DeNai Jones, courtesy photo
Some girls dream of being princesses, but DeNai Jones dreamed of being a bag lady.
Piercing aquamarine eyes peeking through a wild tumble of blonde curls are the first things that strike you about DeNai Jones. From the funky flare of her vintage dress to the toes of her Betty Boop shoes, she looks every inch the fashion designer that she is, known in chic circles for her combinations of bold, sophisticated color and unusual textures and textiles.
It’s no surprise that her bags grace the arms of A-list stars like Julia Roberts, Kate Hudson, Salma Hayek, Gwen Stefani and Heidi Klum–but they’re more likely to be found wearing them on the playground than the haute couture runways. DeNai has won over the shoulders of women all over the world with her stylish line of diaper bags.
When DeNai–who wasn’t yet a mom at the time–set out to find a gift for a pregnant friend and found shelves full of “pastel colors, teddy bears and cutesy stuff,” she recognized a market for high-end, fashionable diaper bags. She sewed the first prototypes in her parents’ garage in Ventura, and paid homage to her father’s childhood nickname for her by naming the venture Petunia Pickle Bottom.
DeNai started her career as a kindergarten teacher, but says, “I was always sketching and painting. The arts were always my passion.” Her parents encouraged her to choose a more stable career path, but part of her attraction to teaching kindergarten was getting to do so many fun art projects in class.
Her husband, Braden Jones, dreamed of starting his own companies. Driving up the coast to Ventura from San Luis Obispo, where he had recently graduated from Cal Poly, the young couple had a heart-to-heart talk, and DeNai confided that she had always wanted to be a designer.
“It was kind of one of those ideas that you just carry in your mind with you,” she says. “We decided to travel a bit. We just started having those kinds of conversations. If you could do anything what would you do? We didn’t have a mortgage, we didn’t have children, no commitments besides ourselves.”
Braden encouraged DeNai to go after her dreams. She quit teaching to focus on developing her first samples. Within six to eight months, her bags were on the shelves of local stores.
The business quickly grew and they turned to DeNai’s best friend from Ventura High School, Korie Conant, for help. I was completely stunned,” when DeNai invited me to her parent’s cabin in Mammoth and showed me the bags, says Conant. She came on as a partner, taking on responsibility for marketing and brand development. Since then, the company has grown exponentially, with moms all over the world carrying their diapers Petunia-style.
Jones says that it’s still exciting to walk down the street and see someone carrying one of her bags. “I still kind of panic, my breath gets taken away and I usually will hide a little bit and … and follow them a little bit,” she says. “It’s still just as exciting as it was the first time I saw a bag on the street.”
Little details like the filigree on a staircase or a carved wooden pattern from a church eave inspire DeNai’s designs. Travel is high on her list for both relaxation and design inspiration. “I love to travel so much and experience all the different cultures that are out there. The world can be very small if you let it be,” she says.
Costa Rica is a favorite place for family time with Braden and their son Sutton, age two. They’re expecting another baby (it’s a boy) in March, and DeNai now has the flexibility–and additional staff–to focus on her children and come into the office just two days a week to concentrate primarily on design.
Living in Ventura, where she can walk to her salvaged brick office on Kalorama Street from her home downtown, helps to keep things real for DeNai. “I do love when we go out to New York for trade show and we come back it’s like, ‘Oh a breath of fresh air.’ It’s good to go for inspiration and shopping and looking around. All of those things are definitely imperative to developing the product. But I do really appreciate that we are kind of in our own microclimate here. We’re protected from a lot of the vindictive nature you see in the fashion world.”
And what’s it like to be in business with your best friend and her husband? “It’s easy actually. We all have different talents that we bring to the table with a common thread of creativity,” says Conant, who became a mom to Beckett in October. “There are no egos in the room which helps us survive. Ultimately, we are friends first, business partners second. We make it a practice to spend time with each other outside of the office on a weekly basis, that’s one of the keys to our business relationship–we truly are the best of friends.”
Braden says he’s learned a lot being in business with his wife. “Because we have a relationship on many levels, she never ceases to surprise me. … Although she considers herself risk adverse compared to me, she really does take every risk needed to be successful in life and business. However, she would probably be modest and tell you otherwise. It’s really the best of both worlds to share success on every level with the love of your life.”
“I love being at work with my husband and being able to see him in the office. Korie’s been my best friend since high school. It’s always nice for the three of us, even when we have to go to trade shows or take trips for the company, that we actually enjoy being together. It’s really been a dream, ” says DeNai.
A very sweet dream indeed.
Originally published in Ventana Monthly. Read the article here.