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How Handbag Designer Gelareh Mizrahi Used Social Media to Increase Sales by 80 Percent

The young brand is a success story for using non-traditional marketing strategies — namely Instagram and strategic placement on street style stars.
Designer Gelareh Mizrahi with her handbags. Photo: Gelareh Mizrahi/Facebook

Designer Gelareh Mizrahi with her handbags. Photo: Gelareh Mizrahi/Facebook

As the fashion industry now well knows, if you want to build buzz around your product, you need to get it into the hands — and onto the Instagram feeds — of the right bloggers, editors and other “It” types who make frequent appearances in street style photos. In fact, the whole “street style as advertising” phenomenon has led more and more brands to strategically dress (and cut checks to) certain personalities during Fashion Month in exchange for exposure, turning a medium that once accurately captured people's personal style into a well-manufactured publicity machine.

But it's not just big brands taking advantage of the phenomenon. After designer Gelareh Mizrahi launched her line of playful python handbags in 2011, she and publicist Fallyn Valenti decided that the best way to introduce them to the world was through street style placement, and they reached out to a handful of bloggers and editors they admired — who were edgy enough to maybe carry a handbag in the shape of a fried egg or a marijuana leaf to a fashion show — to loan out their first sets of samples. Among the initial supporters were Lucky's Eva Chen and's Rachael Wang, who (unsurprisingly) were shot by the likes of Tommy Ton and Phil Oh while carrying Mizrahi's bags last September. This led to a growth of momentum that Valenti says took on a life of its own. "It was brilliant — we literally had every single eye on our collection, without even doing a show," she says.

Before launching her own line, Mizrahi worked at Chanel and Intermix, where she learned about both the consumer-facing and the design sides of the business. It was almost by chance that she started her eponymous collection: Her mother had a store in Washington, D.C., for 25 years, and one of the brands she carried was Zagliani, an Italian line of luxury python handbags that's now a part of Bally. One day in 2011, a woman who owned a factory capable of creating similar bags started chatting with her mom in the store, and a few conversations, a series of sketches and two weeks later, Mizrahi had a set of samples delivered to her in New York. Thanks to her relationship with her factory, Mizrahi is able to keep her turnaround time within two to three weeks and can make each of her bags to order. When asked whether she questioned the ethics of using python, she explains that she "grew up around it."

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Following September 2014's success, Mizrahi and Valenti decided to ramp up their efforts for Fashion Week in February, lending more bags from the collection to bloggers like Rumi Neely of Fashion Toast and the Canadian sisters behind Beckerman Blog, along with their already established fans.

Over the last two Fashion Week seasons — the spring 2015 shows in September and the fall 2015 shows in February — the designer has gained over 1,000 new followers on Instagram, and seen significant growth on her other social media channels. But Mizrahi's real win through her marketing strategy has been with the buyers. "They’re giving me attention and seeking me out," she says, "all through Instagram." The accounts she's picked up this way include Nordstrom, Moda Operandi, Shopbop, Lucky Shops, Capretto and Alchemist in Miami. Sales through Mizrahi's web store are up 80 percent, which she also attributes to Instagram.

"The industry is a bit antiquated in that way," Mizrahi says of going to market and signing with a showroom. "I did start out by going the traditional route and doing shows — the Coterie trade show every season costs $10,000 just to show your collection for the smallest available booth, so that comes to $20,000 a year. It’s also such a crapshoot when it comes to which buyers are coming through and who’s looking at you, so you never know." Buyers have also been the ones to encourage her to get really creative — and at times, weird — with her designs. "It started from me naming the bags crazy things on the line sheets, and the further that I was pushing it, the more [positively] they were reacting," she explains. Even stores in the Middle East that tend to be conservative, like Harvey Nichols Kuwait, have been more responsive to her more daring designs, she says.

As for what's next, Mizrahi is always thinking of ways to top the last out-there thing she designed, but plans to keep her focus on the handbags and ways to creatively bring high fashion to the masses. Just last week, she launched lower-priced leather versions of her most popular designs with Nasty Gal, priced at $250 a bag (the python versions start around $900). "As much as doing street style brings the bags to the masses and puts so many eyes on it — more than doing a fashion show where only a certain number of people would be able to come in and see it — doing the Nasty Gal collab opens it up to a whole new group of girls who wouldn’t be able to afford the original version," she explains. The retailer has already asked to place a reorder.

The designer chalks up her success in part to good timing — it's no coincidence, she thinks, that her bags have hit peak popularity around the same time that a sense of humor seems to be back in fashion, between Jeremy Scott's looney collections for Moschino and Valentino's "Zoolander" stunt at Paris Fashion Week. "I do love seeing the clean, minimal Swedish aesthetic," she says. "But a little humor goes a long way."