Clare Vivier distinctly remembers the day she stumbled upon four $100 bills lying on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland in 2000. At the time, she was holding down a number of jobs to make ends meet, including working alongside her now-husband, journalist Thierry Vivier, to produce a news magazine about Silicon Valley for television in his native France. “Four hundred dollars was a ton of money to me,” she recalls.
But in her mind’s eye, Vivier had already been toying with the idea of launching a handbag line, prompted by her discovery of a hole in the market for stylish and versatile laptop cases for women, and her subsequent decision to craft her own.
“I took the money as a complete sign,” says Vivier. “I thought immediately, ‘I am buying a good sewing machine, and I am going to make bags.’ ” Through that machine, the Clare V. line was eventually born, evolving from a collection of classic, minimalist bags into the beloved, made-in-L.A. luxury lifestyle brand that it is today, spanning accessories, apparel and home decor.
Vivier had always envisioned a career involving fashion, though one wielding a pen over a needle. The youngest of six children born to a Mexican lawyer father and Irish teacher mother in “beautiful and bucolic” St. Paul, Minnesota, Vivier decamped from the Midwest to the Bay Area to study English at the University of San Francisco. “I just wanted to write fashion journalism. I think it was just a way to get into fashion for me—which is where I always wanted to be.”
After earning bylines penning pieces on fashion, food and culture for the likes of the San Francisco Bay Guardian following graduation, the 23-year-old journalist packed her bags and headed to Paris in 1994, fueled by a desire “to be in a big city where things were happening,” she says.
Vivier spent the next year learning French, in between waitressing and working as an intern at a documentary film production company. A year later she returned to the Bay Area, bringing Thierry (the pair met at a dinner party in Paris, and were married in 2002) and a newfound appreciation for the timeless and chic aesthetic of French design, which eventually played a role in shaping the aesthetic of her line. “It is definitely something I always keep in mind when conceptualizing new bags,” she says.
In 2001, the couple moved to Los Angeles’s Silver Lake neighborhood, where Vivier worked as a prop stylist and production assistant, all while focusing on ways to grow her vision. A hunt for leather around town eventually led Vivier to her first factory in 2002 and, in turn, her first mentor.
“I think she really respected that I knew how to construct things, and I didn’t want to be a designer on a whim,” says Vivier. “It was a great education for me on how bags are made, and I don’t think I would be where I am without that.”
Following the birth of the couple’s son, Oscar, in 2003, Vivier shelved her fashion aspirations to focus on motherhood, not knowing if she would ever return to making her line. “Whenever we drove by the area where the factory was, I could almost cry that I had let this dream go. It was something I really believed in,” she says. When Oscar went off to preschool three years later, Vivier returned to the factory. “I said, ‘Remember me? Can we do this? I really want to do this.’ ”
Clare V. had momentum from the get-go, but over the years, a string of events helped boost the brand, including a mention of her laptop bag in the highly influential, now-defunct newsletter DailyCandy in 2006. Two years later, Vivier landed her first major wholesale account with L.A.’s Mohawk General Store, followed by Steven Alan in New York. “Those two stores were the best marketing and accounts I could have asked for,” she says.
In 2010, Vivier hired her first employee (she now has 55), and opened her flagship in a sunny spot on Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake in 2012. Today, she has seven boutiques throughout New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. “We’ve done everything at a very organic pace.”
“I don’t know if it’s superstitious or not, but I don’t know if I have ‘made it,’ ” says Vivier, who admits that there have been plenty of “pinch me” moments throughout her career—like the time she was introduced to one of her childhood fashion idols, model Amber Valletta, who happened to be wearing one of Vivier’s bags in the brand’s infancy.
“I run a business, and I am still happy I get to do what I love, and employ a team of wonderful people in our studio,” she says. “It’s like a dream come true.”