BY: ELIZABETH DURAND STREISAND
Normally in mid-September, fashion week is just wrapping and new shows are starting previews on Broadway. 2020 is not a normal year and we find ourselves missing all the things that bring the heartbeat to the city. Thankfully, Scenery Bags is going strong, combining two of our favorite things: fashion and Broadway. We sat down with Jennifer Kahn, founder and CEO, to hear about how Scenery Bags started and where it’s heading. If you need a blast of sunshine in your life today, read on!
Broadway Spin: Where did the idea for Scenery Bags come from?
Jennifer Kahn: It all started well before I had any idea I’d be running an accessories company! I was a Stage Manager regionally and on Broadway for 17 years, and for 4 years ran a blog on giveback and ethical style. These were the two halves of my heart that I never thought would have anything to do with one another. Until one day, while on the road trip with a friend, I had the idea for Scenery Bags. We take discarded theatrical materials and upcycle them into bags and accessories, and a portion of every purchase is donated to The Theatre Development Fund to take students to see theatre. This company marries so many things I care about in a celebration and love letter to theatre. I’m so grateful to everyone out there who has helped us decrease waste, save art, and foster a new generation of theatergoers.
BS: How long did it take from the initial idea to having the biz up and running?
JK: Two years / a lifetime(!)When I say this company is a marriage of two halves of my heart, I’m not kidding. None of this would have been possible without 17 years of making contacts in the theatre community, and 4 years making contacts in the ethical and giveback fashion community. When I first had the idea in the Summer of 2015, I called my friend who rents sets in San Diego and asked him if he had any trash I could have. He said he had saved all the drops they had cut or retired from sets and that I could have it all. My next trip out to California, I drove my Mom’s SUV (I lived in New York and didn’t have a car) to his warehouse and filled it with 600 pounds of drops, and put them in my parents storage unit.
It then took me another year to find a manufacturer. I drove 2 of the drops to Los Angeles to start sample making and it finally felt like things were starting to happen. It took another 6 months to finalize the sample and make our first run of bags to test “proof of concept,” which is business talk for, see if your idea is something people will buy.
I put our first run of 25 bags on sale on our Instagram account because we didn’t have a website yet. They sold out in 24 hours and by the end of the month we had a 200 person waiting list. I built a website in an afternoon, and one month after I launched our first round of bags, Upworthy and Broadway World both did features on us and we sold 4,000 preorders in 24 hours. Concept proven! and my life forever changed.
BS: What has been your proudest achievement/s with the business?
JK: When I started Scenery I thought I had a pretty good understanding of its impact. We saved art from a landfill and introduced kids to theatre. Those two things I am so incredibly proud of. To date we have rescued 27,000 pounds of theatrical materials, and sponsored 854 TDF students through in class theatre teaching and seeing a Broadway or Off-Broadway show. But the impact that took me by surprise was how our bags affected our customers. I get emails all the time from people who now own a piece of their Broadway debut, the first show they ever saw, the last show they ever saw with their Mom, the show they met their spouse on, etc. I’m also proud of that. That I’m able to give people a piece of something that meant a great deal to them.
BS: Any mistakes you’ve made along the way?
JK: How much time do we have? Just kidding. I try not to dwell on mistakes, but to learn from them. This journey has been one of great learning for me, and I’ve loved every minute of it. When we first started I said yes to everyone and collect all the theatrical waste I could. (I still don’t see that as a mistake. It’s true to our mission, and I support it.) In doing so we still have a storage unit full of drops that no one really cares about. They are from smaller theatres, or lesser known shows, or not fun colors. Some people would call that a mistake. Now I’m paying for storage space for drops no one wants to buy.
I still have faith, and I feel responsible to upcycle all of the waste I collect. It’s just forced me to be creative and design things that are more about the bag than the show it’s from. We made totes with wording on them. This worked really well. It used up more fabric in a fun way that made people excited. (We are currently sold out of all tote styles because they were so popular.) Sometimes what seems like a mistake is really a tool to teach you to innovate.
BS: How do you decide what bags (and other products!) to make?
JK: It starts with what we have, and what we have the ability to do with it. Every new drop that comes in gets its own design, and as we grow and learn we have been able to do more and more. Then I got an email from a Union shop that makes National Tour sets, asking if I wanted the show decks that they were going to be throwing away…and our jewelry line was born. If anyone offers me something, I will do my very best to repurpose it. Getting to come up with new ways to use everything we receive is so fun!
BS: How has Broadway’s closure and COVID overall affected your business?
JK: Broadway being closed is hard on our community. We have raised money for The Actors Fund, along with Broadway Advocacy Coalition, and other organizations that are helping the Theatre Community right now. COVID has affected Scenery in waves. First it was the closure of one of my manufacturers, and the partial closure of the other. Then they both reopened, safely, with fewer people in the building so that they could social distance. This means everything moves slower than before, but we are still able to make things and I am so grateful. It has also impacted our customer community, being in large part theatre creatives. But it has also given people another reason to support us. They miss the theatre.
BS: What products are in development now?
JK: We are working on a collaboration with the Broadway Green Alliance, more Beetlejuice products for October, and starting our Holiday build to get through the rest of the year. It’s crunch time already!