ABOUT NINE YEARS AGO a woman rushing down the street turned to say a hurried hello. It was Deb Waterman Johns, co-founder of Scout Bags, wearing her uniform black T-shirt, black leggings (cargo shorts in summer), black nylon Prada fanny pack, black Converse sneakers, long hair held back with a big black Patricia Underwood knot hairband. “Man, the Scout bags have really taken off!” she called out, with the look of someone stunned by that fact. Then she raced off to her next appointment–with her husband, the four kids, the four dogs, her businesses or maybe all of the above.
It took some doing, but we persuaded Deb to sit down for a minute to chat with us.
McK: I know you as the inventor of the Scout tote. And I’ve been to a few of the seasonal fashion sales you have held.
DWJ: And I still have the Get Dressed wardrobe-consulting business.
McK: Wow. Okay, when did you invent the Scout tote, and what gave you the idea?
DWJ: I started them about 10 years ago. I spotted big nasty plaid bags–you know, the plastic ones a lot of vendors use–at Pearl River Market in New York. Then, in Milan, I saw Helmut Lang do the same bag, in a sophisticated muted plaid. Concepts happening at both street and designer levels indicate an emerging trend. The Lang bag inspired the shape of the Deano, our most popular bag.
DWJ: No one did them with [the Scout tote] capacity. The Deano size is about a quarter of our sales. They’re done on heavy fabric and are easily wipeable. They appeal to people who think “I wanna bring my whole life with me.” The very early nylon Prada bags and backpacks were another hint that the totes would sell. It was a weightless bag, and women could carry all their essentials.
But we’re not trying to replace the designer handbag! We’re just looking to offer something affordable, durable and functional. But we do lots of sizes and have accounts all over the country. And we do other products–floor mats, coolers, all with bright prints.
McK: You’re known around Georgetown for your daily “uniform,” including the black bag around your waist. You travel light!
DWJ: It helps to find a uniform! The Prada fanny pack and Patricia Underwood knot hair band have been my wardrobe anchor for 25 years! I have a very casual lifestyle.
McK: Dogs and children will do that to you.
DWJ: [Laughs] I must have 40 black T-shirts from Petit Bateau. They cost a lot here, but I pick them up for very little every time I’m in Paris. It just helps to streamline.
McK: Is that what you advise your Get Dressed clients?
DWJ: Yes, that they should shop in logical fashion, building a wardrobe, not just a bit of this and a bit of that. It doesn’t mean you can’t wow people with a fabulous outfit once in a while–people really noticed when I showed up at a fancy event in a skirt made of 22 layers of tulle!
McK: I’ll bet! Are there stores you find yourself going back to time and again?
DWJ: Saks Fifth Avenue. And Zara–I love, love, love Zara! They do a good job with the looks of the season, with decent fabrics and at good price points.
McK: I know that right out of college you worked at Vogue Magazine, but what made you think you could do all this? Do you come from an entrepreneurial family?
DWJ: No, but Ben, my husband, and a pal had been tennis pros at the Homestead years ago and bought a business that manufactured nature-themed mailboxes, a business that would let them work in that beautiful area. They eventually sold the business, and he missed having a “product.”
McK: It wouldn’t be a Deb Johns interview if I didn’t ask about your son Bo, who fought cancer when he was in the sixth grade.
DWJ: Bo is great. He spent about three months in Georgetown University Hospital and saw a lot of kids and families who needed help, so now he raises money for the hospital’s family emergency fund. We had our most recent Go Bo Fund event in September. It is grassroots and it is local, so we know every dollar we raise is put to good use.