I am sure you’ve seen Vaalbara bags and clutches while on Martha’s Vineyard. You may have also seen people with them in New York City or Venice Beach or in Europe, but did you know that creator, Emily Prescott has strong Island ties?
Vaalbara bags have always caught my eye. I love the colors and the ease of them, and I wanted to learn more about them.
Emily and her husband, James are here for the Summer, staying with his family in Tisbury. And lucky for me, Emily could grab a bite and chat with me at the Black Dog.
I had met Emily back in 2007 when she was a bartender at Balance. A vibrant, funny beauty, she was always nice to see.
Now, she’s still the same, but she’s become a successful business women whose designs are carried in over 200 stores across the country and around the world.
When Emily was bartending one night back in 2007, a friend came in with a friend, James Burrows who summered on the Island growing up, and now lives in California as a freelance writer. His family has quite the pedigree in the world of journalism.
He and Emily hit it off and they’ve been together ever since. They did the long distance thing for a bit, but she decided to move to California where he was, even though it was hard to leave Martha’s Vineyard. The heart wants what the heart wants.
While dating, James, Emily, and his family travelled to Vietnam. While there, Emily and James explored the countryside where Emily found the coolest fabrics. A self-proclaimed textile junkie since her youth, she was in heaven.
The fabrics were hand-dyed and hand-woven and vintage. She bought rolls and rolls to bring home where they sat for a bit.
Emily had a full-time job in California at a surfboard company which she enjoyed, but not a lot of friends early on. So, she started sewing small pouches with the fabric she had found.
She’d carry her bags while shopping at her favorite vintage store, Animal House. The owner asked about them. Learning that Emily had made them, she asked for her to make some to sell at the store. Emily made 20 and they were gone in two weeks.
Emily laughs about the first bags she made as she looks at the one she has with her now, that’s new for Fall. They were simple fabric bags. Emily learned how to sew in a zipper, set a rivet, sew with leather and more from Youtube videos — completely self taught as a bag maker.
It was her now husband, James (they married in Tisbury in 2012) suggested that Emily add leather to her bags. He also suggested the name, Vaalbara, which was the Earth’s first supercontinent.
Emily had been toying with using Pangea, a supercontinent but that term is used a ton.
In 2010 Emily really started creating and working on her bags. In 2011 she trademarked them.
She was still working full time but worked on Vaalbara bags almost every other waking moment. James was also helping too. Spring of 2013 she finally left her job to focus on their thriving business.
Fast forward to 2014 and Vaalbara bags are all the rage. Not only are they sold all over the world, but Free People just picked up their line.
You can also get Vaalbara designs in Pendelton, Sundance, and Smithsonian, not to mention, Citrine, Allen Sheep Farm, and Slip 77 here on MV.
I should mention that Emma, the owner of Citrine has been supportive of Emily since the very beginning.
Vaalbara bags are very distinctive. Colorful fabrics, the red zipper, the arrowhead charm for good luck, and now a small leather Vaalbara patch. Emily was carrying a clutch being released this month, so I got a sneak peek.
Though demand has increased at a staggering amount, Emily and James are still just as hands on. Vaalbara pieces are handmade in Venice, California by a husband, wife, and brother team, in addition to Emily.
James finds the fabric from exotic places, and he and Emily still name the fabrics together. Emily likes to sew in the zippers and work on the bags but she knows that soon she’ll have to have more help.
Vaalbara now has a PR firm and a sales team to help with the growth, but Emily and James have been the ones traveling for years to the vendor shows in the cities to sell Vaalbara. All their hard work is paying off.
Even though Vaalbara is growing, Emily wants their bags to have a purpose. The fabric is vintage, collected from Asia and South America, the leather is up-cycled, and the lining of the bags is a fabric made from recycled plastic bottles.
Also, a portion of the proceeds of Vaalbara products goes to the non-profit Surfrider which is an international organization working to keep our oceans and beaches clean. It started in California, and Emily was introduced to it when she was working at the surf company.
New this Fall is the Vaalbara jewelry line which is made of recycled brass. This is something Emily is really excited about. She loves making jewelry, and is excited for the possibilities.
Also, Vaalbara is now doing all leather bags. There’s a lot of fringe and calf hair, and more use of black leather. Though still Vaalbara through and through, this season really expands their look.
Soon to come too are baby moccasians, men’s wallets, key chains and more. It’s important to Emily that all the fabric and leather is used and not wasted. So, they’re coming up with creative, brand-growing ways to do this. Clever!
For Emily, she is still surprised at the success of the company. It’s her baby and she’s busted her hump to get it to where it is today with her husband. And it’s continuing to grow because of their dedication and passion and because they love what they’re doing.
When I met with Emily, she was busy cutting leather and working on bags. It was a really busy summer for Vaalbara bags with the stores and a rocking season at the Chilmark Flea Market.
What does she love most about Vaalbara? Of course her bags, she has quite a collection herself, but what she really enjoys is seeing complete strangers carrying her bags, wearing them so well.
Her designs translate to different age groups, different types of people, old and young. It’s very humbling.
I love that here’s this amazing woman with a remarkable company and she’s so down to earth about it. For her it’s the creativity, the challenge and the product — with a little fun of course — and because of that, she is an inspiration.
She took and idea and with a little help turned it into a dream. Yes, Ellen is wearing a Vaalbara bag!
Emily and her husband would someday soon like to make the Vineyard their full-time home, with a little travel to Venice, California where Vaalbara bags are made.
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