If you're in the market for a nice, new handbag, you'll soon realize that the so-called Gucci effect — by way of chain-linked crossbodies with vibrant, vintage-tinged embroidery — is nearly unavoidable. The logo-laden "It" bag is still kicking, too, back after a more minimalistic movement nudged it into hiatus. For consumers who want something clean, something updated, something patchwork- or appliqué-free, the options are out there, but chances are, they're going to cost you.
You work hard, you have great taste and you're willing to splurge, but not if it means putting what you'd normally spend on a vacation towards just one bag — especially if it runs the risk of falling out of style, as "It" bags so often do.
This frustrated Stockholm-based Paulina Liffner, so much so that in 2012, she launched her own line of understated, Scandinavian-chic handbags — called Little Liffner — despite having no true design experience. Her motivation? If you want a thing done well, after all, just do it yourself.
"I was just missing sleek, pared-down styles that I wanted to wear myself — and the ones that were clean enough, but still had a nice touch to them, were insanely expensive," Liffner tells me over the phone from Stockholm. Indeed, Little Liffner's product range is about as understated (read: logo-free) as they come, all of it produced from the finest materials in Italy and never costing more than $500.
"I wanted to make a product that is clean and refined and unbranded, but still good quality, of course, and made in Italy, but has a price tag that doesn't make you have to choose between a vacation and a handbag," says Liffner. "I want to have both and I think there are a lot of people who do, too"
Soon after Liffner's realization, Little Liffner was born — but without any traditional design experience, the founder was forced to get creative. Though, it's not as if she was entirely unfamiliar with the fashion industry: She has an editorial and branding background, having worked at Elle Sweden for several years before moving to the brand side to do marketing and PR for fashion companies, both in Scandinavia and internationally. (For the first few years of Little Liffner, she still held down her day job in branding; she began committing to the label full time in 2014.) Liffner turned her outsider's perspective into an advantage, even if she didn't feel entirely comfortable doing so right away.
"I didn't know that so much starting out, but now in hindsight, I think [my background has] been really valuable because [I was] used to posing all those tough questions to other people trying to [run a fashion brand]," says Liffner. "Who's actually going to buy this product? Why are they going to prefer your brand and instead of another brand? There are so many products out there, so it's not just about making a beautiful product anymore. There's so much more that it's related to, like creating a universe and a personality around the brand that people actually like."
In the last five years, Little Liffner's community of loyal customers has become one of its strongest assets; Liffner attributes this to the brand's commitment to steady growth.
"I always wanted to build this with a long-term perspective," says Liffner. "My wish for it is not to blow up and become super-hot or super-trendy in a season or so. I always wanted to grow it quite slowly and steadily for it to be a long-term viable business."
Little Liffner started out entirely direct-to-consumer, which allowed Liffner to get to know her customer intimately. "I could see what styles worked and what people seemed to like," she says. "I think I had a good learning curve the first seasons; just organically, I could see what the customer responded to and that was really valuable."
Little Liffner's channels with its shoppers remain incredibly open, ensuring that Liffner can connect with her consumer and continue to diagnose their needs.
This communication has also extended into the realm of influencer marketing — or lack thereof, rather, as it started out as something of an accident. Though it wasn't born out of any sort of strategy, the brand saw an immediate uptick in traffic after Swedish mega-blogger Elin Kling began wearing one of Little Liffner's bags. Now, of course, Liffner and her team have all the proper channels set up — "it's just an inevitable part of working with marketing today," says Liffner — but she's found that it's important to maintain that independent spirit.
"I mean, there's a lot you can plan and try to do in a more organized way," she says, "but still some of it — for it to feel genuine and for it actually work — when it happens organically is where it works best."
With Scandinavian design style now the subject of international attention, Little Liffner should have no difficulty attracting customers naturally. Though that's not something Liffner consciously considers when designing; it's just how she lives her life.
"We tend to be a little bit more pared-down, palette-wise, but still, style-wise, if you look at [Little Liffner's] styles and functionality, there's really something very Scandinavian in that, but it's inherent to me," says Liffner. "There's always this basic thought of who's going to use this bag and how and when you're going to use it, and I think there is a cleanness to the style that is very Scandinavian. Part of the functionality of the bag is something that's bare, so to speak."
Liffner's design chops have also received industry recognition; she received Elle Sweden's Accessory Designer of the Year award in 2015. At the time, she was flattered, surely, but otherwise nonplussed.
"To be honest, I didn't expect that to mean anything to me," she says. "The second time I win it, then I'll be very proud. Because I feel like everyone can do it one time and when you win it twice, you've actually built something." If anything, the award granted Liffner a sense of confidence in her own design skills. "It made me more secure in my role as a designer... and not only the founder of the brand and the entrepreneur behind the brand," she says.
It's been five years since Little Liffner's launch, and the brand has yet to take an external investment. "My goal is to forever own 100 percent of this company," she says. "I'd rather have slower growth and do it my way."
Looking ahead, Liffner hopes to bring her now-acclaimed Scandinavian design prowess into other segments of the accessories market. But there's no rush: Liffner tells me that right now, they're just focusing on making the very best handbags they can at the current price point.
"There's still a lot to be done," she says. "Building a Scandinavian accessories house, rather than just a handbag brand, is really the vision."
Now, selfishly, I hope Liffner succeeds; the more beautifully made, reasonably priced contemporary pieces that won't rob me of a vacation, the better.
Homepage photo: Pauline Suzor/Courtesy of Little Liffner