Twin sisters Lizzie and Kathryn Fortunato, natives of Wilmington, Delaware, have collectively created a well-established name for themselves in the fashion world as the ultra successful, Manhattan-based Lizzie Fortunato Jewels. Designing fashion-forward statement pieces with the combination of unique materials collected around the globe, their bold and eclectic designs have been showcased in runway collaborations with other designers. Combining forces, with Lizzie’s passion and eye for design, together with Kathryn’s marketing and business savvy, has captured the attention of some of the most influential names in the realm of fashion, such as Vogue, InStyle, Elle.
We caught up with Lizzie and Kathryn to get the full story behind Lizzie Fortunato Jewels: How they met success in the fashion mecca of NYC, what they’ve learned along the way, and what they want to accomplish in the future.
Q&A with Kathryn & Lizzie Fortunato of LFJ:
From an early age, Lizzie, I remember watching you cultivate your love of fashion design. I have fond memories of bringing my fashion sketch book over to your house, many years ago, when I would babysit for you and Kathryn. We’d sit together to review your creative ideas and drawings. Now, 20 years later, both you and Kathryn, as a team, have created the ultra successful Lizzie Fortunato Jewels!
I have similarly fond memories! In fact, I think I still own the “fashion coloring book” that you gave to me nearly two decades ago. I remember treasuring that book (and worshiping you!) as I colored in the sketches of Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera outfits. I don’t think I ever let Kathryn touch it!
When did you both decide that you wanted to start your own business together?
We operated Lizzie Fortunato Jewels at a pretty amateur level in high school and then in college we developed the business, creating collections and hosting trunk shows at a local restaurant where we sold (and took orders on) our pieces. Kathryn was the true entrepreneur who spearheaded these early trunk shows and oversaw the operations of the business; I just got to do what I loved, and that was to be creative and make something with my hands. At this time the we still truly considered jewelry a hobby. We both presumed that we would get “real jobs” following graduation (from Duke University in 2006).
We did just this: Kathryn began working at Goldman Sachs, where she had interned during college and I took a position in fashion PR. I continued making jewelry on the side however and left after only ten months to formally “launch” the business. Kathryn didn’t join me until three years later – and after much deliberation. For me it was a no-brainer; the jewelry business was calling my name and I wasn’t walking away from a lot. For Kathryn it was a much different story; she really loved her position and the stakes were much higher but I constantly reminded her that she didn’t get to “do-over” this part of her life and it was really now or never. She joined the company in 2010 and it really changed the entire trajectory of the business. Without Kathryn managing our operations and finances there really is no business to speak of so we both depend on each other tremendously! In fact, I can’t remember how I did it without her!
When did Lizzie Fortunato Jewels officially launch?
I started making jewelry in high school and continued in college but at that point really considered it a hobby. I formally launched the company in 2007 with the help of Kathryn, who oversaw the finances and sales on nights and weekends. She joined full time in the summer of 2010.
(images courtesy of jasonrosssavage)
Do you hope to open a storefront or are you content with selling LFJ exclusively in select stores and online?
I always say that “I’d like to have a storefront when I can afford to do it right.” It’s certainly something I dream about doing; however I think it’s going to be way down the line. I dream of the perfect display cases, the perfect lighting and the perfect location. Additionally, I’d be interested in selling work of other artists I admire in addition to textiles and finds collected during my travels. In my head, the store would be a jewel box of curiosities and I think creating it would require an investment (of time and money) equal to what we’ve devoted to our current business. Needless to say, I don’t think it’s something we’ll be doing until LFJ is really running itself!
In the meantime, being a wholesale business is really suited to us. We have such close relationships with a lot of our retailers and try and travel about four times a year to do in-store appearances with our favorite accounts. As a matter of fact, we’re planning our first Tokyo trip for Spring ’13 to visit a number of stores there!
We have developed great friendships with our buyers and have loyal customers who look forward to visiting their favorite local boutique when the new LFJ arrives. This kind of proliferation is difficult without being a wholesale business. Furthermore, our online shop has given us the benefit of being able to sell direct, and we look forward to growing our online store to include “curated items” including finds from our travels and creations made by fellow designers and friends to further enhance the Lizzie Fortunato brand.
(image courtesy of wild combination)
Who currently carries Lizzie Fortunato Jewels products?
We currently sell through about 60 retailers. Domestically, those are primarily boutiques but also include some great websites like www.shopbop.com and www.charmandchain.com (which is exclusively accessories and features some of our favorite fashion jewelry peers). In New York, we sell at Kirna Zabete in Soho, Five Story uptown, Henri Bendel, Maryam Nassir Zadeh, Creatures of Comfort (which also has a location in LA) among other high-end boutiques. We sell at a number of premiere stores in London including Matches and Harvey Nichols, but Tokyo continues to be (far and away) our largest international market. We sell at a number of department stores there and can’t wait to visit soon! The Japanese girls really get us!
It’s amazing to see your line featured in high-end fashion/design magazines such as Vogue, W, Elle, InStyle, Harper’s Bazaar, the list goes on… Knowing the competitive nature of high-end fashion, what was one memorable breakthrough moment into the industry?
Shortly after launching the line, one of our necklaces was featured on the cover of the trade publication Women’s Wear Daily. This was huge for us; it was so exciting and thrilling and beyond that it was validating. After that, I thought to myself that this business really did have legs and “I’m not insane for having just quit my job!”
Since then, it’s always been flattering to receive good press. It’s particularly cool when The New York Times / T Magazine features us because it’s often alongside the most incredible international couture designers. Being held in that kind of company is just awesome.
(image courtesy of wild combination)
As your business continues to expand, how do you manage to keep up with the demand?
Production continues to be the most difficult aspect of our small business. We make about 97% of our products domestically and about 75% of that in Manhattan. The only work we do overseas is embroidery, beading, and craftwork that is native to Indian cultures and is pretty much impossible to source in America. We really value the artisanal and handmade quality of our pieces and the time that goes into each one. As a result however, our production leadtimes are quite long and the process is involved and sometimes trying. NYC-based production is not only expensive but there is no “one-stop-shop.” That is, our casting is done in one place, plating takes place in another, and stone-setting and metal work in yet another. Then once we have all of our components we have a team of seamstresses who assemble each piece in our offices. The coordinate to successfully create (and ship on time!) 90 sku collections three times a year is just unbelievable. Fortunately, we were just able to hire a production manager to assist with this but still, there are times when we are turning down re-orders! We never want to have to turn down a sale so further refining our production and continuing to build a team of dependable and fast production people remain top objectives for the business.
(images courtesy of wild combination)
For business, do you both travel together or do you ‘divide and conquer’?
Our day-to-day travel (i.e. visiting vendors in midtown or meeting with a new leather maker, etc.) is completely divided. We’re each always running around performing very individual and specific roles. Kathryn is typically dealing with production and I’m usually doing development. I get to think a season ahead so that when she’s producing one collection, I’m onto the next!
In terms of bigger picture with travel, we tend to stick together. For store events, we almost always go together (customers like getting both of us and I depend on her to really sell the collection!) and for inspiration and development trips (we travel to India to work on new embroidery and beading techniques) we stick together as well. It’s awesome to have a constant friend in tow for these kinds of adventures!
As twin sisters, has owning a business together taught you more about one another?
Definitely! We are so close already but working together 24-7 has really taken our closeness and understanding of each other to the next level! We can pretty much finish each other’s sentences and I always know to tell Kathryn that we have to be somewhere about 45 minutes before we actually need to be because “wrapping things up” at the office seems like an interminable feat for her! Owning a business together also often means that, when stressed, we fight with each other like other co-workers might not, but conversely we also get to celebrate the victories together and being able to do that with your sister is such a treat.
(images courtesy of wild combination)
My creative passion started with fashion design, which morphed into fashion photography during college, then lead me into interior design post-college. Over the years have either of you worked in other fields or considered other careers?
Kathryn spent nearly five years on Wall Street and has such a mind for numbers. Since she joined LFJ, she has worked as consultant for other lines helping them raise money or organize their finances. I encourage her to take these opportunities whenever she can as she’s really incredibly talented at helping small fashion businesses which excel in the creative but are lacking in terms of financial and operational knowledge.
Lizzie, as a designer where do you find your biggest inspirations?
I’m constantly inspired by my materials and surroundings. If I’m traveling and find an old textile at a market or a piece of artwork at a yard sale (I’m a fiend for flea markets!) then that can sometimes inspire an entire collection. Similarly, my surroundings in New York provide constant inspiration. I have a few favorite antique stores and trimming stores where some small or unexpected material will trigger an idea that gets me working for days. Downtown style and the fashion show that is New York City street corners also sometimes help to solidify designs for me, but most often it’s a piece of art or material or vintage fabric that really incites new ideas.
(images courtesy of jasonrosssavage)
Lizzie, you incorporate a wide variety of materials in your pieces. Where do you source your objects and materials from? What are some of the most unique materials you’ve worked with?
I source materials from all corners of the globe! I love finding unique ribbons and trimmings. There is one Japanese-based ribbon company with a showroom in New York where I always have a hay day! We also incorporate a ton of embroidery and beading – both antique and new – into our work. For the embroidery and beading that we create new, it’s crafted by hand on looms in India. Kathryn and I have been several times to oversee this process and it’s extraordinary – the extent of what can be created by hand on looms is just mind blowing! I collect antique textiles everywhere I travel as well. Most recently, we brought vintage Peruvian “mantas” back from a small village outside of Cusco (while we there to trek to Machu Picchu with our dad and brother!) and incorporated them into a line of limited edition clutches for our Resort 2013 collection. I visited Uruguay several years ago and brought back antique bone poker chips which we turned into pendants, I have used wood from South America for both bracelets and pendants, and love African brass and glass beads. The bright colored African trade beads are a favorite that I incorporate into my collections season after season. We also source semi-precious stones from all over the world; we use lapis, mother-of-pearl, onyx, pink opal, angelite and the list goes on! One of my favorite stones that we’ve used recently is fuschite – a greenish stone that I’ve fallen in love with that we have cut by a great stone cutter in the western part of the United States.
What goals do you have for Lizzie Fortunato Jewels?
Three seasons ago, we launched leather goods and it’s proven to be a really great extension of the brand. Our leather goods feature Italian leathers and brass hardware but in conjunction with beading and embroidery that still really makes it recognizable as “a Lizzie.” Growing this arm of the business is an immediate goal in addition to expanding sales on the jewelry. We just hired an international showroom to represent us in London and Paris, which is an exciting and huge next step for us. We have done several runway collaborations – most recently Matthew Williamson for Spring/Summer 2013, but continuing to collaborate with other designers is important to us and just remaining “relevant” whilst growing the business are our foremost objectives!