Female Founder Feature: How 'Once Upon a Lauren' Went from Corporate to Painting Vintage Leather Jackets

This week in our Female Founder series, we have a chat with Laurén Bienvenue from 'Once Upon a Laurén'. You might have come across her IG handle 'OnceUponALaurén' which features her rad one-of-a-kind custom wearable art. While she initially started out giving new life to old vintage leather pieces, she has expanded to also include denim, luggage tags, cosmetic bags.. the list goes on and on. As she says, "if it will hold paint, I'll paint it". For more on how she got started, what inspires her and all the ins and outs of being a female entrepreneur, read more in our conversation below! 

Canary + Co: What is your name and your business? Where are you located? 

Lauren Bienvenue: My name is Laurén and I’m the owner, artist and all around do-er at Once Upon a Laurén. I like to call myself a leather painter but I suppose just “painter” is moreAppropriate.Originally my business started as a quest to give new life to old leather. By hand painting vintage leather jackets with original designs, I transform the discarded and forgotten into wearable, usable art. This not only keeps clothing out of landfills but gives each piece an entirely new identity, purpose and look.These days however, I like to say; “If it will hold paint, I will paint it!”My core collection is still one-of-a-kind, hand-painted vintage leather jackets, but I’ve expanded into new and custom pieces as well as denim, items like luggage tags, make-up bags, purses and holiday ornaments as well as small scale murals. I’m located in Jersey City, NJ, a vibrant creative community one subway stop from Manhattan.

C+C: How did you get started? What was that initial, “let’s do this!” moment? 

LB: I was stuck in a corporate job that I hated and knew I had something more creative to offer. I just didn’t know exactly what or how. I had a notebook full of business ideas like a bakery for dog treats or a t-shirt line or a laundromat that was also a bar. I like to think that I had the idea to start painting leather jackets because my heart, mind and eyes were wide open.I was visiting Paris and saw a leather jacket that had these really beautiful hand-done red roses down the arm. I left it in the store because I couldn’t afford it but once I got home, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I thought, “I bet I could do something similar”so I researched leather paint, dug out a jacket that was hanging in the back of my closet and tried my hand at painting flowers.I remember my husband being really impressed and people started to ask about it when I wore it around town and on the subway. Friends started to drop hints that they wanted their jackets painted and I sourced a few vintage jackets to make a couple more samples. I was invited to a small Valentine’s Day themed pop-up shop and I came with seven jackets and sold two that day which felt like a huge success to me. After that I opened my Etsy shop and a few months later I decided to walk away from my full-time job. I’ve always been crafty but I am certainly not a professional painter, nor did I go to art school. I was just desperate enough for an answer that I was willing to try any creative avenue that even remotely peaked my interest. That’s the secret, I think. Stay open, follow your nose. 

C+C: What is your biggest accomplishment so far? 

LB: Lasting two and a half years on my own! I wasn’t sure what would happen when I took the leap from corporate. I thought there was a good chance I’d be begging my boss for my old job back.But here I am, 336 jackets (and numerous other items) later! I’m so proud of the fact that I’ve taken a totally random idea and turned it into something with legs. Being an ex-corporate success story is a real badge of honor for me. I tell people whenever I get the chance that I, too, sat behind a desk for a decade and the feeling that your current job isn’t allowing your true self to shine, is worth paying attention to. 

C+C: What is your biggest struggle/toughest time in career/small business/life? How did you pull yourself out of it? 

LB: It’s hard to know the answers when you’re on your own. Identifying how to present yourself, what to invest in, who to listen to and who to ignore are all extremely tricky. Small business ownership is a series of highs and lows (sometimes in the same day!) and the struggle lies in keeping your headspace, emotions and self-confidence steadfast. 

C+C: What are your future goals? 

LB: I’ve done a few branded events and collaborations that have been really fun, exciting and affirming. They’re usually totally chaotic; I once painted 160 monograms on canvas bags in two hours, or totally absurd; have you ever painted in an underground club with house music blaring? I have!But taking a brand’s story or campaign and turning it into customized, hand-done items for their customers and ambassadors is such a unique way to interpret what I’m trying to do with wearable art.And in general, my goal is to just keep expanding this scrappy little business I’m building; whether that’s partnering with stores to carry my jackets, growing the made-to-order portion of my business or diversifying the “canvases” on which I paint. 

C+C: Who inspires you the most? And who would be your ultimate mentor? 

LB: There are so many female business owners and artists doing amazing things that I love to watch; Tessa Perlow is churning out incredible hand embroidered items, Ana at The Stonework is a chain stitch master, Jen Mussari is a hand-lettering goddess, Laurie Lee Leathers is killing it with her hand-painted leather jackets and branding. It’s so inspiring to be surrounded with beautiful, unique, diverse art right in my news feed.I don’t have a particular mentor in mind, but I suspect it’s a combination of all of these artists rolled into one who can share the wealth of knowledge that comes with owning your own business. People who can give you logistical advice on the boring-but-necessary like event insurance, price structure, inventory and marketing AND inspire you artistically, those are the ultimate mentors. 

C+C: What is a fun fact about yourself? 

LB: I belong to an all-female, New Orleans style dance krewe called the Big AppleBabes! This year we marched in the Mermaid Parade on Coney Island, the NYC Pride Parade and at a few smaller events. It’s an awesome group of supportive, hilarious girl friends of all ages and levels of dance skill. Check us out at @bigapplebabes on Instagram. 

C+C: What is one piece of advice you would give for up and coming female entrepreneurs? 

LB: LISTEN to yourself when your brain says “I bet I can do that.” LISTEN when people around you say “You’re good at that.” And then run, run, run with it.For me, it wasn’t the gumption to take the leap or confidence that I knew I had something more to offer that I was missing; it was the tangible idea of WHAT I was going to do. But ideas are literally all around us, we just have to be paying attention. 

C+C: A big part of designing our bag collections is ensuring we can help women be a little more organized and enable them to #domoredaily. Give us an idea of your typical, every day schedule! 

LB: Like most people, coffee is what gets me out of bed. Then I read the news, scan my emails , run through the NY Times mini crossword puzzle and put on my painting overalls so I can get to work.I work on at least one jacket a day and in between painting I spend a ton of time sourcing vintage leather jackets. I also try to devote a little time each day to comb through retro fabrics, folklore prints, botanical charts and even vintage concert and movie posters for inspiration on what to paint next.I also have an 11 month old puppy named Jolene who demands a lot of attention so we find ourselves at the dog park or running errands around Jersey City almost every day. 

C+C: Plug your business! Where people can find you, any future events coming up? 

LB: New Yorkers can find me live and in person at Brooklyn Flea on October 19 and 20 and at Kanibal & Co. in Jersey City, NJ for a special holiday pop-up shop and hand-painted leather ornament personalization station on December 8. 

Online you can find me at www.onceuponalauren.com on Etsy (www.onceuponalauren.etsy.com) and on Instagram (@onceuponalauren) where I’m always posting about what I’m currently working on and what events are coming up next. 

October 3, 2019