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Clare Vivier's growing lifestyle brand can no longer fit in a tote

Clare Vivier opens her fourth store -- her largest yet -- this month, in the Melrose Avenue shopping district

Clare Vivier has turned her love of French chic and American prep — and a search for the perfect, non-corporate-looking work bag — into a made-in-L.A. success story.

Her collection launched eight years ago with a single vegetable-tanned leather tote called La Tropezienne, manufactured in Los Angeles. Buoyed by the early support of social media, it has grown to include small accessories, gifts, stationery and

French-phrase T-shirts. Available at 300 outlets worldwide, it is on the way to becoming an American lifestyle brand — maybe even the next Kate Spade.

"I have a lot of admiration for what Kate and Andy built," says Vivier, 44. "I also like what Vanessa Bruno did, starting with bags and then doing clothing."

This month, Vivier is scheduled to open her fourth Clare V. store, her biggest yet, in L.A.'s Melrose Avenue shopping district. She is also dipping her toes into shoe design.

Her minimalist yet warm designs — flat leather pouches with bold-stripe details or contrasting colored zippers, fold-over clutches, simple totes and duffels that can be monogrammed — have "inspired" similar styles at every price. The collection, with pieces priced mostly at less than $600, has helped define a new segment in the accessories market, paving the way for other similarly priced anti-'It' bag brands such as Mansur Gavriel and Building Block.

"It's affordable luxury," Andrea Bell, editor of retail and consumer research for global trend forecasting network WGSN, says of Vivier's brand. "It was also exclusive because it wasn't available everywhere, and it was hot in L.A., which drove appeal initially.... Going forward, she has to balance expansion with maintaining that authenticity and exclusivity."

An Instagram style star with more than 47,000 followers, Vivier has a penchant for posting photos of her travels in France; of her well-dressed son, Oscar, 11, at home in Silver Lake; and of cute shoes. She has collaborated on exclusive products with a number of high-profile brands, including Steven Alan, Apple, Target, Goop and H&M's & Other Stories, and her celebrity supporters are devoted. Model Karlie Kloss was recently photographed carrying the new white, winged Sadrine bag, and Rashida Jones has gushed about the brand in Glamour magazine. Her online fans and style bloggers routinely stop by her Atwater Village studio to visit and snap pics.

But now the designer is focusing on translating buzz into business growth. "We're moving into the thick of it," Vivier says of the new 1,100-square-foot-store on Croft Avenue. With stucco walls, patterned tiles and settees in the same leather as her bags, the space has a bright "Cali-Paris feel," says the designer.

The store will feature the new spring collection, inspired in part by Vivier's memories of playing tennis as a kid in St. Paul, Minn.

In Vivier's world, however, references are never too literal. She prefers to play with functional shapes, graphic stripes, patterns and fonts. So for spring, there's a navy clutch with an abstract green tennis net pattern, another with neon yellow dots, barely recognizable as tennis balls, and another emblazoned with the French phrase "Piscine Lecons de Natation" (swim school) taken from a hand-drawn sign the designer photographed in Paris.

For the opening, she's stocking her original La Tropizienne tote bag in bright navy, red and white; her first two sandal styles (both with "walkable" heels, she notes); and an expanded range of T-shirts and stationery with French phrases such as "Tous Va Bien" (all is well). Spring also heralds the arrival of her first backpack, the Agnes, which has large and small compartments.

Vivier's obsession with bags started in childhood with her father's Lands' End briefcase. "It was a canvas briefcase that zipped all the way around and had his initials on it, my first monogram experience," she says.

She grew up in a family of six kids; mom Patty Guerrero was a teacher, and dad Manuel Guerrero a lawyer who did pro bono work on behalf of Mexican American laborers in the Twin Cities, a cause that has inspired Vivier to keep her production local.

After graduating from the University of San Francisco, Vivier's first retail experience was opening a street-wear clothing store called Behind the Post Office in Haight-Ashbury. She moved to Paris (without knowing French) and began interning at a documentary film production company and waitressing on the side. She brought her admiration of French women and their chic to California in 2001, when she and husband Thierry Vivier, a journalist, moved to Los Angeles.

She launched a blog, where she would document her wardrobe, including thrift-store finds scored in Minnesota, and started to cultivate a reputation online and off for her style. "She was charting all her outfits, the way she would customize them," says L.A.-based home accessories designer Heather Taylor, who has known Vivier for eight years. "I remember she had these Yves Saint Laurent boots, and she did this post about taking a pair of scissors and cutting them. She would just grab her scissors and make something her own and so much more interesting."

While working as a prop stylist and commercial production coordinator in L.A., Vivier made a bag out of necessity because all of the work bags were black nylon and looked "corporate-y." When friends began admiring the bag, she began to think bigger.

Vivier announced her first product on her blog in 2007. "I've got your summer tote," the headline read. It was La Tropezienne.

"I really studied other bag lines and tried to figure out what made them successful…. One of the bags I really liked was the L.L. Bean boat tote," she says. "The boat tote is a classic, with two straps sewn down on the front. I put my own twist on it by not attaching the straps, and just making the illusion of strips of leather and also by using a gorgeous leather reminiscent of the south of France and St. Tropez that looked like it would age really beautifully."

The bag caught on among her Silver Lake friends, then in greater L.A., thanks to early posts on DailyCandy and a trunk show with the charity P.S. Arts.

She found her first factory in Burbank, a place that specialized in yachting bags. In those early days, she'd drive all day, sourcing leather and zippers downtown, and brass medallions at Koontz and other hardware stores, which she had engraved.

Vivier hired her first employee in 2010 and now has more than 40. One of her biggest breaks came when showroom operator and multi-label boutique owner Steven Alan bought her fledgling collection in 2008.

Not only did he start carrying the collection in his own stores, but he also sold it out of his New York wholesale showroom. Soon, Vivier's bags were being picked up by boutiques and department stores around the world.

Alan became a mentor, eventually investing in Vivier's brand.

"When I met with her, she came in with … three or four handbags," he remembers. "But immediately, I had a sense that she had a strong vision. It was authentic.... And now that it's growing, I can see that she really lives in the product world. The stationery she makes … when she wraps a purchase, she does a beautiful job down to the twine and bows. It's clear she pays tremendous attention to detail."

By 2012 Vivier was doing $2 million in sales and was completely self-funded, with no family money or credit. "I would just sell bags and put the money back into the company," she says. She needed funds — but also expertise — to grow.

Alan recommended that she contact Bedrock Manufacturing, which was started by Fossil founder Tom Kartsotis. The Dallas-based private equity firm had taken a minority stake in Alan's business and has since invested in high-profile Americana brands Shinola and Filson.

"I thought there could be good synergy there," Alan says.

The management at Bedrock agreed. "Her designs are clean and simple but with a color pop, a mix of materials and a playful edge," says Randy Kercho, president of Bedrock. "From a geographic perspective, every place we've opened a store, it's had a short ramp-up and has been successful. She could open another dozen stores quickly if she decided to do so."

Vivier opened her first store in 2012 on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Micheltorena Street in Silver Lake. Locations in New York and Santa Monica followed. Today, sales reach $10 million.

In 2012, she was sued by Tod's Group for copyright infringement of its Roger Vivier brand. She says she didn't have the money to fight so settled and re-branded, changing the company name from Clare Vivier to Clare V.

"I'm over the sadness of it," she says. "Luckily, the transition has gone smoothly, and Clare V. looks nice."

She's looking for more production facilities and considering launching new categories, including perfume and candles. She's also inching toward a higher price point, introducing her first bag in crocodile for spring.

What she's not doing is looking over her shoulder at other brands that might be "inspired" by hers.

"I just have to focus on my vision, figuring out ways to make my company appealing to people and make them want to buy our brand," she says. "How do I make my bags desirable? That's what I have to ask myself every day."

This story is part of the Los Angeles Times' Image Magazine spring fashion and travel issue.

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