Helen-Sage and Rachel Lee, co-founders and CEOs of PRISM Bags, are on a mission to enact change, both in the fashion industry and beyond. The identical twin sisters are responsible for leading the movement to end the pink tax and increase access to menstrual products in California. For the past few years, however, the two have been expanding into the fashion industry with PRISM Bags. EnVi sat down with Helen-Sage and Rachel on Zoom to talk about being AAPI small business owners, PRISM’s mid-pandemic beginnings, and their environmentally-friendly and empowering brand mission.

Image courtesy of PRISM Bags.

A Mid-Pandemic Launch

Everything started with their personal experience traveling the country to advocate for reform. The Lee sisters would bring both functional, “Dora the Explorer-type” bags for their travel essentials, as well as presentable totes to look professional when meeting with governors — it was an inconvenience to keep track of so many items. “Something we realized was that the market was missing something for mission-driven folks like us, that was sustainable with mission-driven values, was functional, and was nice enough to carry for everyday occasions but also for work or school that we wanted to dress up for,” Rachel said. And so, in November of 2020, the Emblem Convertible Belt Bag was born.

Image courtesy of PRISM Bags.

But it wasn’t exactly that simple. Helen-Sage and Rachel originally had different plans for their first product, which was meant to be a larger on-the-go work bag. Given pandemic conditions in 2020, which left many people working from home and attending virtual classes, the two realized their idea needed a COVID-19-friendly revamp. “It took a long time for us to be able to regroup and make the pivotal decision to not launch the work bag that we thought people would have carried before the pandemic,” Rachel said.

Image courtesy of PRISM Bags.

The Emblem Convertible Belt Bag was created with the pandemic reality in mind: there’s a small pocket to fit a mask and other essentials for socially-distant coffee runs or hikes. “I would say it really shaped PRISM into who we are today, both as people that really care about how products are intended to be used and reflective of how people carry things every single day,” Rachel said. By persevering and prioritizing consumer needs, the Lee sisters overcame some of the struggles inherent in launching a small business during the pandemic.

The PRISM Trifecta: Sustainability, Accessibility, Empowerment

Sustainability, accessibility, and empowerment are at the forefront of PRISM’s values, and the brand’s actions speak even louder than its words. “Our big mission isn’t just using sustainable materials, it’s also making sure that we’re producing products that aren’t in excess and aren’t in waste,” Helen-Sage said. The co-founders adopted this mindset in 2021 when they decided to step back and reflect on their work as small business owners. Helen-Sage said that she and Rachel spoke with over 300 people to understand what was actually needed.

At PRISM, empowerment is more than its dictionary definition; it means being aware of political happenings around the world. “That includes the hate against Asian people, along with Black Lives Matter and the green liberation movement,” Helen-Sage clarified. Their outspoken personalities and emphasis on inclusivity come as part of the sisters’ background as activists, which makes them more cognizant of real people’s needs.

Helen-Sage and Rachel balance their goal to empower customers with their mission to create sustainable products through every step of the process. By using recycled nylon and vegan leather for their bags, instead of polyester and real leather, they are able to significantly lower their negative impact on the environment. The nylon is made from recycled single-use plastics, such as water bottles — in fact, Helen-Sage shared that PRISM uses two bottles to make every Active Recycle Fanny Pack.

Another goal of PRISM is to make their products affordable and they try to lower the price point for customers at every possible step. With fast fashion on the rise and trend cycles moving increasingly faster, it’s more important than ever to develop sustainable, eco-friendly shopping habits. PRISM is doing their part by bringing their products to the everyday, working consumer, who may not always have infinite disposable funds to shop slow fashion.

Helen-Sage and Rachel’s own experiences as Korean immigrants helped shape their values. After their parents moved from South Korea to the United States, they started a small business of their own. Their parents’ resilience, perseverance, and dedication continue to inspire the PRISM CEOs today. “Both Helen and I were able to witness my dad really hustling to be able to make it, to provide a roof over our heads,” Rachel shared. “My mom really encouraged me to be creative and innovative, especially in those difficult times.”

Helen-Sage Rachel
Image courtesy of PRISM Bags.

Building Their Platform

As the founders of an AAPI-owned and woman-owned small business, Helen-Sage and Rachel have faced their share of struggles in overcoming the fashion industry’s high barriers to entry. “I remember walking to a factory, and this was our first time really being able to meet with a factory we were partnered with, and they asked — when they saw me and Helen, two young AAPI women — ‘can I speak to your manager,’” Rachel admitted. 

Helen-Sage and Rachel turned this otherwise unfortunate event, which can be common for minority business owners, into motivation.  “With all those kinds of subsequent experiences, we’ve been able to grow thicker skin and be stronger when it comes to the values we stand for,” Rachel said. Through their work with PRISM, they are changing current perceptions of what CEOs should look like, both in and out of the fashion industry.

Unsurprisingly, given the Lee sisters’ personalities, PRISM’s online presence is uplifting and welcoming — even their Instagram account reflects their hope to empower marginalized voices in every step of PRISM’s creative process. Helen-Sage and Rachel also strive to work with BIPOC women in creating everything from bags to accessories.

But the real world isn’t always so positive, and the two know that firsthand. They’re not shy about sharing their opinions on political matters, both as individuals and through PRISM. “We have this conception that being political is going to be very isolating and polarizing to a lot of people,” Helen-Sage said. “But arguably, I think we understand our customers so well that [avoiding political issues] would be a huge disservice to the new generation of young women and changemakers and people sitting in classrooms today.”

What’s Brewing At PRISM?

As PRISM is still in its early stages as a company, Helen-Sage and Rachel are involved in everything. Part of their job is constantly communicating with everyone from the factories to the designers that they work with, while also collecting consumer feedback on their products.

To date, Rachel’s favorite memory in her work with PRISM is the brand’s 2021 partnership with Alltrue, a subscription service and digital marketplace previously known as Causebox that totally aligns with PRISM’s values. “For us to be such a small brand, being able to collaborate with a large, established brand was really amazing,” Rachel said. PRISM’s products sold out in 48 hours, and Helen-Sage and Rachel had to personally drive from Orange County to Downtown L.A. to hand-deliver everything. “It was so interesting seeing a little Toyota next to a bunch of big moving trucks,” Helen-Sage said, smiling.

Helen-Sage Rachel
Image courtesy of PRISM Bags.
Helen-Sage Rachel
Image courtesy of PRISM Bags.

Helen-Sage’s favorite memory, on the other hand, was rooted in PRISM’s early days, when the two traveled from California to Las Vegas for a fashion trade show. “We were really scrimping and pinching, we took it back to our activist days and bought a four-hour bus ride ticket,” she said, laughing. The sisters took turns sleeping on the bus, slept in their hotel lobby while waiting for their room, and even relied on a lawyer friend to review and sign a contract for the trade show because PRISM didn’t have an in-house lawyer. “It’s these little adventures that make me remember that, as activists, we have that very ‘grassroots,’ we can fix everything with our own bare hands, make-it-work mentality.”

Looking ahead, the women of PRISM have ambitious dreams for their company, and they look beyond just their favorite celebrities and star power when thinking about ideal collaborations. Helen-Sage said that she would love to work with icons like Cara Delevingne or major artistic companies like Supreme (streetwear meets a refined aesthetic meets sustainability), and she’d love to see what collaborations might look like in the healthcare or sustainability space. Rachel confessed to her “pipe dream” collaborations, which include Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, REVOLVE, and MadeTrade. Sticking with PRISM’s fundamental values, these dream collaborators speak to the young generations, foster conscious audiences, and emphasize sustainability and empowerment.

Their next step, however, is the launch of their vegan modular backpack — which both Helen-Sage and Rachel are looking forward to. With the product currently in its prototyping stage, they shared with EnVi that they are hoping for a winter launch date. It’s a product they are investing an incredible amount of care and attention to, and they look forward to seeing how their customers carry the bag in their daily lives. 

Eventually, they want PRISM bags to have an iconic element that people recognize immediately. “As somebody that loves going to Nordstrom and shopping and looking at clothes, bags, shoes, and stuff like that, I would say it’s a big goal for us to be there one day,” Rachel said. “We want to have some have a place where we can kind of show [PRISM to] people in person.”

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