a traditional retail company.
We wanted to make sure that all of that was in the past. We also wanted to make sure we were a leader in everything that we did, from the product side to our company culture to the way we’re thinking about ESG, the way we’re thinking about the product pipeline going forward; that we’re always sort of smarter and better than the status quo.
What’s important for us is using your time very wisely and going for it. Say that you knew you only had three years to live you would live very differently than how you live at this moment probably.
So once i came up with this idea what i thought is im going to go back to business school; i wanted to go to work because they had resources behind entrepreneurs, in particular, consumer companies.
SBS:How did you make the leap to having your own company?
MM: I've always had this feeling of not getting there fast enough, wherever there is. I was working at Coach and helping launch a whole commerce site. And I thought, ‘Ok, I’ve learned everything I can learn. I don't need to be here anymore, I'm moving on.’ For me the real risk was wasting another year doing something I already knew how to do. I wanted to build my skill set. I wanted to build my capabilities, and that was more important than getting a steady paycheck.
SBS: What have been some of the challenges along your journey with Dagne Dover?
MM: Raising money is always hard, and in the first few years it was hard getting people to believe in a vision that had not come to fruition yet. At the beginning, we had to deal with a lot of those types of questions because it just hadn’t been done before. But that doesn't mean that it’s not true, that it’s not valid in the market as an opportunity. But that’s fundraising: having to explain what you’re doing before it comes to life and you can show them.
We’ve been in the industry for 10 years, but we are nine years in the market. People think that’s the point where you would have ‘made it.’ And I do think we’ve made it in a lot of ways, but it’s never easy. It’s just different: these are very, very privileged problems we’ve had because we make bags, right? We don’t pretend we’re saving the world in any greater ways. But also here we are 10 years in and getting to make bigger decisions. But also the problems are bigger too.
SBS: What are the happy surprises along the way you’ve experienced?
MM: We’ve met really cool game-changing women like Stacey Abrams. We’ve had really cool people tell us they love the brand or invite us to a concert. We also see professional athletes carrying our product. Seeing people really love our products and carry them because they can depend on them gives us a lot of joy. People really appreciate all the thoughtfulness that went into the design and every little detail we put out there.
SBS: What’s your advice on starting a brand?
MM: One of the most important things is starting small. I think people think they have to do this billion dollar idea, with all the ducks lined up, and everything has to be perfect before they dive into it. I think the best way to learn is by doing it and starting small. Shop for something that you think is valuable or cool, see how people respond, learn about customer service, and learn how people are in a low-cost way before having to take some huge leap.
A lot of people also want to start a business but say, ‘I’m not an ideas person, but I can execute all day long.’ I’d say, ‘That's ok, you're not the idea person, but start networking, start meeting people out there.’ They start figuring out ideas and figuring out what type of team to build. I think that so much of the success of the company is really based on the thoughtfulness and cohesiveness of how the founding team or management team works together.
I do know some solo founders, and obviously that’s a very different experience. I wouldn't wish a solo founder’s life on anyone. It’s a lot of responsibility to be responsible for people’s livelihoods, for their happiness, for their development and growth plans.
It’s taken us, as three high functioning people, a long time to get to this point where we feel like everyone is pretty well taken care of and everyone’s happy and we know what we’re doing. So I think it’s very important that there's a very stable founder or founding team or management team, and that you're investing in that idea, less than about the market. Of course that's important. But it's more about the capability for the people that no matter what, you're going to be able to figure it out, you're going to be agile, you’re going to be open to change, you’re going to be open to feedback, and not set in your ways. It’s really important to model that for the whole team.
SBS: What advice would you give to someone starting an athleisure brand?
MM: The market is really saturated at this point. I don't think I can think of someone who could play in a different way or offer something different for me. I believe in going into an area that doesn't have as much momentum, but therefore doesn’t have as much competition. There aren't as many bag brands as, say, bedding brands. There are so many high quality bedding brands that started around the time we started. It’s hard to differentiate between them. It’s asking: Am I the right person? And, is this the right market?
SBS: What advice would you have given to yourself starting out?
MM: I would say nobody is going to know what team, what teammate, what new hire, is going to be more appropriate for your team than the founders. I think that at times we’ve given a little too much liberty in terms of who we put on the team when we could have known, culturally and in terms of the hiring process, we need to be the final say and more involved. One addition to the team that's not a complete fit can have a negative impact on the culture and team functioning. We’ve given liberties of hiring on our behalf and there are times I wish we hadn't, and that would be something we continue to own.
SBS: What do you look for in team members?
MM: We look for people who are cultural fits, collaborative, people who can take feedback, who are kind and hardworking, who are used to taking on a lot of roles, being agile in terms of plans, people who are not set in their ways.
Because we come from corporate environments and we've hired some people who come from corporate environments, that time to change from operating one way can be a long time. So we look for people who maybe come from those environments but who are super agile, or people who come from more or less traditional environments where we know they can quickly adjust to changing environments and plans.
SBS: What’s your own wellness routine include?
MM: For fitness, I don't go to any particular studio. Something I've gotten really into in the past couple years is just working out at home in really simple ways that don't involve a big commitment. Whether it’s using a resistance band or walking while taking a call, that doesn’t require me to dedicate 30 minutes to it.
I also like going to a hotel by myself and having complete quiet without my kids or family. And that’s how I reset myself and get to do things on my own time, like when I get to eat, and just to be alone in my thoughts.
I think that’s something as a parent that’s really taken away from you that you don't appreciate at the time…you get to be alone with your thoughts. And then suddenly there is no quiet time for you to listen to yourself and have great ideas or just to give yourself space to flow.
SBS: How has your life changed since Covid?
MM: Since Covid started, I had my second kid a month after Covid started. It was a very tumultuous time for me personally in terms of not having school for my older kid or child care for anyone, not having anyone to help take care of us or me. I had to switch doctors, have an emergency C-section, and my husband and I both have businesses, so we had to keep working.
It was a very hard time with business, too. We needed to make sure we weren’t appearing tone deaf in our marketing. So it wasn't an appropriate time to say, ‘Hey, buy our products,’ when people were dealing with much larger issues than what bag to buy. They were dealing with food scarcity, illness, other health issues, livelihood issues. It was a time for us to be extremely sensitive and aware of all the different ways in which people were hurting.
The best, zaniest part of being Melissa: Part of who I am, if people ask me a personal question, I’m not going to back away or not answer it or not share my own experience. That very much goes with the fact that I’ll just go for it. There’s nothing like, ‘I have too much sense of dignity to not want to put myself out there.’ Like I hit up everyone that I know multiple times to see if they will invest in the first few years of business, because you kind of have to have shamelessness to get things done.
Melissa’s SBS Mantra: Be Calm. It’s really important to be a rock. That’s not to say it's without any cost. But people are going to match your energy, and people are going to look at precedents and look at what’s acceptable based on how you react to things.