Handbag superstar Kelly Wynne Ferguson defied the odds, artfully designing her dream career.
It’s easy to believe Kelly Wynne Ferguson when she says she’s always loved accessorizing. During a tour of her company headquarters, she wears crisp white jeans, bright-pink strappy heels, a flowy striped top and a floral headband. Smiling behind her rose gold Warby Parker glasses, she points with neon fingernails around the colorful showroom, currently occupied by camera gear and new products for a photo shoot. Ferguson, the designer and founder of eponymous Austin-based fashion brand Kelly Wynne, collected unique handbags with her mom from an early age.
Even in ninth grade, she always had something fun hanging from her shoulder, but she never envisioned creating her own products. Nevertheless, her bold-printed empire expanded from a line of 250 handbags in 2013 to one of the most recognized accessories on the market. Like her vibrant personality and style, the colorful yet timeless designs stand out in the crowd, and her iconic line of clear bags is consistently among retailer Nordstrom’s bestsellers.
Tracing her path from passion project to dream job, Ferguson recounts how she dared to face her fears and the doubts of others to weave her own pattern in the fashion industry.
DARE TO DREAM BIG
Ferguson’s entrepreneurial journey has not proceeded in a straight line, but her first roadblocks arose from her own preconceived notions of what was possible.
“I had the fashion industry up on this pedestal,” she says. “I thought it was only for celebrities.”
With a love of crafting and helping others, Ferguson considered teaching, but a high-school aptitude test steered her away from too structured a career. Opting for a Bachelor of Arts degree with a focus on mass media from the University of Mississippi, she later learned a similar lesson during a design internship with a New York City-based magazine: The rigid corporate life was not for her. Ferguson went back to the drawing board. Graduating from college in 2009, she moved to Dallas to work in the field of public relations.
“I didn’t realize it then,” she says, “but the company was so small that I was learning how to run a business. Networking, branding, logo design, photography and crafting press releases: I had my hands in everything.”
Ferguson worked with the firm for nearly three years before the lightbulb in her head was clearly illuminated. When a career mentor asked what she would do if she could do anything, she admitted what she had wanted all along.
“It was the simplest question,” she says with a smile. “But it was the first time I blurted out my desire to design my own handbags—crazy as it sounded—and she helped me work through my fears.”
At 26 years old, Ferguson worried no one her age was starting their own business. She worried what people might think. And worst of all, she worried about her own disappointment if she failed.
“I was so concerned about other people’s opinions,” she admits. “Now I’m so much more confident in who I am and who I’ve become. I’ve embraced my strong, silly personality.”
With a little prayer and her mentor’s help, Ferguson designed a step-by-step strategy to face her fears. Using her own money at first, she filed for a doing business as, or DBA, certificate, met with attorneys and designed her own logo. After a few months, she invited her dad to Dallas so she could share her plan. Impressed, he agreed to back her business and hold her accountable. Ferguson gave her boss a few months’ notice almost immediately, eagerly plotting next steps and leaving her job in May 2012.
DARE TO DEFY THE ODDS
The next obstacles Ferguson faced in launching her fashion empire came from industry naysayers who doubted she could succeed with such limited fashion experience. She spent the rest of the year cold-calling and meeting with anyone in the industry that would share their own stories, whether of success or failure. Not everyone endorsed her ambitions, and she remembers several less-than-encouraging encounters. On one call with a brand representative, a seasoned industry veteran patronized her for using the word “purse” instead of “handbag.”
“She told me purses aren’t handbags; purses are coin bags and women purse their lips,” Ferguson remembers, rolling her eyes with a little sparkle. “ ‘Which do you want to design: purses or handbags?’ ”
Ferguson didn’t let sour interactions discourage her. In fact, they fueled her fire. A meeting with a well-regarded manufacturer was the most memorable, now rendered almost cinematic in Ferguson’s retelling. After listening to her concept and reviewing her sketches, the manufacturer—a gentleman in his mid-50s with a receding hairline—stood up, crossed his arms and asked, “Is this a hobby, sweetie?”
The question caught her off guard, but Ferguson remembers thinking he would regret asking it. Indeed, the blatant condescension only amplified her determination to prove that she could succeed.
DARE TO THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX
Not long after that meeting, Ferguson, who now lives and bases her business in Austin, connected with two key figures who were willing to take a chance—not just on her products, but on the fledgling entrepreneur herself. Both, it turns out, saw a winner in Kelly Wynne.
The first was a former consultant for, among other retail giants, Bloomingdale’s, Bergdorf Goodman and Bendel, Clare Cuthbert. Ferguson was honest with her. She couldn’t afford her help but hoped they could collaborate in a few years’ time. A week later, Cuthbert called to say she saw Ferguson’s potential and would reduce her rates so the two could work together.
“She said I was creating something special, but more importantly, that she saw something special in me,” Ferguson remembers with a smile. “It was such a God thing.”
Cuthbert came on board in August 2012, helping Ferguson get creative to find manufacturers for her brand. Working backward, they called leather suppliers and asked where they shipped their goods. When Cuthbert joined her at meetings, Ferguson noticed people took her more seriously. Together, they found the manufacturer she would work with for more than four years.
“The first thing [the manufacturer] said to me was, ‘In you, I see a winner,’ which I loved because of my name,” Ferguson says. “He took me under his wing and taught me the ins and outs of production, how to negotiate and how to watch for people trying to take advantage of you.”
Just months later, she launched her first product line. Whereas the founders of most new brands order samples and place production orders based on bestsellers, Ferguson skipped that step and predicted her most popular styles. In April 2013, she hosted a launch party at local boutique Valentine’s Too. Pre-party preparations were hectic. (She didn’t receive the products until 5 p.m. the night before.) But she relishes those memories of the packed store, watching her products sell out and glancing at her handbags in a window display for the first time.
“It was such a surreal moment,” Ferguson recalls. “I could not believe something I had worked so hard on from scratch, not knowing how to do anything, truly just learning in the moment, that I had not only created this product, but sold it for money. I’ll never forget how special it was to have the reassurance from women that this was something special and unique.”
The Kelly Wynne multicolored python prints created a niche in the market, offering bold patterns at an affordable price point. At the time, only designer labels offered exotic-looking skins, but Ferguson mimicked bold patterns with a foil-transfer process on the backside of leather. As she learned more about textiles and ways to manipulate leather, she moved from suede to more durable materials in her current products. Today, her designs are more intricate, like the digitally embossed Pop the Champagne bag, intended to channel the wearer’s inner Jackie O.
“Your bag expresses your personality without actually telling someone,” Ferguson says. “The handbag completes your look and draws people’s eyes to you. People that know me know I never go anywhere without a handbag.”
From the earliest stages of her business, Ferguson prioritized her customers’ needs, growing the brand by attending trunk shows and speaking at luncheons. Through constant education and listening to customer feedback, she continues to develop new products with her customers in mind.
“It’s the only way to stay relevant in this changing retail craze,” she says. “You have to stay true to yourself and to your brand, but within that, you have to keep listening to your customer.”
DARE TO BE A GAMER CHANGER
Ferguson’s commitment to her customers and her ability to anticipate their needs is what ultimately catapulted her brand into the big leagues in 2016. Warned sales often decline during election years, she remembers seeing her sales numbers go stagnant for the first time. Then she heard a clear-bag policy—one limiting the size and types of bags allowed into stadiums and sports arenas—was in the works. The NFL had already adopted one and the NCAA was considering incorporating it.
“My customer really skews Southeast, where football is heavy. But before I thought of that, I worried the policy would really cramp my personal style!” Ferguson says with a laugh. “I would never design anything I wouldn’t wear, so I had to design a clear bag that would still look cute on game day.”
Ferguson thought through several iterations before deciding to convert her most popular style, the Mingle Mingle Mini, into a clear version. By the time it was finished midsummer, she knew Southern women were already planning their football-season outfits. She decided to launch the new clear handbag for preorder. Predicting she would sell maybe five bags, she sold 50 in the first hour. Featuring thick polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, genuine leather and gold-plated chain, her clear bags became game changers overnight.
“Today, our clear bags are 50 percent of our business because I am the only one offering a high-quality bag that won’t cramp your style,” Ferguson says.
But the biggest game changer in Ferguson’s life came later that year. Learning she was pregnant, Ferguson started strategizing how to step away from her thriving business for maternity leave. During her pregnancy, she and her team also started nudging Nordstrom to carry her clear bags. July 30, 2018, Ferguson gave birth to her daughter, Neely Wynne Ferguson, on the same day her clear handbags launched online with Nordstrom. She recalls toasting her daughter and Nordstrom at the same time, wearing a smile from ear to ear.
DARE TO GIVE GRACE
Returning from maternity leave, Ferguson faced her biggest challenge to date. Juggling both a new baby and a growing business, she didn’t realize initially that she was struggling with postpartum depression. A form at her doctor’s office asked whether she was going to harm herself or her baby, but since her depression wasn’t that extreme, she didn’t speak up.
“It looked so different for me because it took time for that anxiety to build,” she says. “I didn’t talk about it because women feel ashamed if they are sad. Having a baby is the biggest blessing, but I didn’t know what was happening in my body.”
Ferguson knew something was seriously wrong when she couldn’t find the passion to design her next collection. She felt like she was just going through the motions, questioning her path for the first time. Looking back, she calls it an identity crisis, struggling to balance her roles as boss, mom, wife, daughter, sister, friend. In reality, only one piece had changed, but her priorities had dramatically shifted and she was still striving for perfection in each role.
During Christmastime 2018, Ferguson shared what she was experiencing with her mother, who recommended speaking to a Christian counselor. The next week, she reconnected with her career mentor, also a therapist, who affirmed she was suffering from postpartum depression and anxiety. She requested a low dose of anti-anxiety medicine from her doctor and started rising earlier each day for some quiet time before her daughter woke up. Finally, she began opening up to other women to share her experience.
“Those four steps shifted everything for me mentally,” Ferguson says, “especially getting actual support from other women. Suddenly, I wasn’t embarrassed about crying every day and I gained the confidence to move forward.”
And move forward she did, using the experience as inspiration for her fall 2020 collection, titled Identity. Exploring different facets of identity, Ferguson wanted product names like Show Stopper, Bomb Shell and Rule Breaker to reflect that women can showcase more than one aspect of their personality.
“I’ve realized that I can’t do everything at 100 percent every single day,” Ferguson admits. “Sometimes I am working hard at my marriage and sometimes I’m focused on my business, but I can feel good about knowing that I accomplished everything I could that day.”
Adjusting her Dare to Wynne motto, Ferguson’s current focus is on daring to give herself grace, whether that involves a production mistake, getting home-cooked food on the table or even posting on social media.
“It’s so important to live in the present,” she says, “but I also feel strongly about sharing my experience because I felt so alone—and you are not alone! Women struggle with so many different things, and I feel like the Lord has called me to share my story.”
DARE TO DONATE
Ferguson also feels called to give back, ensuring her business participates in silent auctions and launching her Dare to Donate program in 2016. After the birth of her daughter, she attended a luncheon for The Refuge Ranch, which provides rehabilitation services for sex-trafficking victims. She learned that while there are 13,000 animal shelters throughout the country, there are only 600 beds for sex-trafficked children. Having a daughter, that number hit home, and she shifted her business’ Dare to Donate program from supporting multiple charities to focusing on The Refuge. Now $5 from every sale helps sponsor girls at The Refuge, and when they graduate, each leaves with a Kelly Wynne bag of her choosing.
“We want them to have confidence to enter the working world,” Ferguson says. “Part of wearing a bold bag is empowering yourself to dress the part. Beyond choosing what to wear, you are taking ownership of your everyday life.”
DARE TO LOOK FORWARD
In addition to her Dare to Donate program, Ferguson says one of the best business decisions she ever made was closing her brick-and-mortar store in 2018. Ferguson opened the store at The Domain in 2016 and loved hosting events and interacting with customers at the boutique, but after her maternity leave, she knew priorities needed to shift there too. Ferguson’s small team was stretched thin in order to meet the store’s demands, which only made up a small part of her business, compared with e-commerce sales. Focusing her efforts online, Ferguson saw a 40 percent increase in revenue, and customers can still visit the Kelly Wynne showroom to shop in person. Though closing the store was a decision some may have questioned, it further proved Ferguson’s ability to deftly navigate the fashion-industry realm on her terms and in a way that continues to lead to success.
With a new Kelly Wynne travel line launching soon, it seems even the sky is no limit for Ferguson. She hopes to continue expanding the business, working with new materials and adding new employees to her team. Personally, she also hopes to add to her family, grow stronger, have fun and help others.
“Right now, we live in this world that craves authenticity, so I want to be my most transparent and authentic self,” Ferguson says. “I have the same aim for our company: We will continue developing unique, fun, relevant products that keep empowering and daring everyone to Wynne!”
DARE TO ACCESSORIZE
Kelly Wynne Ferguson offers her tips for pairing the perfect bag with any outfit.
Be bold. “I’m all about pairing a bold, patterned handbag with a patternedoutfit. I think a lot of people are scared to do that, but the trick is to find onecolor in the bag that coordinates withyour outfit. Even if it’s just a little color in the print that’s the same, then it works.”
Change it up. “We started selling acrylic straps as an accessory for our clear bags so you can buy differentstraps to change the look. The strap makes it more casual and adds a whole new color. You can also use it to revive an old bag and jazz things up.”
Show some inside style. “Right now,we’re all about accessorizing the inside of our clear bags. I wondered almostimmediately what we would do withunmentionables, and the Privacy Pouch was born! We also have an MVP Pouch, and they all come in different colors. One of my favorite parts of this job is definitely our brainstorm sessions.”
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Azeeza Lucas high-neck asymmetrical dress, $1,595, available at shopbop.com. Shoes, model’s own.
Sabina Musayev Oscar jumpsuit, $230; Lady Grey lucite earrings, $180, available at Estilo, 2727 Exposition Blvd., estilo.com.
All handbags available at kellywynne.com.