Young Roanne Jacobson spent hours window shopping on the streets of New York when she learned about the clothing industry and became fascinated by stores selling thousands of items, from closes lightning or
Jacobson was on her experience abroad and had traveled to the American city with the aim of making it as a painter, but she got caught. About nine months later, she returned to New Zealand to begin exploring handbag manufacturing and large-scale production opportunities.
The idea she had while in New York was to become the Saben brand.
She started thinking about the production side of the fashion industry after discovering those stores that only sold buttons or zippers, especially the one that really caught her eye selling only handbag accessories.
“I could spend hours in there trying to figure out how these mechanics worked, and then I started buying bits and pieces so I could test their actual functionality. In the end, I had made something that looked like a bag and c It was the moment where I was like, ‘Hmm, there’s something to this,'” Jacobson told the Herald.
“I spent so many months admiring beautiful bags that I had seen in shop windows and when I finally got up the courage to go into the stores and take a closer look, I realized that either they were exquisite and beautiful but completely impractical, or the other way around – it’s all about function without flair, and so it was light bulb time.”
This sparked Jacobson’s desire to make affordable yet beautiful bags. She came home after making the decision to start a handbag business.
He didn’t have a name at this point, but she eventually settled on the name Saben – her grandmother Sarah’s surname; she wanted the brand to encompass her spirit.
Jacobson was then in her twenties and created Saben in 2002 after experimenting with prototypes in her parents’ garage. Not pro on the production side, she says she quickly found a factory in Mt Roskill to manufacture the bags she designed.
The brand’s bags were made in Auckland for the first five years before part of production moved overseas in 2007 to meet growing demand.
The very first bag designed by Jacobson was a fanny pack that could be worn around the waist or across the body. But it wasn’t until Saben started producing “The Shopper” bag in 2003 that the business took off and the brand began to catch on.
It was during his honeymoon in Bali that Jacobson found an Indonesian manufacturer. Production was then moved to China five years later in 2011 after facing multiple quality control issues.
Today Saben has 100 stockists in New Zealand and Australia, sold by The Iconic and David Jones, and is a multi-million dollar operation with two stores in Auckland, located in Newmarket and Ponsonby. In 2018, Saben launched into luggage and then into footwear two years later.
Saben extended to Newmarket last November. It used to have a store at Auckland International Airport, since 2015, which was temporarily closed due to Covid.
A private company, its seven-figure turnover and its valuation remain confidential. However, Jacobson says sales were up 25% from the previous year.
It has produced nearly 19,000 bags so far this year.
Next month, the Morningside-based company which employs eight people will be 20 years old.
Jacobson says she doesn’t know what the next 20 years hold for Saben, but she hopes she will have a bigger market share in Australia and inspire other businesswomen to pursue their dreams.
While more retail stores would be nice, Jacobson says that’s not a priority.
“We do not have a clear strategy in terms of distribution. I am very satisfied with the way the stores [we do have] trade and we have great relationships with our partners across the country, so I feel like we’re doing a great job representing the brand,” she says.
“We see Australia as a new market…a market that has potential for us. We’re at David Jones and available through The Iconic and a few boutiques, so [expanding that] is our next goal.”
She would also like to do philanthropic work to empower and support other businesswomen to grow their businesses. “Being able to spend more time uplifting others is definitely something I would love to do,” she says.
“I hope I can spend time over the next 20 years supporting and empowering others.
“It would be amazing to be able to look back and have companies talking about being inspired by Saben and building their side business into a full-fledged business. That would be really cool.”
A vertical company, Saben manufactures, wholesales and retails through its online stores and two retail stores; an operating model that Jacobson says works very well for the company. She says she has no reason to change this and that Saben will continue to develop this.
Any future store openings would be driven by demand, she says, in the same way her first store in Ponsonby came about following the continued interest in the pop-up shop he had at the time.
“We’ve been playing with pop-ups since the very beginning of Saben – we’ve always sold in bulk and we’ve always done pop-ups once or twice a year. At first it was from my house, then this moved to factory and then to rented spaces. They were always a natural progression.”
Jacobsen says it would be great to have a store in every city in the country on schedule. In the long term, a flagship store in Sydney, Australia is also on the cards.
“I’m currently focusing on Australia, and growing it. Our resellers are an integral part of our business and their ability to place a product in a different environment than we might place it in creates greater opportunity for people to find Saben. [model] really worked for us – we’ll always make sure we have that element in our business.”
These days, Jacobsen is less active and more focused on creative direction. She designs all the bags herself and works almost every day from the head office. She describes her role as “stirring the pot” and “creating mayhem” with her team working to put her “crazy ideas into action”.
“Every day seems to bring challenges or victories and a good day is when you get both – and that’s what keeps me going.”
And even 20 years later, she says she still has “such a delight to see Saben bags on people’s arms.”