Inspired: The Liza Hennessy Collection

Cynthia Paquette, Liza Hennessy’s founder and designer, named her entire line of handbags and fine leather goods after her great-grandmother Liza. The name, which evokes elegance, refinement, and classic glamour, could not be more perfect.

I spent a lovely day with Cynthia at her home and studio in coastal Maine, learning about this exquisite collection.

Equestrian Culture: What inspired the creation of Liza Hennessy?

Cynthia Paquette: Liza Hennessy Fine Leather Goods was inspired by a desire to create premium products in a medium I knew something about and to find a way to contribute to the conservation of open lands. I have always had a passion for a life lived out-of-doors. I have also been a designer of leather goods for many brands. While serving on the board of a coastal land trust, I took a walk and looked toward the water. I realized that if I created my own fine leather goods business, I could use the generated profits to support land preservation. My father suggested naming the business Liza Hennessy after my great-grandmother, with whom he spent many summers on the family farm in Newport.

When I was a designer for other brands, I was able to use inspired elements of design (raw materials, balance, proportion, design detail) but was never able to incorporate all the best elements at the same time due to corporate strategy or financial constraints.

In creating Liza Hennessy, I wanted to throw off the fetters and create the finest, most functional and elegant leather pieces that would endure over time. I wanted to create a superior product priced to reflect an honest value. I worked to develop a clean concept based on the classical principles of design: perfect proportion and balance, simplicity, grace, comfort and ease. I took the bit in my teeth, and ran with the best inspirations of functional design and elegance, using firm vegetable tanned leathers, soft buffed suede linings, surcingle straps, solid brass swivel clips and rings, silver keepers, and saddle-stitched seams.

The finished product was our Signature Saddle Leather Satchel, heralded as a “modern American classic” in a style editorial when we first launched. It remains at the core of our collection after 12 years.

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Cynthia Paquette at her home with her collection of Liza Hennessy Handbags and leather goods

EC: How has the equestrian sport influenced the design of the collections?

CP: Ever since I was first hoisted up onto a pony at the age of four, I have lived in the horse world. As a life-long equestrian, I have always loved the smell of good leather and the creaking sounds of easing into the saddle. Cleaning and oiling tack and keeping it in good repair were given imperatives for good looks, good performance, and safe leather keeping, which made for a natural path into the leather world. In addition to managing Liza Hennessy, I work at a wonderful riding school as an instructor and as a horse handler. It is unthinkable that my equestrian life would not influence my work on every level.

The curve of a knee roll on a saddle, perfect top-stitching on a brow band, rugged billet straps, solid brass rings and clips, hoof picks, oiled leather softening with use over time, the balance, power, grace, and efficient movement of the gaits — all these elements play a part in the vision of our designs, resulting in a finished product founded in, and reminiscent of, equestrian life.

EC: What do you love most about the line of handbags you have created?

CP: Their simplicity, quality, function, and comfort. The signature satchel is elegant, but also a pleasure to use because each detail was developed to create comfort and ease of use.

Some of the most expensive bags in the world don’t have comfortable straps, or an outside pocket, or the linings are dark and materials disappointing. Our products do not disappoint. I also love the fact that our handbags inspire such appreciation from our customers. It is gratifying to meet customers who love our products.

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The Liza Hennessy range includes classic leather handbags, French market-inspired totes, hoof-pick belts and more

EC: What makes Liza Hennessy unique?

CP: Liza Hennessy styles provide ‘a place for the eye to rest’. Simplicity and comfort are priorities. We use natural materials: leathers that are tanned with tree-bark extracts, clear finishes that show the true characteristics the hide, soft buffed suede, un-sheared calf hair with natural markings, and 100% cotton twill surcingle. We stand apart in a sea of extreme, synthetic styles that come and go with the seasons and remain short-lived and unsatisfying.

Our brand doesn’t appeal to the ego, it appeals to the senses and it delivers in full measure. Liza Hennessy is an authentic family-name brand of products that are made in the US, using authentic US factory-made materials, appealing to a discerning customer who is not a slave to fashion. Our signature satchel has been described a bag for the ‘thinking woman’.

EC: Describe your first year in business. What steps did you take to launch and market the Liza Hennessy brand?

CP: I first:

  1. 1. Conducted market analysis identifying competitors, their offerings, quality and price points.
  2. 2. Created (sketched and had made) the core styles of the LH assortment.
  3. 3. Contacted raw material suppliers and ordered leathers and components.
  4. 4. Identified an appropriate manufacturer to make samples. Samples were made.
  5. 5. Once manufacturing costs were available, I created the pricing structure and margins that would support the business.
  6. 6. Established retail pricing based on manufacturing costs and wholesale margins.
  7. 7. Wrote a brand positioning statement and mission.
  8. 8. Identified the nationally distributed publications that would best represent our brand and met with editors to show collection.
  9. 9. Identified and met with high end specialty retailers, and scheduled trunk shows.
  10. 10. Followed up with retailers to solicit orders.
  11. 11. Placed first production orders based on customer orders, and boom!
  12. 12. Liza Hennessy Saddle Leather Satchel was featured in Town & Country Magazine’s “Fashion and Style” section, my first choice for editorial coverage, and orders began to arrive!

EC: What is the most rewarding aspect of owning a business?

CP: Flexibility and freedom, and knowing that whatever success the business has, you are the master of how those profits are used, not someone else. Your hard work and talents are rewarded in direct proportion to the success of the business, not what an outside entity deems appropriate. Plus, success provides a means to support organizations that serve the common good.

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The large inspiration board was the first thing to catch my eye in Cynthia Paquette’s gorgeous home studio. This lovely working space is filled with beautiful objects that fuel creativity.

EC: What have your greatest challenges been?

CP: Consistent manufacturing quality. My partner in manufacturing, with whom I had worked since the beginning, closed his doors after 20+ years. His quality was superb. It has been very difficult to find a logical replacement here in the US.

Also, marketing and staying current on marketing trends has been a challenge. Having invested seasons as a vendor in the equestrian show world, we know the shows that seem to work, but over time, even the best shows may have diminishing returns. ‘Brick and mortar’ marketing is increasingly difficult to justify. The internet and social media are key to success in marketing any product or service today. It is still something of a mystery to me. I think I’ll need a young tech-savvy niece on board soon.

EC: What is one thing you most want customers to know about Liza Hennessy?

CP: We have a heart and a conscience. We care about what our customers want, invite their feedback and strive to enhance their daily experience by giving them a product that is pleasing to the eye and a pleasure to use. Also, we are committed to supporting two things: land conservation and scholarships for equine-assisted therapies at Carlisle Academy in Lyman, Maine. Our products are made in the US, and always have been. Sorry, that’s three things!

EC: Do you have any advice for young designers and entrepreneurs founding a new business?

CP: To quote a famous Maine transplant who has had uncommon commercial success, “Never, ever, ever give up.” I would add to that:

  1. 1. Let your heart be your guide; make sure your concept ‘rings true’, meeting your ‘personal best’ criteria. If it is aligned with your innate compass, when your course needs correction, you can adjust your direction confidently. Otherwise, you may lose your way.
  2. 2. Make the purpose of your business larger than yourself. It is easier to stay the course when the going get rough when you know you’re fighting for something outside yourself.
  3. 3. Choose partners carefully, and communicate with them as if your life depended on it. It does.
  4. 4. Identify the best possible marketing tools for our product or service, and let them loose at the outset to carve your niche and create the best possible position for your brand in the marketplace.
  5. 5. Make sure your business offers something current and unique. Understand your brand’s points of difference and market them. People always need better ways of doing things.
  6. 6. Be fearless. ‘Be bold, and powerful forces will come to your aid’ was my mantra when diving into the shark-infested waters of New York City’s fashion world. I survived.
  7. 7. Love what you are doing. Share. In the end, for me, it’s about creating joy.