Anne Harper credits her mom and the community of Highland Park with much of her success. The founder of the hugely popular OMG! Accessories line of whimsical girls bags, went from waitress to CEO of a lucrative business with a posh flagship showroom in Manhattan.
“Ever since I was a little girl, wearing a pink tutu, pink cashmere, and glitter shoes, I knew I wanted to be in fashion,” Harper says from her headquarters in New York City, where she resides.
Harper considers her mother, Judy Aberman, her most significant role model. As a single mom, Aberman was determined that her children would continue to grow up in Highland Park even after she and Harper’s father divorced. She worked as a teacher on Chicago’s West Side for many years.
“Mom made sure we could live in Highland Park, go to the best schools, and have great opportunities to benefit us in the future,” Harper says.
One such opportunity came via a waitressing job.
“When I was in high school, I really wanted to get a job; I was a little eager to be ambi- tious,” Harper says.
But she was only 14 at the time.
“I needed a worker’s permit, and the school helped me get it,” she says of teachers and administrators at Highland Park High School. “They were always willing to facilitatethe needs of students.”
Harper worked eight hours per week as a waitress at Ravinia BBQ and Grill (which closed in 2015 after 30 years) and worked there for 16 years until she launched her business.
“I feel very fortunate to have worked at a neighborhood restaurant with locals,” she says. “I got to meet and talk with so many people. Whatever questions I had, I could get answers. All these people around me had insight and information to share.”
This lesson would become pivotal to the launch of Harper’s business years later. But the path wasn’t always clear, and Harper’s journey required hard work, patience, and lots of moxie.
“In high school the pressure is on to make sure you do something wise with education, and many of my customers at the restaurant helped me make the right choices,” a grateful Harper says.
Since fashion was something she loved for her entire life, Harper chose to study fashion merchandising management at Columbia College in Chicago—all while maintaining her job at Ravinia BBQ.
During her senior year she got hired for an internship by a Highland Park family that owned Wheeling-based Fashion Express. The company made affordable fashion-forward products.
Harper was Fashion Express’ very first intern. “I walked in and saw all the products and realized this is exactly what I wanted to do,” recalls Harper.
Harper learned the ropes, rising through the ranks from intern to designer during her eight- plus years there, and working side-by-side with the head creative director.
“She taught me everything I know about this business,” Harper says.
When the owner of the business passed away, Harper had the vision to go out on her own and do something similar, with the aim to make the products better.
Throughout this time, she kept her job at Ravinia BBQ.
“I realized I had this whole network around me, and I told everyone that I wanted to start a company,” Harper says. “I started gathering in- formation. All these people were willing to give free advice. They loved to tell their stories about starting from nothing; many were entrepreneurs who had started on their own from a creative idea.
“I knew the most important part of the business was product. I knew customer service, how to take care of people, and how to solve problems. I just needed money.”
And she wasn’t afraid to ask for it.
After putting together a business plan, Harper asked customers she knew well at the restaurant to invest in her business.
“Mom always said, ‘If you don’t ask, you’ll never know,’ ” Harper remembers. “She’d then add, ‘What’s the worst thing they could happen? They’d say no.’”
But enough said yes to enable Harper to raise the $100,000 she needed to launch OMG! Accessories out of her tiny Chicago apartment.
As for what to produce, Harper knew that she wanted to appeal to the children’s demographic, and that she wanted to make a product that looked nice and felt nice but wasn’t too expensive.
“The Millennials’ children were coming of age, and with social media, they are so much faster,” she explains. “Girls who are just 4 to 6 years old have lip gloss and smart phones, and they need to put their stuff in something.”
Initially that something turned out to be a micro mini-bag with a unicorn theme.
“We wanted to make something that stands out and is original, rather than a designer look-alike bag, and we made the mini-bags glittery and sparkly to cater to the youth demographic,” Harper says. “We said, ‘If she’s 7, she’ll love it. If she’s 11, she’ll love it.’” The unicorn inspiration turned out to be a huge hit, and help establish and define the brand for the company.“We make the best unicorn in the market. I knew it needed to be pretty and have eyelashes. The unicorn is the star, and her name is Miss Gwen.
“Initially I started out really slowly, which gave me time to work on all aspects of the business and learn about things like importing and ware- housing.”
Then, after more than three years in the business, she met Kenilworth resident Jerry Putnam, an entrepreneur who was looking to invest in a company.
“He ended up fully investing in my company and bought out all the other investors,” Harper says.
“We grew faster and faster,” says Harper, who realized she needed to be in New York City full time to make this work.
She packed herself and her little French
Bulldog, Louie, up and headed for Manhattan. “We expanded the New York showroom (which she opened in 2010 and is located near the Empire State Building), and the company once again tripled in revenue.We went from a staff of six to 16,” she says.
Louie has become the store mascot, and the company recently released a mini-backpack.
“The mini-backpack will put us on the map,” Harper says. “It hit the market at the right time and instantly started selling. Stores are blowing it out.”
OMG! Accessories products are now available in more than 100 na- tional retailers and specialty stores including Nordstrom, Macy’s, and Bloomingdale’s, and at its online store, omgaccessories.com.
So what’s next?
“Everyone knows that unicorns are the craze,” Harper says. “In the up and coming season, Miss Gwen has grown wings. As she grows the company grows. I think we are ready to fly.”