Upon browsing through the Lizzie Fortunato Jewelry Collection, the uniquely crafted silver and gold designs are broken up by vibrant colors and vivid patterns that depict an immediate and unspoken explanation behind the company’s steady growth throughout the past nine years. And when you peek into the lives of co-founders Lizzie and Kathryn Fortunato, you’ll discover the candidacy and effervescence behind such highly-curated designs.
On a quintessential autumn day in Brooklyn, I’m greeted by the Fortunato sisters, almost in unison. As twins, I should have expected this, yet, I quickly shook off my oversight as my eyes focused on the interior of Lizzie’s apartment; flooded with natural light to expose tasteful trinkets and tchotchkes, clearly a collection from the travels and culture that inspire the mixed-medium designs behind the Lizzie Fortunato brand.
As she catches my eyes lingering on two wedding photos, Lizzie chuckles, “We do everything together.” She looks down at their matching belts before running through their twin-patterned history of exotic trips, attending Duke University, living together, and often showing up at work in the same outfit. “It also happened to include getting married around the same time.”
As we discuss their recent destination weddings–Kathryn in Camporta, Portugal in May and Lizzie in Rhineback, NY in August– I quickly realize the contagious charm of their sister-act as an undeniable reason behind the success of Lizzie Fortunato. Launched in 2008, the accessories line stemmed from Lizzie’s background in art history and desire to create, complemented by Kathryn’s background in finance, with a passion for fashion. The two financed their meticulous designs and individualized patterns with a personal cash-backing, for which they saw a quick return after establishing a presence in the jewelry market.
The return on investment was soon realized when Lizzie Fortunato jewelry was featured on the front of Vogue and Women’s Wear Daily, within its first year, and maintained traction with steady recognition from Harper’s Bazaar, Elle and The New York Times. As the sisters and the brand matured, accessories were added to their roster, with leather clutches and suede totes emerging as astutely as their jewelry.
The divergent designs are both impressive and inspiring; each representing a style as individualistic as when Lizzie first began creating her first pieces out of her dorm room. In fact, Lizzie still produces each new design before sending it off to the designers.
We caught up with Lizzie and Kathryn to experience the candidly relaxed way the duo spend their days when they’re not scoping South America for design inspiration or partaking in Paris fashion week. From post-yoga morning coffee, to working between Lizzie and Kathryn’s apartments (within a three block radius), to an afternoon stroll that typically lands them at Locanda Vini & Olii, the Fortunato twins showed us the casual, cool, classy ideal that extends way beyond twin goals, and previews the best friend, business partner relationship that so vividly inspires the Lizzie Fortunato brand.
How has the style of LF pieces evolved from when you first started?
LF: The Lizzie Fortunato aesthetic has always been about combining a range of mixed-medium materials in unexpected ways and while that has been a constant over the years, the materials and processes used have definitely evolved. Part of this is due to our access to new suppliers, materials and capabilities as we’ve grown. For example, in the very early days, before we launched, I used a lot of seed beads to make elaborate multi-strand necklaces–this was a reflection of the materials I had available to me at the time. Since then, I have met metalsmiths, platers, enamel workers, embroiderers and more–all of whom have allowed the design of our collections to evolve as I have access to new specialists. My personal style has also matured. Intricate and colorful pieces are now balanced with more subtle and sophisticated silhouettes and color palettes.
KF: Gaining access to new vendors is a constant goal because it allows us to work in new mediums. I remember Lizzie wanted to create an acrylic cuff and for a long time we could not achieve the desired design, quality, price point. We finally identified an amazing team who makes our plexi pieces; our Postmodern Cuff has become a very recognizable style and is a piece we wouldn’t have dreamed of being able to create in 2008.
What is your method to maintaining a strong relationship with your customers?
KF: Before we launched our wholesale business, we started out by hosting trunk shows (in college and immediately thereafter) so had an early emphasis on customer interaction. Once we launched wholesale (in 2008), we really focused on creating close relationships with our buyers. These days we still travel to Chicago, LA, Dallas, Charleston, Charlotte… to visit our stores and interact with customers in a boutique-setting. It’s so important to ask for feedback from stores and visit with customers in order to constantly understand what the customer is looking for.
As we’ve built our direct (e-commerce) business we’ve been able to better track and understand customer behavior which is really exciting; we are able to see what styles and price points are trending at a given time. A lot of customers still get a kick out of it when they email our “[email protected]” email or call the office and get me–the cofounder of the company–on the phone. I love nothing more than talking to our customers.
How do you style your daily outfits with the pieces? Do you have a favorite accessory you’ve created to pair an outfit with?
LF: I tend to wear our simpler necklaces during the day (to work) and opt for statement earrings at night–they really stand out with my short hair and are the easiest way to dress up. For work when I don’t have meetings or dinners, I will wear Levis (always hemmed to the ankle because I am petite) and a Demylee, Apiece Apart or Sacai top. I have been living in our new Best Friend Necklace–it is simple, yet chic. We designed the style in a few different colors so you can buy and wear them with your BFFs. The Tanni pendant is named after my assistant designer (she’s a genius) and it’s this great gold-plated brass pendant on an adjustable waxed cord. I love how versatile it is; it dresses up an outfit without feeling too precious. When I need to be dressier, I am a complete sucker for Dries–I love his use of patterns and colors, it feels like the ready-to-wear answer to my jewelry.
What is the most important aspect from the initial steps of designing a product to the final sale to a customer?
LF: Sometimes I will create really “out-there” designs that may have editorial allure but where Kathryn’s first reaction is, “That looks really hard [read: expensive] to produce.” As we’ve grown, we strive to balance creative and original designs with an ability to recreate the pieces in production runs of 10-100 units. While our quantities are still relatively small, we have to be mindful to avoid running out of materials–often I’ll choose vintage or dead-stock pieces which can become problematic when used in a best seller–and of being able to teach our team to recreate the pieces for production (I make every first sample).
What is most rewarding when working together as sisters?
KF: I love starting and ending the day with Lizzie. We have complete trust in each other from a business perspective (she heads up design whereas my focus is on sales and operations) and we are also best friends. It’s incredible to have a best friend / sister / business partner who you can do an early AM yoga session with, then hustle to the office with, work a full-day with, and end the day over a work dinner and glass of wine. We support each other when work is especially challenging and get to celebrate with one another when we hit new highs in the business.
Who, or what, do you draw inspiration from to create your pieces?
LF: I studied Art History [at Duke] and have a deep appreciation for a range of artists and sculptors who have inspired different collections. Moreover, I soak-up tons of inspiration on our travels; I’ve designed collections dedicated to our adventures in Peru, India, Japan, and the American West. I love studying the artisanal traditions and handicrafts of other places and cultures and figuring out how to incorporate those influences into my own work–either via a specific stitch or braid technique, a pattern or motif I might transpose onto our embroidered leather goods, or the color palette of a place we’ve visited.
Sometimes this inspiration is very literal, like our Safari Clutch in Serengeti designed after an African safari we took last winter. While other times this inspiration is a bit more subtle, like our Safari Clutch in Kanga Stipe, which represents my take on the beautiful African fabrics we saw in Kenya and Tanzania [on the same trip].
What is the most surprising thing that has happened to you throughout this journey?
LF: I still get a huge thrill when I see unexpected and beautiful press credits. Early in the business (around 2008 or 2009, before Kathryn had joined full time from her career in finance), I remember a friend calling me early in the morning and insisting I run to the deli for a copy of Women’s Wear Daily. It turns out one of my necklaces was on the cover. It was an insane credit; I was floored. I had read the trade publication for years and admired the designers and never expected to be in their company so soon. We had another insane front-of-book, full-page credit in Harper’s Bazaar a few years ago and it prompted that same rush and thrill–sometimes I have to pinch myself to register that my work is in magazines!
KF: I think from a more macro perspective, I continue to be surprised that we were able to build a competitive and sustainable business on our own. We have bootstrapped the business from cash flow (we never raised outside funding) and while it’s been a long journey, it is incredibly rewarding to be able to own a business that we take such pride in–we are proud of our product, of our employees and of the brand we’ve built.
Do you have any plans to expand the brand?
LF + KF: We continue to introduce new accessory categories including new handbag silhouettes, hair accessories, scarves and launched Fortune Finds in 2015 to share a curation of both our travel finds and pieces from friends and artists we admire. We love the idea that our brand can be increasingly lifestyle, and that the customer can wear a necklace inspired by a wall hanging or travel find that she can also make her own.
We will be producing our second pop-up store for this coming holiday season. Opening November 2017 the storefront (at 110 East 7th Street in the East Village) will be the Lizzie Fortunato brand come-to-life, with our namesake jewelry and leather surrounded by ceramics, textiles, candles, rugs and all of the treasures that inspire us. A storefront in New York is always an intimidating proposition but we love that a few month pop-up can allow customers to experience the brand in its entirety.