“We’re like the Gucci of pop culture!”: Loungefly’s Rich Smith on design, fandom and pushing the boundaries

Rich Smith – VP of Sales at Loungefly – discusses the company’s detail-driven approach to going above and beyond with licensed backpacks, wallets and accessories.

Rich, it’s great to connect. Loungefly products are easily identifiable – very stylish, high quality and creative ways to bring brands into areas like backpacks, wallets and accessories. But how would you sum up the Loungefly aesthetic?
It’s all about bringing fandom to life. The attention to detail are phenomenal. I mean, look at this Toy Story Woody’s Roundup mini backpack, with the rope detail on the straps. Or the fact that our Toy Story Lotso mini backpack actually smells like strawberries, like the teddy does in the film! Those kinds of details make the bag – the fans love the details. We’re like the Gucci of pop culture. We’re unique and deliver the best of what pop culture has to offer. You can spot a Loungefly bag a mile off!

Rich Smith, Loungefly

Can you speak a little about what goes into creating these products?
Well, Liz DeSilva and Derrick Baca – our SVPs of Creative, Innovation and Vision – are phenomenal at what they do and how they lead our design team. They’re always pushing the boundaries and they’re massive fans themselves. It’s the same with a lot of our design team. They’re into the properties.

Disney is one of our biggest partners and Liz and Derrick are in the Disney parks all the time. I went with them to the parks in November and they look at all the details – stain glass windows, elements of the shops… They take inspiration from all that kind of stuff.

“We’re unique – you can spot a Loungefly bag a mile off!”

It’s also worth noting that some of the artwork that ends up on product is hand drawn ourselves; it’s not taken from a style guide. We work with partners to create our own artwork to go on the bags. We’ve got light-up bags, glow in the dark, bags that smell… We had a FRIENDS Central Perk Mug bag that smelt like coffee. We had a Willy Wonka bag where the zip-pull was a Wonka Bar that smelt like chocolate. They consistently push the boundaries. We’re doing things in categories that no-one else had done before.

Rich Smith, Loungefly

I’d imagine in the more traditional bag and wallet space, there are rules around what they can and can’t do. How tough is it to innovate in this category, bearing in mind these products have to perform a function?
Function is a key part of the design process. Everything we do is about the function. We don’t want to design a bag – or any kind of product – that people can’t use. And longevity and newness are key for us as well. We launch 11 collections a year – that’s a lot of new product and practicality is key. As well as our design team being amazing, we have an incredible product development team that works with the factories to innovate while keeping our quality level high. They do a great job.

A great example of how we innovate is our new Crossbuddies bags. It’s like a crossbody bag, but it has another bag strapped to it, so it looks like the bigger bag is hugging the second bag. It works really well with characters and we’ve launched Crossbuddies bags with brands like Stitch, Avatar: The Last Airbender, McDonald’s and WALL-E. It’s a great example of us creating bags that are unlike anything else on the market. Derek and Liz have some weird and wonderful ideas but with the design and product development teams, they bring them to life beautifully.

Rich Smith, Loungefly

It looks great. And I’d imagine McDonald’s is an interesting brand to work on.
Yes! We launched our McDonald’s range back in January and February and it’s been one of biggest launches to date. We did things like a Happy Meal Box back-pack and a French Fries crossbody. They’re some of my favourite items.

Rich Smith, Loungefly

On that, what does a brand need to work well for Loungefly?
It’s an interesting one because there are so many different brands that could work for Loungefly. We look for brands that will work globally. We have a huge global fanbase and the brand is expanding, so we want brands that will work from a global perspective. That said, even with global brands, some things resonate stronger in certain territories.

We also look at it creatively with regard to what we can and can’t do with a brand. There are some phenomenal global brands that we’ve had conversations with, but not signed, because we wouldn’t have been able to push the boundaries with it. There was one I was very excited to sign, but we’d have been so restricted with what we could do that it wasn’t right for us as a brand. And that’s the thing, Loungefly is a brand in its own right – we have to make sure our brand values and style align with a licence.

What is the key to a successful creative collaboration between Loungefly and a brand owner?
It has to be a partnership. We both want it to be a success and so you have to work together to ensure it’s a success. It’s hugely important, especially when it comes to design-thinking. If that aligns, then it filters down throughout the entire collaborative process. We’ve even had commercially successful launches that we’ve not renewed because behind-the-scenes it hasn’t been much of a partnership. It really is vital, especially when you factor in the amount of time and effort that goes into these products.

“We had a Willy Wonka bag where the zip-pull was a Wonka Bar that smelt like chocolate. We push the boundaries.”

And how about partnerships with retailers?
Our brand is strong in the independent market. We work with big retailers like HMV, Gamestop and House of Fraser, but we also work with indies that might be one shop or a website and their turnover on Loungefly is phenomenal. Look at a store like Get Ready Comics in Rochester – he does incredible with Loungefly. Truffleshuffle is also great at what they do, as is Geekcore. I could name 30 independents that do phenomenally well; they support us and we support them with exclusives. We worked closely with Forbidden Planet on the launch of their new Brighton store – they probably now have the biggest Loungefly section in the world. They’re a great partner – they do Loungefly evenings for fans. That’s what it’s all about; it’s a fanbase, but it’s also a community.

Rich, this has been great. Before we start to wrap up, I wanted to ask you about cult characters. What dictates who Loungefly gives the limelight to, because you have plenty of products centred around sidekicks and cult characters?
We’re fans and we love certain characters; some we feel don’t get enough airtime, so we’ll produce product for that. Sometimes it’s about brands and characters that are underserved in licensing. A few years ago, we did some product for The Fox and the Hound and there hadn’t been much out for that brand. It was a great launch for us.

Rich Smith, Loungefly

We have a bag based on Max, the dog from The Little Mermaid. Again, there’s not much Max product out there! We want to tap into those brands and characters with a cult following. We do very well on Up – it’s a great brand for Loungefly. It has a cult following within the Loungefly fan community. We recently did a How to Train Your Dragon bag and the fans went crazy for it. It was one of our fastest-selling bags, which caught me off-guard a little bit. It’s not an IP that’s everywhere now, but it has a core fanbase that love it.

Rich Smith, Loungefly

Last question! What helps you have ideas? How do you fuel your creativity?
Well, despite my job title, I’m actually a frustrated designer! It’s not my area but I have loads of ideas! I’ve been in this industry for 20 years and worked with people that have taught me a lot about how to look at the world and have ideas. You see things every day that inspire you – especially when you’re working with people like Derek and Liz and the design and development teams we have here.

Rich, this has been fun. A huge thanks again.

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