In four months, Birmingham resident Sue Fuller founded the vegan handbag brand named after her dog, Oliver Thomas.
By Ri’An Jackson
Photography by Morgan Heinzmann
Oliver Thomas is both the name of an adorable 7-year-old Shih Tzu and a successful handbag business.
Birmingham resident Sue Fuller, who owns the pooch and the brand, wanted the startup to emulate the personalities of herself and her dog — casual and playful.
“When I was in the fashion industry … everything was becoming very serious,” says Fuller, 45. “It was all about having the perfect lifestyle … and I remember sitting in a meeting and I thought, ‘If I ever do a brand, I don’t want it to be intimidating. I want it to be very inclusive, (and) I want people to be able to look at it and smile every day.’ ”
Started last year, Oliver Thomas handbags, accessories and dog coats are now sold in 47 states in over 450 boutiques. Each product is waterproof, customizable, machine washable and made from vegan materials.
The puppy-loving brand was bred to relieve the burden of carrying several heavy bags at the same time. Fuller conceptualized the bags as she worked a string of corporate jobs with fashion brands like Ralph Lauren, Lands’ End, Carhartt and Vera Bradley.
“I would be on a plane about 60-70 percent of the time with my jobs,” she says. “And I was watching the way people live today, and I was noticing that because the fashion industry had not adapted to how people were living their lives today, people started carrying (multiple) heavy bags, particularly in the airport.”
She consulted the head of orthopedic surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital to confirm what she noticed was actually a medical issue — and it was.
“One of the things (he told me) was, ‘It’s not just about building a lightweight bag, it’s about building a lightweight bag for how people function today.’ ”
So, she did her research. She discovered that Americans are working out more, drinking more water, traveling more, and own more electronics — which all require space in their bags.
With the support of friends, family, colleagues and Oliver Thomas’ nanny, Fuller committed to starting a handbag line that provided just that. She created the line in roughly four months.
Oliver Thomas officially launched in January 2018. From backpacks to duffels — all with a signature quilted pattern — the brand provides practical, yet fashionable purses to customers who wish to give their shoulders and arms a break.
Leah Herod, a 24-year-old from Cleveland, says the Oliver Thomas bags are “the best to travel with.”
“I own four bags,” she says. “I purchased (them) because of how lightweight and comfortable they are.”
The bags are available online and in select independent stores and spas. “I really love when you can connect with the (store) owners, and they actually know you,” Fuller says. “It becomes like family.”
Zach Kay, co-owner of Found Objects in Birmingham, says he has been featuring the bags in the store since November 2018. “(The) bags are extremely popular,” he says. “Customers love that (it) is a local company.”
With her pooch as co-owner and quirky slogans like “Live fast. Pet dogs,” Oliver Thomas succeeds in defying the rules of fashion.
“I launched this business … to prove (that) you don’t have to have a bunch of money, you don’t have to go on ‘Shark Tank,’ ”Fuller says. “You can literally pull together your own friend group, a dream (and) a lot of hard hustle. Anyone can do this.”