Photo by Alphabet Bags
Lucas and Hayley Lepola were a year into their relationship at university when they launched their first online business, created out of a simple desire to explore a shared interest in typography. Now, ten years and two kids later, the United Kingdom-based couple are co-owners of Alphabet Bags, a cheerful clothing and accessories line known for cheeky, eye-catching messages emblazoned on everything from makeup bags to baby onesies to totes and tees. “A common theme for our aesthetic is that everything is simple, straightforward, and functional—but also bold and with a sense of humor,” Lucas says. “We’re conscious of what works and what we enjoy designing.”
After their daughter June was born, Lucas and Hayley brought on Hayley’s sister Amy as a full-time colleague. “It happened so naturally. Everyone does a bit of everything in terms of coming up with ideas and finished products,” explains Hayley. “We all have a say in how we want things to look.” While everyone pitches design ideas and wears many hats, Lucas tends to take the lead on design, but is quick to credit his wife and sister-in-law for their expert input.
Together, the team has expanded from their initial line of tote bags to offer a wide assortment screen printed and embroidered pieces that make ideal giftables for wedding parties, new parents, or anyone who needs a little pick-me-up. “It comes back to thinking about what we would like to give someone ourselves,” Lucas says. “That leads to new designs.” Adds Hayley: “We want to make things that cheer people up and put a smile on their faces.”
How did the original idea for Alphabet Bags come about?
Lucas: We launched our first website in 2007, about a year before we started Alphabet Bags. We sold prints, posters, and some of our own work there. But we both had an interest in designing some accessories.
Hayley: I remember Lucas came into the bedroom and said, “Hey, why don’t we do some totes with letters on them?”
Lucas: We didn’t have a grand plan to create the Alphabet Bags brand. At the time, it was just an idea for some bags!
Do you remember the first item that you listed?
L: It was our natural cotton initial tote. We went straight in and made 50 of each letter of the alphabet before we knew if anyone would want them.
H: We thought, if all else fails, we’ll have bags for life! When we started out, there wasn’t much in the way of personalized totes and slogans on bags being offered. We liked the idea of sharing bold slogans that say a little bit about you, and make a bit of a statement.
What inspires the positive messages that makes the Alphabet Bags line so recognizable?
L: Everything we design is something we’d like to use or give to someone we know. Our wedding collection came about around the time when we got married ourselves. When we had our daughter, we designed more pouches and items following the parenting theme. All our products tend to correspond with a time in our life when we’re experiencing something new.
How does the quality of the totes themselves come into play?
L: It’s really important for us to make items that last. We like to think that when people shop with us once, they know they’re going to get an item that will stand the test of time and be durable. We could have just chosen one of countless suppliers of totes that were readily available, but from day one, we decided to use a sturdier, softer, and thicker cotton canvas.
H: We have had customers say that they bought bags from us years ago that are still going strong! That means a lot to us.
Your products center around the theme of positivity and friendly encouragement. How have your customers responded to this?
H: We’re always thinking of new things that are complementary or motivational or make people feel good. And we often have people leave nice notes in our orders saying they bought something for a friend who’s going through a hard time.
Personally, I love our “You’ve got this” pouch. As a working mother trying to run a business and look after two young children, it’s difficult. You often feel like you’re failing at everything you’re doing. But when I’m packing orders and I look down and see that phrase, I’m like, yeah, maybe I do have this!
Did either of you ever dream of having a family business?
L: After our bags started seeing some success, we were a bit more open to the idea that this was something we could be doing for a longer time. But we never really thought that ten years later, Alphabet Bags would be where it is today. It’s very much self-taught. We make everything up as we go along, and keep it true to who we are.
What do you love most about what you do?
H: Bringing an idea to life and seeing things we’ve designed from scratch being used by people all over the world. Through Etsy, we’ve connected with so many new customers in the United States. A few times, we’ve been over to New York or Palm Springs and seen people walking around with our bags—we geekily stood and pointed. It’s exciting to see people using our things out in the wild.
L: It’s lovely to develop something from a sketch or an idea into a product that someone astonishes us by actually purchasing. And then, seeing it being used is great.
What’s your go-to item for holiday gift giving?
H: We created our pouches because we’d look around in shops and there wouldn’t be anything affordable that was also nice and well designed. Now they’re one of our best selling products, and we have a whole range of different sizes and designs. I’ve got a lot of friends who are having babies, and I tend to give them one of our extra large pouches, like the “You look lovely today Mum.” I like to fill them with little essentials like teething jewelry, lip balm, baby clothes, all sorts of things they might need.
So, what’s next for Alphabet Bags?
L: Right now, most of our designs are screen printed, but we’re thinking that next year we want to do more embroidery, and create items that are more tactile. We’ll also be reworking the wedding and bridal party collections before spring. Sometimes things come about fairly quickly—we have an idea, and a couple weeks later it’s a finished product.
Photos courtesy of Alphabet Bags, unless otherwise noted.
Sharon Steel is a writer and editor living in New York City. Her heroes are Jane Austen, Carson McCullers, Lindsay Weir, Shirley Jackson, Lillian Ross, and the renegade crew of the spaceship Serenity. Read more of her work at sharoncsteel.com.