LONDON — Manu Atelier, the Istanbul-based accessories label, is expanding its presence beyond Turkey, partnering with big international retailers such as Net-a-porter and Selfridges, while earlier this year, it launched in the U.S. with Opening Ceremony and online with Shopbop.com
The brand’s cofounders, sisters Merve and Beste Manastir, are pushing ahead against a backdrop of economic and political instability in Turkey, where multiple terror attacks and a coup occurred last year. While company sales have not been directly impacted, Merve Manastir told WWD that tourism took a hit and women became more cautious about buying luxury products during such a difficult time.
Moving the company’s headquarters is not currently an option, as production is based in Istanbul and the city’s local customers were among the brand’s first and most loyal supporters. She said they are still visiting the showroom to make regular purchases. Manastir also explained the Turkish government has been a big supporter of local producers who export globally, while Vakko department stores, one of Manu Atelier’s first and biggest accounts, stocks the label throughout Turkey.
In response to the country’s political instability, the sisters have updated their signature Pristine structured, cross-body bag in optimistic pastel hues and embroideries of swallows for spring. “We wanted people to hold on to their freedom and their individuality,” said Manastir.
The brand is also considering expanding its product offer in the future while focusing on introducing new styles and continuing to improve the Pristine model. “The Pristine is like the iPhone for us. We are always looking at improving the linings, hardware and materials we use, to make it as longlasting as possible” she said. “It’s really hard to make a new shape, especially in the bag industry. But we are a young brand and people expect something new to see.”
Other popular styles include the Demi, a mini tote that can also be worn cross body, and the “Fernweh,” a soft suede backpack in the brand’s signature geometric shapes.
Manu Atelier prides itself on creating handcrafted products at accessible prices, drawing on the sisters’ family heritage. Their father, a leather goods manufacturer and craftsman who’s been in the business for more than 55 years, still cuts the pattern for every single bag the brand produces.
“It’s a family product and it will always be a handcrafted bag, never a fabricated one. We made our atelier and workshop bigger and expanded the labor side to ensure that the last finishes are all stitched by hand. But still, one single man is cutting each bag,” said Manastir.
Prices for the bags range from 285 pounds, or $415 at current exchange, to 365 pounds, or $575.
According to Manastir the company has been keeping margins low to maintain contemporary price points, but as they have to face an unstable global economic situation, following Brexit and the U.S. presidential election, they are reconsidering their pricing to ensure the business is sustainable.
“We buy all of the raw material in U.S. dollars, even while producing locally in Turkey, and with the Turkish lira now being weak against the U.S. dollar, it is of course a challenge to keep the same prices, because we want to keep improving the bags each season,” said Manastir. She added the prices of the bags will have to be increased this year, but they will be minimal, however, as accessibility is a priority for the brand.
Manu’s global sales director Luisa de Paula said there has to be a balance “between maintaining your market position, but also having enough capital to keep things going. At this stage it is all about cashflow. We are growing and suddenly doubled production, so financially we have to pay for that. And if our margins are getting lower and lower then that’s an issue.”
Social media played a major role in spreading brand awareness, and another one of the sisters’ challenges is balancing that exposure with brick-and-mortar distribution. Manestir recalled how the brand started receiving orders from around the world via Instagram after Eva Chen shared a photo of the Pristine on her account. Thousands of fans followed suit and went on to build an online community identified by the hashtag Manuspeople.
“We have always told ourselves that we were going to create a real business, not only fashion. We never thought: ‘Let’s make a bag, give it to an influencer and start making money on our own.’ I think this is a very short-term solution. People still feel more confident while buying from Selfridges or Harrods,” said Manastir.
De Paul also highlighted the importance of having an omnichannel approach, saying: “Because this is a very digital brand it does need physical touch points, so it was about having the right mix of department store and boutique, offline and online.”
A partnership with a big department store is also on the brand’s wish list. “We do want a big American department store and we have been working on that, but we have to make sure that we are ready for them and they are ready for us,” said de Paula. “When you start dealing with those big department stores, there are issues of discount and compliance when you deliver. So as a company we have to be able to deal with the volume, because we have a specific capacity, which we are increasing.”