JAMAH: How One Nancy Gale Built a Luxury Design House in America.
Nancy Gale is an inspiring individual with a fascinating story of overcoming hardship and creating something beautiful out of the pieces. Not only is she a powerful force in the entrepreneurial world as a luxury handbag designer, she is also a passionate activist, advocate, mentor, teacher and skydiver. Her generous heart and outgoing personality radiate positivity that is spread to everyone she meets despite the challenges she has faced throughout her lifetime. It’s no wonder why she has such an impact on empowering others with the force of resiliency.
The word JAMAH, present in languages throughout the world, represents “comfort.” JAMAH’s brand principle ‘be who you are’ encompasses the authenticity of being comfortable in one’s own skin. Nancy’s vision embraces individuality with timeless, yet innovative designs that are inspired by people and the architecture of the world around us. She believes, “What is most important is to be who you are and embrace the beauty within. Personal style and comfort embody confidence and make the ultimate fashion statement whether you’re comfortably sleek, or sleekly comfortable.”
Founded in 2000, the core American values of JAMAH took root in Detroit where Nancy spent her youth. She witnessed first hand the benefits of manufacturing in the United States and the value of American craftsmanship. In a world where so many brands are utilizing mass production, luxury has lost its meaning. Nancy has sought to restore that meaning and exclusivity through made-to-order designs with an American identity. As a designer, she has created a true luxury brand of handcrafted, unique handbags, men’s bags and accessories that have become the top pick of some of Hollywood’s most well known celebrities including Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Jessica Alba, Eva Longoria and Channing Tatum.
In 2014 she was chosen to design customized bags for a 1st American family and also had the honor of personally presenting them to Bill Clinton. The ‘Clinton Collection’ debuted at the Ritz Carlton in Laguna Nigel, California. For Nancy, this event was truly a symbol of the brand’s emergence as a preeminent American Luxury Design House and of herself as a leader in the emerging trend of exclusive yet accessible authorities.
Nancy not only sought to create a brand that values the individual, but also one that connects cause and commerce so intrinsically that one cannot exist without the other. In 2010, she developed AMBITION, her non-profit entrepreneurial program for underprivileged youth. The program fosters innovative thinking, confidence and a positive work ethic through collaborative hands-on participation, real-world business experience and powerful, consistent connections with mentors and speakers. The students are instilled with Nancy’s mindset that nothing is impossible. With no capital, the program was funded by dedication and determination. A visit with Richard Branson paved the way for an impressive roster of entrepreneurs and business owners to proudly take advantage of the opportunity to serve as mentors. Nancy’s commitment to a conscious brand propelled her mission to give and inspired her strong philosophy to root cause in JAMAH’s culture.
Nancy’s path to commerce and cause, which she refers to as “CapCon” -- capitalism with consciousness, coupled with her resolve to overcome her personal tragedies has resulted in invitations to speak at a number of events to inspire teens, adults and entrepreneurs. She speaks freely about the tragic events and unbelievable struggles she has faced and how they have shaped who she is as well as her business. A victim of rape and a witness to the aftermath of the brutal murder of her mother, her story of resiliency is a powerful force in inspiring others to keep pushing forward. Nancy’s speaking engagements at universities and organizations allow her to impart her experience to inspire and motivate the entrepreneurs of today and tomorrow.
Representing the pinnacle of resilience and self-empowerment, Nancy abides by the declaration, “I am not who I am because of what I have. I have what I have because of who I am.”
Bio sourced from Jamah.com
Alan: Nancy can you tell us a little about your back ground?
Nancy: I was actually in LA until I was about six years old and then we moved to Michigan so I spent my formative years in Michigan during times of economic prosperity during the auto boom and ultimately sort of circuitously found my way back to LA and that's where I reside and started my company and my nonprofit.
Alan: How did starting your own company come about?
Nancy: I would say beyond dreams of having my own company, I didn't know I would ever do anything any differently, I always knew I'd be running my own show and I always knew it would be something that if I put into words before I did it people would say, 'are you crazy, you can't do that, that's impossible' and I was right that's what has happened the entire journey. But I actually veered off my path for a while, I was very creative my whole life, loved fashion my whole life, and then one day for so many reasons now looking back that are so obvious, I decided I would be a technical writer, which there's nothing about me that that resonates with, but I was good at it and I felt it would make people take me seriously. Because I'm I laugh a lot I smile all the time, I was really creative, really interested in fashion and I started noticing that every time I would have a conversation with anybody, when we got to about the two-minute mark people would say, wow you're so intelligent, you're so articulate and so what it told me was the world didn't see me that way. So to make the world see me that way, I would do something very serious and I became a technical writer and I worked with Transamerica, Bank of America, Ernst & Young and that would make me a person that people would take seriously and I realized one day through a really interesting conversation with my folks, that that's not who I was and that I'm not living to my living about my dreams, I'm not living my passion and for someone who is such a passionate person I found ways to get around that. I became a really serious skydiver and I built sort of components in my life that I felt really impassioned about not realizing I was doing that to fill this void. And so one day actually I'm going to come was on the phone with my folks oh they were in Michigan and I said with technical writing I'm bored to tears, I just can't do this anymore and they said, 'well you're a creative you've always been a creative' and then two days later the FedEx comes to my door with a box and I open the box- and this is in the early 90's- I open the box and there's a Power Book 3400, I think it was one of the very first Apple portable computers. And I open it up and there's a sticky note and it says you're a creative now start acting like one, love mom and dad. And the light just went on they said, we don't care what it is you're doing but we wanted to get you the most creative thing to help you take a step forward. The funniest part of that about that was the idea of my mom and dad at the computer store trying to get their daughter a laptop so that was really the end of my technical writing career. I knew somebody who did gifting in the entertainment industry and I worked with her and that eventually turned into starting JAMAH.
Alan: So now you have this concept of JAMAH, it's never easy starting or getting your first client right, walk me through how you did it.
Nancy: Since I had been I had been working with this gal and we were working with a lot of entertainment clients, we were all ready for another company doing their high-end gifting. So we came in and said well what if we come in and take that over and take it to a whole new level. We started doing women's pieces and we did custom fitting and we also did very hidden logos because typically our client would be studios or producers wanting to buy gifts for their talent and their crew. So we said well they want to if you want them to continue wearing these gifts if they're really gifts to thank them, then maybe we don't want the logo splattered all over we want to do something more subtle more fashion-forward and so we opened our doors on January 20th at 9:00 a.m. and by 9:20 had our first order for 1400 fleeces actually for a Ron Howard movie. So there's an up and a downside to this. We had order after order at every show from at the time like the Rosie O'Donnell show was huge we did those gifts we did Will and Grace we did I mean- every show that came on we worked with NBC and with Paramount and people would say gosh you're so successful you've really got this, the truth is we were right place right time and producers at the time love to buy these elaborate gifts. So the downside of that is you're never scrappy which now running my business I realized is the most important component. Because we the answer to everything is well we can pay a lawyer we can pay a bookkeeper we can pay a CPA we can pay everybody we need we can pay and then the market changed and suddenly reality TV took over the airwaves and they wanted down-and-dirty budgets and they weren't buying gifts like this and I realized this is not actually my passion again but I kept spending time in factories because the difference between us and a lot of the gifting companies were typically they'd find a gift in a catalog overseas and they just in order to hundred sweatshirts and we started doing a lot in leather a lot of leather bags and I wanted to produce everything at the time in Canada as I got my feet wet in this business and eventually I realized gosh every time I'm in the leather factory, I just I loved this and because we worked with a lot of celebrity I felt like I had a lot of ties to this to see how people respond too much to what I do and so I became fascinated with designing bags because I thought this is so interesting, a bag rights totally utilitarian, everybody needs to put stuff in something but if you can actually take that bag and make it really personalized, almost a work of art that really changes the look of your outfit if you can either take a bag and throw it over your shoulder or you can take a bag that's really beautiful and suddenly you don't just start over your shoulder you rise up to it and yet so it's a fashion item it's utilitarian and that really resonated with me so I became really interested in making bags and at that point, my business partner and I realized it was time to separate. Her strength was definitely in the gifting arena that became absolutely of no interest to me and because the business has changed so much it wasn't bringing in the the returns that we were looking for. So then the market changed and of course 2008 came and I watched all these handbag designers go out of business and I would say at the time I was mainstream luxury, the bags were six seven hundred dollars, they were similar at the time to Coach and Kate Spade and at that level. What I realized when the market changed was,I can either go down to the $20 bag and produce that in China or what's the other option, and being a Detroit girl who grew up in economic prosperity and saw the great designers and the great craftsmanship of the United States I thought that, resonates with me and then I started to realize wow there's really a gap in the market there's not a true American luxury design house and that's not to say that people don't design here but you never hear that yeah and I started thinking this is so fascinating if you do what I do in Europe you hear the most gorgeous vocabulary craftsmanship, couture, atelier and if you do the exact same thing here you hear manufacturing, production and factory- absolutely not sexy, not beautiful not inviting, but do the same thing. And a gentleman on a sewing machine here who's been sitting in that seat for 35 years, he deserves the words, craftsmanship, couture, atelier. So I thought, that's the gap, right that's the space that's not being filled, someone's going to do it, may as well be me I've been around now for 20 years and then the great thing is Tesla became popular. So suddenly there's an association right between American design and beauty so that became the course I wanted to chart and it is challenging, devastating at times, people think you know the response I get and especially receive when I began was you're crazy, there'll never be another design house in general, certainly not an American design house, and certainly not from an unknown, but I kept thinking well that one time Coco Chanel was unknown she was on her knees hemming skirts and although we don't realize that now it was 25 years before anybody knew who she was, and why not? Of course they're going to be new companies and new houses and then the real irony is that all the European design houses which I grew up coveting they all produce in China now.
Alan: I'm visiting here today with Nancy Gale, she is the founder of JAMAH and when we come back I want to talk about the significance of the name of your company and how this came about we'll be right back after these messages.
Welcome back and visiting here today with Nancy gale she's the founder and CEO of JAMAH and Nancy when individuals set out to do a company often one of the biggest stumbling blocks is, what do I want to call it, what's the name? JAMAH is a very unique name, can you tell me the story behind it?
Nancy: When I was heading in this direction I thought, luxury, American design house- now I had named it earlier, but always had big visions. And the truth be known right if my last name was Balenciaga perhaps I would have used that. And Nancy Gayle is a great mainstream media name and I feel it's been perfect for my nonprofit, but for the handbag brand I wanted something different, I wanted something that made people ask what it meant and I wanted something that eventually we would build to where I can then put Nancy Gayle for JAMAH on that, because I didn't want to use a Nancy Gale name until I really felt ready to be in that league and the goal which is coming up in the year and a half is that Nancy Gayle for JAMAH will have really earned its way because I want to produce that line in January of 2020 on our 20th anniversary. So but finding the name JAMAH, I was just reading everything I could get my hands on. In fact I my ex-boyfriend I went on a little ski trip and he picked up one of the bags and he said this is so heavy what's in here? And I said oh it's books because I was looking for the name for my company. I was looking through origin of words and I kept coming upon it and I was so drawn to it and I thought that just sounds so pretty and I could see the J also sort of becoming this insignia. Once I chose it I discovered so many different meanings for it. In Africa there's a park called JAMAH Park and it represents freedom. In Arabic it means together and I've since discovered that in Buddhism in Swahili it's a sound that represents "to be" and our motto is be who you are and the root-so pajamah comes from "pih" is rooted in Persian for night and JAMAH and Hindi for clothing for comfort clothing and the most important sort of what JAMAH is rooted on is that you really can find that luxurious space only when you are truly comfortable.
Alan: So when the name was put in place you already had a vision of you know the designer bags by Nancy Gail paJAMAH by Nancy Gayle moving forward though being in a specialty handbags these are not something that you're your mass-producing they're using individuals so tell me about your first customer how that came about.
Nancy: I was at a back stage Academy Awards show and someone put me in touch with Desperate Housewives, which was huge at the time and he brought them my bags and they all wanted them and I thought, wow. This won't do anything for the brand but it did so much for my confidence to realize these gals right now can have anything and they want JAMAH so my first big wow- this could really sets up our path is- I went to do a gig sort of in between the gifting and the customized pieces for Clint Eastwood- I went torn her brothers and he and his wife at the time we're doing Christmas gifts and so someone called us in and what we would work with his assistant, but one of the gentlemen said when you come, bring your other bag the girls want to see a showing of your handbags. So I said okay, so I bring the bags and someone comes around and says, this gal Holly needs to see them to take them to Angie, I don't know who any of these people are and so Holly comes back and she takes the bags and she said I'm going to go show them now to miss Jolie if you couldn't hang on. I I thought, oh Angie- Angelina. So they come back and said, she'd like to buy nine bags and she picks up tonight. However she recognized one that Brad already has, so Brad had one from a movie and then he wore it so much that we got a call that Channing Tatum wanted the bag that Brad Pitt had. And so that was the sort of segway for us where people connected us with something that mattered because again these are people that can wear bags from any label that they like and suddenly they're being seen in JAMAH.
Alan: If someone wants to get one of your bags how do they go about finding it?
Nancy: Our website is JAMAH.com. We keep very small inventory because we've discovered certain combinations of certain styles your have become really popular, but everything we do is basically made-to-order and our turn is quick because we remain in the USA and the great thing is, you might part of the same bag as somebody else but yours is being made for you. So on our website you can select your leather color your hardware finish and we also do personal inscriptions so you could write a love letter to your wife when we would emboss that leather and so that inside so that one day write your granddaughter might have this bag and now there's really a story behind it. So basically our orders come in, again working locally we produce just on demand. Aside from the small inventory that we keep but we are scaled for volume so we can also do very reasonable turns on very large orders. We primarily do Italian lambskin and then we do exotics from wherever they're most popular. We do all buy product though, so we don't do any kill for product.
Alan: So getting the leather in, do you notice that with the demand of what's happening in the world today it's a little tougher?
Nancy: I work with a really amazing leather company in LA that handles all of that and they've been doing this for so long and I have a great personal relationship with them so I feel like it's first hand. I've actually visited the tannery in Florence, but we're not experiencing any shift now in demand. When I started this no one cared about made in the USA then people acted like they cared and now actually do.
Alan: How long does it take to get a handbag after the order?
Nancy: We tell people for our lambskin bags two to six weeks again unless you order one of our very few stocked inventory and then for exotics it could be three months by the time we go through the whole process and I've done custom pieces as well which could be two to four months.
Alan: Do you take international orders?
Nancy: Yes, we get a lot of international orders
Alan: How do you reach your clients to your customers in terms of helping the women to establish an identity with the bag that they carry?
Nancy: The uphill and constant battle for me is my client carries Chanel they carry HERMÈS they have the Birkin, and how do we bring them from that space to where we respect all of those brands and give them an understanding of who we are and so I always want the our customer to feel like that are really connected to the brand, that they're part of it. And so that's why you're able to select sort of some extra-special pieces with our bags, you can again select your color, you can select your hardware finish, you can have it personalized, you can say I need my strap longer or shorter, you can make special requests as so long as they fall within the vision of the brand, we will accommodate and so the biggest part of the process for us is how do we get the women that say well I will only feel properly represented if I'm wearing the big name brand. We're getting there, we are really appealing to the people who love to be on the cusp who say I have all the designer big names but I what we're getting hearing a lot right now is the woman who says I get to a street corner and every woman has the same brand or even the same style within that brand, but how do I get something different that isn't scary because often different means runway and that doesn't work either. So what we're sort of becoming known for being kind of that little engine that found a way to do different without scaring people. So and then so the process is you make that selection, at our factory- everything in which is in LA- everything is hand cut and we do a lot of hand stitching of course a lot of machine stitching with sewers that I always say if you watched our sewers it looks like someone who's just doing a beautiful dance and I love that. In fact when I was sort of cementing everything with my factory, I had seen right before this factory I had seen another factory that I was interested in, they do gorgeous work and it was beautiful aesthetically, you felt like you were walking into this showplace and I kept thinking I really though I need to connect with the sewers and they didn't allow me to see the sewers- you can't go to the back room- so then I moved on. Someone recommended the next place that I went to see and they invited me in and I just watched the sewers who all had relationships with each other, there was so much love and laughter. The second lunch was over, they were right back to their work but there was just beauty and I realized, that's what JAMAH is, the beauty's on the inside it's not about these aesthetics, granted with the bags the aesthetic on the outside becomes super important, but it was really fascinating for me to feel. I want every part of my brand to bring a feeling so when the customer our bag- and that's why the personalized messages inside if someone opts for that- is that every bit of experience you have with our bag becomes part of you and I always say the bag JAMAH is really for when you have arrived and the right person they know when that is.
Alan: Do a lot of your bags blend different leathers together?
Nancy: Yes, the gentleman I work with who I get my exotics through says, we love that you mix exotics. Nobody mixes exotics. So that's become like our little something.
Alan: What are some of the other exotics that you use?
Nancy: We mostly do alligator, crocodile, eel and ostrich. I'm starting to work with some sanded stingray which I'm getting very interested in, the problem with stingray is the hand is really rough, so we've found a gorgeous stingray emboss, but for actual stingray I'm we're going to see how the sanded skin works. In about three months we're going to announce another exotic that is actually Peta friendly but I can't tell you anything about it.
Alan: How many people actually put personalized messages within the bags?
Nancy: It's becoming more common. I had a customer whose wife was going through this brutal chemo and every time she'd have a treatment he'd take a little yellow sticky and he'd write Annie, I love you to the moon and back- Randy. And he'd put that on her tray and when she recovered and was starting to go out again and wanted to really take care of how she looked and she wanted a JAMAH bag. So he bought her a JAMAH bag and we embossed Annie, I love you to the moon and back- Randy, and sewed it inside the bag. Whenever I tell that story the next person typically once the personalization. Part of this whole reopening that were doing we're telling a lot more of that story so I see it as something and also as people are understanding what our brand is about we're giving many more inquiries so I think right now it's probably 20%, I think that's going to shift to probably 60%.
Alan: I want to pivot for just a few minutes in this closing segment and talk about the nonprofit that you've set up Ambition.
Nancy: So Ambition I always say is my heartbeat. I realized having a brand of this caliber, I wanted some balance, not just for me but for my customers. And I didn't want to just find a cause and say well donate a you know part of the proceeds, I want something where one hour customers are investing in our brand they're investing in us helping sort of move the needle forward in an outward direction. I grew up with sort of the ideal dinner table as far as mentorship and access an opportunity and of course as I was going through the world I realized that's the only difference between my life and someone else's who didn't have that access and exposure. So I realized I want to bring my dinner table to kids that don't have what I did and for me that was mentors and opportunity and entrepreneurship in the in the sense of learning solution driven thinking because I thought that's something that no matter what one decides to do whether they are an entrepreneur or what they do or don't start a business, solution driven thinking is sort of the baseline for everything. So I thought that's the perfect balance for my brand plus I can expose these students underprivileged students because in a nutshell what we are is an entrepreneurial program for underprivileged youth. So I can also expose my students to another world, if they choose that they're interested in that we want them to know they have access. If they choose that that's not for them they still need to know they have access. So I started Ambition February 22, 2010. We've worked with a very large number of amazing youth and I feel that it brings JAMAH full circle because it's me, my roots, were made in the USA and doing something really big really ambitious with the brand, then we started Ambition and Ambition again brings me back to my roots my table having this access. It's growing and many other components are coming out of Ambition and one of them that I'm particularly proud of is called Celine's ladder. It's teen talk on major issues teen talk by teens only. Adults are not allowed to speak unless spoken to and our first topic for the first year, we're bringing kids together from great wealth to really all spectrums of socio-economic race religion and we bring teens together to talk about white privilege and racism as they see it. So we're in a really exciting place with Ambition. I always say I wanted my cause and commerce to be so intrinsically connected that one couldn't function without the other because if I don't put JAMAH on the line for Ambition, the Ambition kids will never ever have what they really need and vice versa.
Nancy: How does a person find out more information on Ambition? Ambition.org. It's geared towards high school juniors and seniors in high school, that's my sweet spot. I love teenagers which is always fascinating to everybody.
Edited for Concision and clarity