Entrepreneur, designer and sixth-generation Swarovski heiress, Marina Raphael, tells us all about the conception of her eponymous brand and being a young boss.
When young people attempt to ‘make change’ in the corporate world, they often have to deal with accusations of incompetence tied somehow to their lack of experience. Elizabeth Holmes, for instance, endured heavy scepticism and gatekeeping from Dr Phyllis Gardner when seeking her counsel regarding the matters of the 19-year-old’s then-infant Theranos, according to the cult show The Dropout. Not the best example. Okay, a terrible one. If one is not a fan of a tempting opportunity to be misdiagnosed with several life-threatening diseases, be it as it may. But what about someone like Elizabeth Arden? In her late twenties, Arden challenged the entire culture around makeup in the New World by associating it with liberation (and allegedly the suffragette movement) rather than vulgarity. That makes one wonder: what if a young, flexible mind is the best tool one could have to dismantle convention and innovate?
Elizabeth Arden was the first association that popped up in my mind when speaking to Marina Raphael (born Marina Rafail-Vogiatzakis) – a 23-year-old entrepreneur and handbag designer whose creations adorn the digital window displays of Harvey Nichols, Moda Operandi and Harrods, as well as the arms of starlets such as Rita Ora and Jessica Alba. The newly-inaugurated Forbes 30 Under 30 honouree dialled in from Athens. Even the choppy Zoom connection could not hinder her vibrant, positive energy that, to be entirely frank, washed me down from the outset, not unlike a gallon of ice water on an excruciatingly hot summer morning.
Raphael launched her brand in 2018. Twenty years of age at the time, she had to juggle her assignments at King’s College London with fulfilling orders, creating new designs and making deals with luxury retailers. “I wanted to create a long-lasting product. That’s where the idea of bags came along,” she says. Raphael later would tell Business Insider that, to kick-start her brand, she borrowed a certain sum from a family member and combined it with the money she’d been saving since adolescence. And so, the vision for an international luxury brand started taking physical shape. “I did a small launch party in Athens, and I nearly sold it out in one night,” Raphael recalls, “Lauren Santo Domingo [co-founder and Chief Brand Officer of Moda Operandi] put me on Moda at such an early stage.” Not to say that gaining Santo Domingo’s approval was a piece of cake. Before being endowed with the digital spaces of Moda Operandi, Raphael enlisted the help of New York-based strategist Elizabeth Manice, who worked tirelessly with her connections as well as sending out emails to help build the brand.
Not many can boast the unwavering support of a 120-year-old crystal manufacturer. Yet, even while bearing the title of a “sixth-generation Swarovski family member”, Raphael’s business is not entirely a family affair. “I started on my own,” she says, “It took me about [a] year to learn a lot of technical aspects [of handbag design] because I didn’t have any previous experience. Stitching and structure, sketching, chemical reactions between leather and metal, so many different crystal applications, textures. I went into [it] and started learning from different people by watching videos about craftsmanship, trying to understand what went inside the bags.”
Raphael speaks openly about the challenges she had to face as a young entrepreneur, as well as the opportunities she was blessed with. “People sometimes associate young age with inexperience. Do I have 40 years of experience in fashion? No. Is my product exceptionally well-built? Do I have incredible people supporting me? Do we have excellent customer service, quality and craftsmanship? Those are yes’s.” She continues, “On the other hand, I have a much longer runway to success. I don’t have kids, I’m not married, so I can focus on building my brand.” Having four decades of experience in the industry could, undoubtedly, be an ace one might use to negotiate a stellar deal with manufacturers and supply chain partners. For those at the beginning of their entrepreneurial journeys – however – it’s often a shot in the dark. In my past interview with Unspun’s Walden Lam, for example, he opened up about finding himself on the ‘begging side’ of these negotiations. For Raphael, the issues associated with finding trustworthy business partners were less existential, “My core partner is Swarovski,” says the designer, “They undertake my quality control, ensure my suppliers adhere to clear procurement standards and are certified. I immediately trusted the Swarovski suppliers and my partner who makes the bags, based in Florence.” In business, trust is what makes one feel in control. Fostering a close relationship with her manufacturer was key for Raphael, “I always wanted to produce in Italy. I even learned Italian to better communicate with them and visit the factory.”
We see countless heirs and heiresses attempt to hide their heritage to seem more ‘hard-working’ – Kendall Jenner’s sobby tales of having to lie about her name to get into castings alone have inspired eye rolls far and wide. For Raphael, coming from a background that supports her is not something to be ashamed of. Her bags read as a well-balanced concoction of what Raphael believes to be the essence of a stylish woman and a sentimental love letter to the house of Swarovski. The harmonic co-existence of the Riviera – a strong trapezoid style with glossy rectangular handles – and Cabana – a compact pouch adorned with crystals, most recently sported by Paris Hilton – reflects the dichotomy of Raphael’s identity. Even her muses, “people with their sense of style, making [her] creations theirs,” are often the Swarovski women, “…like Giovanna [Battaglia] Engelbert [Swarovski Group’s Global Creative Directcor], for example. She’s one of the most creative people I had a chance to work with.”
As a Gen Z entrepreneur, Raphael understands the importance of sustainable practices like no other. “I’m not claiming my brand to be 100% sustainable. I don’t think anyone can. I do think it’s important to try and take more steps towards sustainable production procedures, sourcing of materials, etc.” she says. In 2020, Raphael launched a new model in collaboration with Moldovan sustainability consultant Doina Ciobanu, “it’s a completely vegan bag, the bottom of it is made out of apple skin leather and 70% pre-recycled consumer cotton. For every bag sold, a hundred trees are planted in Malawi.” Raphael continues, “I can incorporate [sustainability] from the get-go. I don’t have a brand that has been operating for 120 years, where I would have to change all my practices.”
Just like many young people entering the workforce, especially in an entrepreneurial capacity, Raphael had a fair share of doubt cast upon her by the industry veterans (being endorsed by Queen Máxima of Netherlands is not enough a quality testament apparently). “I’m very young, and I can adapt,” she says, “There is a fine line there because you have to listen to critique and implement [it] and improve, and not be too stubborn. On the other hand, you have your aesthetic and your style. Have the confidence to try. Does it always work out? Of course not! But at least you know that you gave it a shot and did your best, and whatever happens, is meant to be. This was indeed, my initial mindset when starting the brand, but with hard work, support from my business partners and persistence, I’ve managed to actually pull it off, and built a successful and growing brand over the years.”
This story first appeared in Prestige Online – Hong Kong