The handbag industry has changed drastically over the past decade, evolving from an era of status-carrying luxury "It" bags to the proliferation of independent, contemporary-priced accessories brands that owe a great deal of their success to Instagram. Designer Günes Mutlu has seen this shift firsthand, launching her own line, Mehry Mu, from her native Istanbul, Turkey back in 2008. At the time, she had just started a fashion e-commerce site for which she was struggling to find handbags to sell.
"It was either the really really high-end bags or it was Tory Burch and Michael Kors, which I have nothing against, but there was a bit of a gap in the contemporary category," she tells me by phone. "I wanted to fill that gap."
The line was inspired by Mutlu's own upbringing and travels. She went to college, studying psychology, in the United States before returning to Turkey to begin a career in media. She was following in the footsteps of her father, a journalist-turned-newspaper owner, starting out in ad sales before helping to launch Turkish editions of major fashion magazines including InStyle and Madame Figaro. "I would be in awe of how he creates content," Mutlu says of her father. That's when she observed the lack of local fashion e-commerce options and got the itch to do something entrepreneurial. The site ultimately didn't last, due in part to the 2009 economic crisis, but the bags did.
"Being Turkish and American-educated, I traveled all my life, so I wanted to bring together an East-meets-West fantasy," she says of the inspiration for the line. She describes merging "ethnic" fabrics sourced from the grand bazaar of Istanbul with modern Western details. She wanted eclectic touches that would still "speak to the contemporary woman." Everything is produced in Turkey using locally sourced materials including rattan, velvet, rope, natural stones and more.
After establishing the brand locally, Mehry Mu gradually made a name for itself internationally, selling to influential retailers like Net-a-Porter, Bergdorf Goodman, Shopbop and more. Her biggest hit so far, debuted in 2016, has been the Fey — a style that combines Instagram's favorite interior design material, cane rattan, and its recent favorite handbag shape, the box, into one photogenic piece now done in a range of fabrics, sizes and colorways.
"It was all about Mark Cross box bags when I first designed [mine]," she explains. "[The Fey] was a box bag at a very affordable price point for the craftsmanship that goes into it, with rattan. Subconsciously, it's something you like because we all like the French chairs, that vintage vibe, but it was something completely novel. So I kind of built all the collection on top of that first bag."
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The Fey and its offshoots, like the Luna, have gotten lots of love from influencers and celebrities alike including Jennifer Lawrence, Emma Roberts, Busy Phillips and Laura Harrier. These styles are also distinctive, making them easy to recognize, and relatively affordable. A strong seeding strategy means very little without those other factors in place, as the founders of competitors like Cult Gaia and By Far can likely attest. And Mutlu has continued to expand her line by this successful strategy. It's always been about more than Instagram for her.
"I'm really grateful for social media for giving us opportunities we otherwise wouldn't have as a small, independent brand, but when I design, I don't want the bags to just be toy bags or objects that are photographed that don't do you any good," she says. "Of course, social media — those beautiful pictures of celebrities or influencers getting a coffee with their bag — definitely helps. These people get a lot of gifts; there are so many brands out there especially in the contemporary handbags category, so we are very happy that we're picked and we're photographed we're shared."
Despite all the social media traction and attention from top retailers, Mehry Mu has faced its fair share of challenges, from overcoming the 2009 financial crisis, to struggling to keep prices accessible, to facing the current pandemic and economic downturn.
"It's very challenging to work with little margins to tell you the truth," she says regarding her pricing. "If you're selling wholesale, if you're selling to Net-a-Porter and Bergdorf Goodman and all the stores, your wholesale business does suffer." Still, she remains adamant that shoppers should not be spending their entire paychecks on purses.
"No matter how much money you have, you should not be spending so much money on your bags. We love bags, good quality does deserve some kind of investment," but, she says, "I'm very passionate about surviving despite the low margins, and doing more direct-to-consumer if necessary."
While Mehry Mu does have its own e-commerce, and Mutlu is aware of the challenges facing traditional retailers and the potential downsides of working with them, she's still a big believer in what wholesale can offer a small brand.
"On a personal front, it's good to be validated by these amazing stores with amazing curation and I know that they are having problems right now, huge economic problems like the rest of the world, so it's important to also support them because they supported us in the past," she notes. She likes seeing her pieces photographed beautifully or merchandised alongside other brands she admires. Of her retail strategy moving forward, she says, "We're not going to give up on working with our wholesale accounts, but we will definitely strengthen our DTC." That's one of the things she and her team have been focused on during the pandemic and it's paid off, with sales growing exponentially despite lockdown. "People do buy bags, even during lockdown," she was relieved to learn.
Mutlu says she's feeling optimistic about this upcoming market season despite everything going on. While many other brands are reducing their offerings for spring 2021, she's actually expanding the collection. Aside from that, she's focused on new socially-minded initiatives, like donating a portion of sales to Turkish children in need, particularly those over 18 and thus disqualified from local government assistance. She's also working on expanding the brand's vegan offering, looking into cactus-based alternatives. Looking further out, she hopes to one day expand into footwear and jewelry.
Her latest buzzy styles, the Cha Cha range, are made from woven gold rope, including egg and heart shapes: whimsical, Instagrammable, with a little something more.