When I met with Maria Sole Cecchi at the Crosby Street Hotel in early June, she was bursting with nervous energy. The Florence, Italy-based designer was in New York for a quick visit, jam-packed with press and buyer appointments, to preview her resort collection. As soon as we sat down, Cecchi announced that she and her brother and business partner Andrea Cecchi had secured a location for Les Petits Joueurs' first stand-alone shop: In September, it opens in Florence, Italy on Via de’ Tornabuoni, the city's luxury shopping street.
"We felt this energy and we wanted to take advantage of this opportunity, even though [a store] wasn't on the list of things to do," said Cecchi.
The store marks a major milestone for the pop art-inspired brand. Five years ago, Cecchi left Florence and moved to Brazil, already wearing her first Lego-emblazoned bag: the "Love" style that's still the best seller. It was far from a real business at that point, but Cecchi's upbringing taught her a lot about how to make it into one. Her parents were in retail, buying and selling overstocked luxury items. "My father was going to see headquarters of the big brands and [would] buy a lot," said Cecchi, who would watch his quick negotiations with brands and clients. She also learned at an early age what sold and what didn't sell, and the price points of different luxury brands.
But when it came time to start her own career, Cecchi enrolled in law school for practical reasons. "There was a lot of crisis in Italy and my family went through a little bit of crisis," she said. "My parents said, 'Now you have to work for yourself.'" But she dropped out of school, moved to Brazil "for love," and started garnering attention for her Lego bags just by wearing them. "People were very open, always, press-wise and it was super easy to be on the magazine covers," she said. "And my brother believed in the brand and he said, 'Let's do it together.'" They started with a personal investment of under 10,000 euros and Cecchi started traveling back and forth between Florence and Brazil — she also regularly took a 15-hour bus to Paris with her brother for market appointments. The first official collection launched for spring 2014 and made an instant splash thanks to its popularity with bloggers and in street style images.
"People in the business are always complaining about how those bloggers somehow affected all the media’s business and everything, but I cannot say anything bad about that because, sincerely, the success of the brand was built on the street by those girls," said Cecchi, who doesn't pay for placements and instead lends and sometimes gifts. "The effect was immediate." Cecchi wisely befriended street style photographers in Brazil who would look out for her bags and photograph them, and it built from there. "They used to tell me — 'As soon as we see one of your bags out, it's a photo,'" she said. "People love to share the images on Instagram." An early and avid supporter was Eva Chen, then the editor of Lucky, who posted images of the bags on the social platform and was photographed wearing them during fashion week in early 2015. "[She] gave us a lot of visibility, press-wise, and also [with] buyers in terms of wholesale."
Now, Cecchi receives hundreds of requests per day from bloggers and up-and-coming digital influencers, looking to feature her bags. She and her team, headquartered in Florence where Cecchi just moved back full-time, organize the requests by region and work with influencers depending on which stores need the support. "We have 250 stores worldwide, so if a store needs more marketing, we look to the contacts that we have [to see] if there is a blogger from that specific area," she said. "Every country needs to have its own marketing and [sponsorship]."
Cecchi's strategic approach to marketing and sales helped the brand see a 90-percent sell-through rate for the fall 2015 collection, which she calls a turning point for the brand. It was her largest to date, and marked the first time she actually reached out to Lego directly to order 60,000 brick pieces. The children's toy company was already aware and appreciative of her bags, but couldn't offer her any licensing because it already belonged to childrenswear designers. "From this January 1, 2016, they deliberated that all artists or companies that do something with Lego bricks in an artistic way that doesn’t affect their business, they can do without any type of permission," said Cecchi. Now she and her team buy in quantities closer to 150,000 pieces, often from third-party companies that have it stockpiled.
But now, Cecchi's greatest challenge is expanding past the Lego bags while still maintaining a cohesive brand identity. "The pom pom bag became a really iconic piece of our collection," she said, adding that pushing new product each season isn't healthy for the business. "There are no rules anymore... A buyer wants always to see something new; but they don't understand that, at the same time, it takes time for the final client [to see it]." She recognized that the bags are not cheap, ranging from about $200 to $1,200, but occupy a price-point sweet spot. "It's not a Furla or Michael Kors kind of bag, or, of course, Dior or Fendi," she said. "It's something that you still have to think maybe twice before buying, but not too much... This is a point that lately has been touched on and was studied a lot by us."
For resort 2017, Cecchi has some design evolutions coming down the pipeline. Her team, which builds all the Lego pieces in-house, has developed matte black and metallic Lego-type pieces, which give the familiar toy a cool elegance. She's also introducing a new "camera bag" shape, while still evolving the pom poms, studs and Lego-based designs her customers already know and love.
"Fashion is a moment... everything goes super fast [and] I learned to be aware of what is going on and protect what I'm doing." To that end, Cecchi says the goal for the next year is to stabilize and strengthen the brand. And after that? Les Petits Joueurs will turn its colorful eye to shoes.