LONDON — Luxury handbags have emerged as one of lockdown’s unexpected winners. Mostly it was heritage names and all-time classics that kept customers spending, with retailers turning away from the younger, accessibly-priced labels they’d been nurturing just a few years ago.
Marina Raphael is one of a few young names in the luxury bag sector that was an exception to the rule: The 22-year-old Athens-based designer defied challenging market trends and saw her online sales skyrocket amid the pandemic.
“We had steady growth, but during the period of the first lockdown, from March to early June, we had more sales than we had in the last two years since our brand launched. It was a huge boost for the brand, almost like a fast-track ticket,” said Raphael, speaking from her studio in Athens.
“Clients were contacting us, asking for tracking numbers as if they were in a rush to receive their bags, even if they had nowhere to go.”
Now she’s building on the momentum by joining forces with the influencer and art director Evangelie Smyrniotaki — best known as @styleheroine to her 384,000 followers — to launch a collaboration.
The two Greek-born creatives, who share a love of crystals and all things that sparkle, got together to design “the ultimate holiday bag,” with the aim of adding a touch of glamour to what is turning out to be a very unusual festive period.
The bag is a mini version of Raphael’s signature Riviera top-handle tote, which is embellished with Swarovski crystals and features bright pink, or black, enamel handles.
“It’s like one huge crystal with handles,” said Raphael, who is related to the Swarovski family through her mother, and who worked with the Austrian company to produce the bag.
“It was all done under Swarovski’s clean standards to ensure that everything was done in a sustainable way, from the quality, to the craftsmanship and working conditions of the factories.”
To mark the launch, Smyrniotaki and Raphael shot a campaign filled with sleek, modernist images that have already been causing a stir on Instagram. This is also very much a testament to Smyrniotaki’s ability to create striking images, a skill that brands like Sergio Rossi, Bulgari and The Attico have been noticing. As a result they’ve been tapping her as an art director for various campaigns.
As two of the most internationally recognized industry names from Greece — Raphael has been building her label’s international footprint with partnerships with Harrods and LuisaViaRoma — the two women wanted to link up to bring their worlds together: “The idea for this collaboration was to design the bag in Athens, where we both come from, and to offer something to both the Greek and international markets,” added Raphael, pointing to an influx of interest from local and international customers.
The bag is priced at 950 euros and sold exclusively through the brand’s web site.
Raphael has a commitment to classic, trend-free shapes: She’s been working her signature Riviera tote into every collection, with the ambition of turning it into an investment piece akin to those from heritage labels.
“We are definitely looking to be one of those luxury mega-brands in the future that people really buy and appreciate. Thirty years later, a bag should still feel modern, be in great condition and appreciated for the heritage and the craftsmanship that went into it. We want to stay away from any fast fashion or mass approach, which is also extremely unsustainable,” said Raphael, crediting her commitment to slow fashion as the reason behind the brand’s continued growth, despite the pandemic.
“You would expect that the last thing someone would buy during a lockdown is luxury goods, but the reason why people have chosen to buy our bags was because they’re so far removed from the idea of mass market, seasons or trends. They know that even in two years’ time, it will still be fashionable and the quality will be there: That’s what really boosted our sales,” said the designer.
“It’s a bit of a contradiction being such a young designer and new brand, but having this appreciation for quality and craftsmanship is also part of my family heritage, experiencing a company where a single line can make all the difference,” she said, referring to the Swarovski business.