#MANday: Belizean-American Designer Jonathan Justin Smith of Jonathan Justin Handbags Chats Working With Janice Dickinson, & Following Your Dreams

Jonathan Justin posed with Janice Dickinson. Bags L- R: Aaron Clutch, Ricardo Duffel, Elinna Togo Satchel

Here at A Life In The Day of Andrea, I have made it a constant mission of mine to showcase and uplift people, entrepreneurs, and businesses that I care deeply about, or believe are doing innovative work. As a lover of all things beautiful and handmade, I am drawn to great design of all sorts and types. Having worked in the handbag industry for many years, I realized that what excited me the most about the process was not only the end product, but the story behind the designer and what bright idea led to the beautiful bag you carry each day.

For this feature, I interview an emerging handbag designer out of Los Angeles named Jonathan Justin Smith of Jonathan Justin Handbags. A fellow Belizean-American and lost cousin (truly, not for fake), I believed it was imperative for him to tell his story in his own words via my platform. Read on below!


What inspired you to design handbags, and when did you know that you wanted to pursue it full-time?

Well to start off, I was about 18 or 19 years old, I always looked up to two people, Princess Diana and Audrey Hepburn. There is a certain class about both ladies that’s timeless. I used to work in the handbag industry as a sales representative, my first job was at TUMI Designer Luggage. I was going to Santa Monica College studying Business Administration, and I knew that I wanted to start my own business, but I just didn’t know what I wanted to do. Working for TUMI Designer Luggage I never cared to have a bag. I’m a luxury guy, I like nice things, but I would never look to handbags for anything. While there I  grew an interest for handbags, and what TUMI taught me is functionality, and that’s what I loved about them. Every piece of theirs is so dynamic in functionality; women have a place just for their watch in their handbags, and I really enjoyed that idea and the quality was out of this world.

After that I worked for Coach Leatherwear. Coach taught me about leather and the quality of it too; I think Coach is known for their leathers. So it was like, let me just take what I learned from these companies I worked for and make a sample. I had my first sample made, the JJ Blue, and it was pretty high-end; Saffiano blue leather outside with this red interior, it was really nice, and I didn’t think it would go anywhere. I thought I was in over my head a little bit because of the concept the there is a Hermes, and there is a Prada, you’re not the first to come out, and it is obviously daunting, but I guess God puts things in the right place at the right time. I had a friend that was a fashionista in the Pasadena area that is known for her style. I told her about the bag and she was like, ok let me see it. So I showed it to her and she was like, “Get the out of here, this (bag) is pretty dope!” She decided to take it and wear it for a week, and now I’m here. With Princess Diana and Audrey Hepburn in mind, it definitely inspired my go-getter attitude at the time and my fearlessness, and also in my design, that luminous aspect I was talking about recently.

Elinna Togo Satchel & Elinna Togo Wallet

What is the inspiration behind your bags, and why they have the names that they do?

I never just look at Louis Vuitton like “Oh that nice bag, let me copy that and make it Jonathan Justin”, that’s never the case. I always seem to have somebody in my life at that time that’s like, “Omg I love your handbags! What do you think of doing an orange (lining) in a handbag?” I am usually that person that says ‘let’s do it!’ if I am feeling it. So Aaron, for example, he is one of my good friends and was my artistic director for some of my shoots, he was like, “what do you think of some orange in a bag?” and I’m like, ok, cool, and made it. It’s a blue clutch with orange (lining) on the inside and it’s named the Aaron Clutch. It’s awesome when it has a name or meaning like that because I can go back and think, “yea that’s the guy that told me to put orange in there.” He helped make that and I feel good about it.

Jonathan Justin with Janice Dickinson and the Ricardo Duffel

Tell me about your shoots and how you cast for your campaigns, from your earliest shoot with singer Sabi, to your current print campaign with legendary supermodel, Janice Dickinson.

Casting in general is somewhat organic. I look for these people within my own contacts. I look at their portfolio and see if it is the same outlook I am going for. There’s a bunch of photographers in the world, but it doesn’t matter. Everyone takes a picture a different way and everyone edits differently. It was important to find someone that is high-end that gets the concept of Prada; Prada is my main inspiration as well, and has that height to it, it’s not mediocre. And that’s why I often get mistaken for this big company when I’m really just in my little office downstairs, shipping away handbags.

For some reason, God always puts things in my life. For example, with Sabi. One day she was at the office and I was working on my first website with the JJ Blue design, only one bag. She said, “this is a pretty cool website, let me know if you need any models.” I looked her up, and Sabi is just awesome, she’s worked with Britney Spears and she is quite involved in the music industry, so it was awesome that this gem was right in front of me, and it only took me to be awakened by what God had put in front of me, so I acted upon it.

With the Janice Dickinson thing, it just happened. I was meant to meet Lisa Vanderpump one evening at her West Hollywood bar Pump, but she never showed. I was a bit bummed out about that, I had the whole box and bow ready to show her, but that was that. I literally was not about to stay at that bar, and low and behold Janice Dickinson was sitting right across from me. She had her whole entourage and I was really daunted by the prospect of approaching her. A friend of mine said to me “something tells me that you should go and talk to this lady.” I kind of had to get the nerves out because I deal with anxiety at times, so I go to the bathroom, freshen up and say to myself, “here goes nothing.” I go straight to her, introduce myself and tell her that I am not looking for a photo, but that I am a handbag designer.

She asks to see my visuals, and I show her and she was completely blown away. Honest to God, I am blown away because sometimes I can’t believe I did that. It’s nothing with ego, but when the Lord works through you, it’s kind of weird to see how he presents things out of it. I showed her the box and bow and she took all the products and we exchanged numbers. I called her the next day and she answered, and I was looking to propose to her that if there was any way that on a shoestring budget that she would be able to model for me. And for some reason in my heart, I already knew I was going to have a shoot with her so I already booked everything prior. So I called her and she said, “OMG hey, it’s you! I went to the Ave yesterday and everyone was asking who my bag was from. I love it! When are we shooting?’ It was definitely an experience. She came to my release party, it was awesome.

Ricardo Carry-On Duffel

In the Caribbean family, our elders often have specific guidelines to what success looks like. As a Belizean-American designer, how did your family respond when you told them you were pursuing fashion?

You know what’s funny, I never told them that I was going to do this. I’m a person who puts the work in and doesn’t tell anybody, because it can actually hurt you if you tell people off the bat; they can shun you away from your original idea. At my release party, then they (my family) found out. That’s when they knew that I wasn’t kidding from the beginning. But definitely in the Belizean family the mindset is to get an education, get a good job, find a woman that can cook good for you, get married, so you could bring some babies to the table. But I’m a little different.

What advice would you give to other young people that want to pursue fashion design?

Life is tough, and you know what? If you have an idea, it’s important that you go for it. Because the way I think about it, life isn’t really promised. You can be thinking up this idea, then the next week you’re gone, so GO for that idea. When I say life is tough, it is, because when you get submerged into it you’re not fully aware of every aspect about what you’re going to be doing. There is good and there is the bad, and when you submerge yourself into an idea, it’s kind of like a business, and in business, there is no formula for success. So you kinda gotta go with what’s on your mind. That wouldn’t be on your mind if it wasn’t supposed to be there. So go for it! There is no A + B = C. It’s going to be tough, and it’s going to be tougher as you go along, it really is, but it’s definitely worth it if you really love it.

It was a pleasure chatting with Jonathan Justin. Be sure to check out his site to shop for beautiful bags and small leather goods.

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*All photos courtesy of Jonathan Justin

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