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How Jill Milan Got Hollywood in its Clutches

Dozens of stars are carrying this Bay Area vegan line on the red carpet.

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If you can't find it, then you just have to make it yourself. That's the mentality behind Jill Fraser's decision to create her handbag and accessories brand, Jill Milan. As a long-time vegan, Jill found it difficult to find animal-free bags to carry to work. So the former luxury marketing executive partnered with co-founder Milan Lazich to manufacture a completely vegan handbag collection.

The process started in 2009 with hiring designers, developing prototypes and samples, and finding factories in Italy. Though the company is headquartered in Redwood Shores (south of San Francisco) and the design process begins in Silicon Valley, everything is actually made in Italy—either in the Lake Como, Florence, or Alba regions. "I'm the creative director with designers working under me," Jill explains. "A lot of what [Milan and I] do is put together the right people—and supervise the production."

The first Jill Milan collection launched in 2011. The brand's business model is focused on online sales with the occasional pop-up store. It's a decision that allows the company to control prices and inventory by selling directly to buyers. "The Westfield pop-up was good for brand awareness," Jill says of the temporary store at Westfield San Francisco Centre in Union Square during the summer of 2013. "It was good for customers to see the product and great for us to see customers face to face."

Perhaps the more obvious reason for the brand's growth is the famous arms on which the bags hang. The Jill Milan clutch is a mainstay on the Hollywood red carpet, but its rise in popularity was accidental. Eva Longoria started the trend, carrying the Pacific Heights clutch ($1,300) to a W Magazine party for women in film. Suddenly, other starlets—including Jennifer Lawrence, Anne Hathaway, and Kerry Washington—were seen with one style or another at premieres and on the awards circuit.

The seemingly ubiquitous clutches are hand made in Florence, separate from all other Jill Milan bags. Jill then taps a contact in LA who works directly with stylists and celebrities to distribute the clutches, in hopes that they'll later appear in media coverage. As fun as it is to see the product of her hard work celebrated, Jill also notices a direct correlation between red carpet appearances and sales, (although it can take some time to establish the connection). For example, there was a spike in 450 Sutter clutch ($1,750) sales after Anne Hathaway carried it to a few events, including the Les Misérables London premiere. Despite the celebrity following, the majority of Jill Milan business is local. "Most of our clutches are bought by people in the San Francisco area," Jill reveals. "And I think it's because we have so many black tie events."

Despite the celebrity following, the majority of Jill Milan business is local.

While the company gained notoriety for dainty clutches, Jill Milan's best seller is the SoMa Punching Bag ($500). Similar to the clutches, the SoMa comes in metallic color options suitable for day or night. Around the brand's office, employees favor the Newbury Street Portfolio ($400), a bag featuring interior pockets for a tablet and a smartphone. (It's the vegan work option that inspired Jill to launch her brand over five years ago.) "Our day bag customers do tend to be vegan, while our evening bag customers are generally not," Jill notes. "[The latter tends to] wear them for the dress."

Managing a growing brand isn't without its challenges—the biggest of which are from business issues like cash flow, inventory, and management. Developing product can also prove tricky due to fashion's fickle nature. That said, Jill is quick to point out the most rewarding aspect is realizing and knowing the customer's love for a particular bag. It's a point of pride that not a single bucket bag has ever been returned. In 2015, Jill plans to keep the momentum building with new styles and collaborations.

It's fitting, really, that the next big red carpet accessories are from a quintessential California brand. Influenced by the state's beauty, colors, and vibrancy, Jill Milan is that West Coast mix of cool and classic with a twist. Best of all, the bags are the true meaning of "vegan's delight"; they're suitable for herbivores and coveted by carnivores. Try one on for size; at the very least, carrying a Jill Milan will mean you're a bag sister with an Oscar-winning actress.