Vera Bradley founders Pat and Barb look back on the past 40 years as they embark on the transformation

“I happened to be the welcoming committee for one,” Miller told CNN Business with a laugh. “Barbara answered the door covered in wallpaper – because it was their new house and she likes to wallpaper new houses – and I said, ‘You’re welcome.’ And that was it.”

The women quickly became inseparable. A few months later, returning from a family trip to Florida for his mother Barb’s birthday, a layover in Atlanta changed everything. The duo, known to friends as ‘Pat and Barb’, looked around at the passengers’ luggage and noticed that everything looked rather dull, in shades of beige and black.

The idea for Vera Bradley, named after his mother Barb, now a $540 million women’s fashion brand selling boldly patterned handbags and other goods, was born right there in the Atlanta airport terminal.

“Growing up in Miami Beach, we had Lilly Pulitzer and Laura Ashley. I was used to a lot of color,” Baekgard said in an interview. “You could call it a lamp [moment] or an eye of God. I don’t know what it was, but we went back and started the company the next day.”

With a combined investment of $500 of their own money, they purchased materials from their local fabric store and set to work creating their first duffel bag on Baekgaard’s basement ping-pong table.

That’s it several years before the dawn of the Internet, let alone social media — so they had no influences. But they had Baekgaard’s two college-aged daughters and sent the young women to Marymount College and Michigan State with the first Vera Bradley duffels.

“The Kappa [Kappa Gamma women’s sorority] home at Michigan State, they boast that they started the company,” Baekgaard said. “It was our first test market and it just grew from there.”

Because the bags were so visible — and bright — they were “like a little billboard,” he said. Soon, Baekgaard and Miller received so many requests for duffel bags that they could hardly keep up with the orders. To meet the demand, they hired local seamstresses who received kits containing a design and the parts needed to produce each bag, then returned the finished products to Barb and Pat.

It was clear: This was a viable business. And every business needs a name.

“We went through all kinds of names, but Barb’s mother’s name was Vera Bradley. My mother’s name was Vilma Polito!” Miller laughed.

Colorful patterns and paisley prints took off almost immediately, with their bright balls and luggage scattered across college campuses and airport terminals. Over the next few decades Vera Bradley expanded into bedding, technology and home accessories. On Thursday, the brand presented its first footwear collection.

Last year, the company’s sales reached $540.5 million – an amount the duo could hardly have imagined.

“I remember at the Atlanta Gift Show they didn’t get it,” Baekgaard said. “I remember one woman specifically saying, ‘Do you think I’m carrying bags with chickens on them?’ Well, it turned out to be a huge success.”

Vera Bradley was launched in 1982 after the co-founders felt women's luggage needed an overhaul.

Miller and Baekgaard served as co-chairmen of the company from 1982 until the company’s IPO in 2010. Miller retired in 2012 and Baekgaard did so in 2017.

Even as women look back on 40 years of Vera Bradley, the brand looks forward and transcends the boundaries of its roots. Earlier this month, the company unveiled The World of Vera Bradley, a platform to teach women about Web3, and is also selling two NFT digital artworks to raise money for the Vera Bradley Breast Cancer Foundation.

“We couldn’t imagine cell phones and what we’re doing now,” Baekgaard said. “Things come and go … I just hope we stay current and relevant, whatever that is.”

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