- Marina Raphael, 22, launched her brand of luxe handbags in 2019.
- Despite the pandemic, she said she saw an increase in sales in 2020.
- To Insider, she reveals how she got her company through the past year.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
When Insider first spoke to Marina Raphael in July 2020, she was in the midst of leading her luxury handbag brand of the same name through the pandemic.
A member of the famed Swarovski crystal family, Raphael launched her eponymous line the year before. It was being sold in high-end retailers such as Moda Operandi; it also captured the attention of Maxima, Queen of the Netherlands.
But now, the pandemic had disrupted in-person shopping, supply chains, and manufacturing. Halfway through the year, it was too soon to have confidence in what the rest of the year would bring.
“As a young entrepreneur, everything was just moving so quickly,” Raphael, 22, told Insider in a recent interview. “But a good entrepreneur has to adapt to any situation and find quick and flexible solutions.”
Now, a few months into 2021, she reflects on her company’s record growth. It turns out, luxury consumers never actually stopped splurging on high-priced goods during the pandemic. Wealthy patrons put their money into handbags, artwork, and fine jewelry – investment categories believed to be less volatile than the stock market.
Raphael, whose bags range from 500 to 1,500 euros ($600 to $1,800), said sales skyrocketed last year, though she declined to share exact revenue figures. The team re-vamped their social media strategy, added charity initiatives to purchases, and even reduced the physical size of its products by 50% to adjust to, what she described as, the new reality of customers’ needs: “carrying less.”
The brand launched collaborations and partnerships, including one with French skincare line Vichy, and expanded its own line to create cosmetic pouches and keychains.
It also released a sustainable collaboration, using upcycled leather and cruelty-free leathers with luxury retailer Luisaviaroma and another line with art director Evangelie Smyrniotaki, which sold out in its first two weeks. Next, the company is about to launch a line with Swarovski Creative Director Giovanna Battaglia. She’s projecting a 420% increase in sales this year.
The luxury brand stayed grounded through hard times by donating 20% of sales
Raphael’s company is headquartered in Greece, but its operations are spread throughout the world. Public relations for the brand is in London, while the sales agent is in New York; quality control is in Australia, and bag production is in Florence.
In March 2020, the brand received its spring-summer collection, which gave it stock until August. It combined that with leftovers from the previous collection, but still sold everything by June, she said.
Having a diversified supply chain helped, however. When factories in Italy closed, quality-control in Australia was able to pick up production. The team’s small size of 14 (six of whom joined during the pandemic) made it easy to communicate, despite the time differences. And because retailers were closed, the company didn’t have to worry about shipping out the fall-winter collection.
Another challenge for Raphael was communicating via WhatsApp and Zoom, especially since she had to design handbags without ever touching the fabrics or physically seeing the final product.
At the same time, the brand had to figure out how to sell a luxury product during an ongoing global health and financial crisis. The company couldn’t just stop selling or making the bags, Raphael said. “Then our suppliers would have a problem, our production team would have a problem,” she continued. “They would lose their jobs.”
To great success, the company decided to donate 20% of all sales to charities such as Black Jaguar White Tiger Foundation and The Hellenic Pasteur Institute. Luxury retailer Moda Operandi implemented a similar strategy last year to huge success, reporting that if an item was attached to a charitable cause, shoppers were willing to spend full-price on it, even if another promotional sale was happening at the same time.
“I think that’s why we didn’t feel guilty about promoting the product, because with every sale we were helping in some way,” Raphael said.
To promote the collections, Raphael’s company began mailing puzzles and other “interactive fun stuff” to patrons. That was very successful too, she said.
“Getting something delivered to your house makes it feel more personal than at a fashion week where you are running to 15 different showrooms,” she said. “That was too much, too fast.”
In the early months, the team was in a state of panic
Raphael credits the success of this time to her team. In the early months of the pandemic, she recalled, everyone was in a state of panic. So she took it to herself to see how she could motivate her employees during this time, listening to their feedback in order to adopt new business strategies.
Smyrniotaki, the content creator and art director, told Insider that Raphael’s “strong personality” and keen leadership skills are what helped get their collaboration off the ground during this time, even with the disruptions. Her bag with Raphael was made with 5,000 Swarovski crystals to represent brighter days ahead. “It is the perfect allegory for the brighter future we see ahead,” Smyrniotaki continued.
Sometimes, Raphael still thinks about those early months of the pandemic. Customers from the United States, especially, were contacting the company in haste, trying to figure out how soon their products would arrive.
“Customers were saying, ‘we want our orders sooner – can you send us the tracking number?’ We have never experienced that before,” she said. “We were questioning, where are they going with the bags?”
Maybe it was to buy themselves gifts to make themselves feel better, she ponders; maybe they wanted to invest in nice things or were just bored at home. It’s more likely a mixture of all of the above, Insider previously reported.
That, or maybe people just really wanted another tote bag.