Not every handbag maker aims to create a product that functions as the best supporting actor in a woman’s handbag collection. But entrepreneur Jae Lee and his wife and partner, Katy Lee, launched RuMe — a line of lightweight, eco-conscious bags — in 2009 with the understanding that women love their designer handbags but don’t typically use them to shop at a farmers market, tote their gym clothes or transport a dozen cupcakes to a bake sale. The entrepreneurial couple recognized that there was an opening for affordable, quietly stylish bags that make the daily hustle a little less laborious.
“We’re not trying to replace a woman’s designer handbag,” says Jae, 40. “We design a good accompanying product.”
To that end, one of the company’s mottos is, “A RuMe in every Tumi, Tory and Louis.”
“We make sure our products aren’t going to clash with other bags, that they’re going to work well with a lot of the different elements of an outfit,” Jae says.
The all-polyester collection includes roomy totes, wristlets with multiple pockets, space-saving garment bags, messenger-style satchels, and even a few household items, such as cord organizers and food cooler packs. The products are eco-friendly in that many items, particularly the shopping totes, are designed to replace non-renewable options, like plastic shopping bags. The brand’s name is an abbreviated play on “Reuse me.”
Sustainability isn’t RuMe’s most important attribute, Jae says, but it’s a bonus.
“We made up the term ‘light green’ to describe them,” he says, adding that RuMe speaks more to “an overall sustainable lifestyle.”
In a sea of eco-friendly grocery totes, RuMe has skyrocketed to success in a relatively short time because its products are solution-oriented. The Garment Travel Organizer, for example, is a two-sided garment bag that separates clothes into neat and orderly cubes, reducing wrinkles and optimizing packing space.
The bags are problem solvers with style and substance.
The medium tote bag ($9.95) is RuMe’s best-selling item; it boasts a boxy design that makes it extra roomy, shoulder straps that are part of the bag’s body (as opposed to being sewn or tacked on), and double-stitched seams and squared corners, which make it fit more comfortably against the hip. It also can carry up to 50 pounds, can be thrown in the washer with laundry, and rolls up to the size of a fist.
The utility-with-style concept has paid off. The brand, which is head-quartered and manufactured in a joint office-industrial space in Centennial, Colorado, is sold by major retailers, including Target; Bed, Bath & Beyond; The Container Store and Whole Foods.
The company’s fastest-growing sales avenue is, by far, digital — both through direct sales on its website and via branded partnerships with printable product e-commerce businesses Shutterfly and Zazzle; soon, RuMe will work with Vistaprint, too. The idea of using durable RuMe bags as canvases for printed photos, words and illustrations initially came from Shutterfly. The creative imaging company contacted RuMe in 2011; it loved the bags, Jae recalls, and asked to put some imagery on them.
“It’s good to be naive and hungry, and we were at the time,” Jae says. “We were like, ‘Of course!’”
Around that same time, dye-sublimation printing — a digital printing process in which heat transfers dye onto materials — was becoming much more user-friendly and affordable. So diving into customization seemed like a smart pivot. The hunch was spot-on: In the fourth quarter of 2011, RuMe shipped between 30,000 and 35,000 customized bags. Now, RuMe does that kind of business in a single month.
RuMe was built on a series of good instincts that manifested in wise business decisions. Jae, who earned marketing degrees at Georgetown and Northwestern, was born in Seoul, South Korea, but immigrated with his family to Colorado as a child. Before launching RuMe with his wife, he learned the ins and outs of a product-based company while working in his family’s import-export business.
Katy, 39, is originally from Wisconsin and came to RuMe after years working in the creative side at major marketing and advertising firms, including Ogilvy & Mather and Leo Burnett Worldwide.
The partners inhabit distinct roles within RuMe. Katy, the chief creative officer, is in charge of all creative aspects of the company, including design. Jae is the company’s CEO and, among other things, handles day-to-day operations and product development.
The Lees formally launched RuMe at independent gift trade shows in 2010. A thriving, family-owned company was born.
Jae attributes RuMe’s success to creating a team of smart, motivated people.
“You have to have passion for what you do,” he says. “There are a ton of challenges that come
up every day. But you do it. And the next day, you do it again.”
The Lees are building a formidable empire in one of America’s most laid-back states. Jae Lee explains why it’s the perfect place to enjoy time out of the office.
What is it about Colorado that inspires you?
The climate, the new energy of all the people moving here — the overall sense that it’s a place where people want to be.
What are your favorite outdoor spaces in the Denver area?
The Denver Botanic Gardens and Wash Park — which is short for Washington Park, a spacious green space that’s over 100 years old.
Where do you go for inspiration?
Winter Park — Colorado’s longest continually run ski resort — and Beaver Creek. We also love walking around downtown Denver. It’s an adventure every time.
2009 – Business-world veterans Jae and Katy Lee soft-launch RuMe, a line of simple, stylish
2010 – Showcasing the versatile classic RuMe tote, the couple officially launches RuMe at independent gift shows.
2010 – RuMe debuts its first e-commerce website.
2011 – The company receives a patent for its Classic RuMe Tote, which is still the brand’s best-selling product.
2011 – Shutterfly and RuMe collaborate on printed bags, sparking the idea of a RuMe-owned custom-printing category.
2011 – The Lees launch RuMe’s customization category. They ship more than 30,000 customized bags in the fourth quarter.
2013 – The brand builds its own hybrid office-manufacturing space in Centennial, Colorado.
2013 – RuMe releases its first collection of home products, dipping a toe into a category that’s still thriving today.
2014 – RuMe officially becomes profitable.
2014 – The company focuses on its web presence as a major revenue stream, overhauling its e-commerce site.
2015 – RuMe introduces its innovative garmentsuitcase hybrid, the Garment Travel Organizer. It sells out quickly.