In 2017, then 20-year-old Marina Raphael had an idea. "I wanted to launch a handbag brand where the quality and the craftsmanship was impeccable, but the prices were not too high," she told Business Insider.
The only problem? She had no background in design. She didn't attend Parsons in New York or Central Saint Martins in London. She said she was never the one to sit down and design clothes as a little girl.
She did come from a prominent family, as she acknowledged in an interview with Business Insider. Raphael is a sixth-generation member of the Swarovski crystal dynasty and grew up in the shadow of that billion-dollar glass empire.
To get her company off the ground, she said she borrowed some money from a family member and combined it with money she had been saving since her adolescence.
She pays homage to her heritage by incorporating crystals on all of her products but she also said that while she's been "fortunate" to have family support, she still had to work extremely hard to build off of that and achieve what she has so far.
"Sometimes people look down on me because I am very young and I did happen to come from a background that has supported me," she told Business Insider. "But I am a very hard-working individual, and I love my job and I wouldn't trade it for anything."
Here's how she did it.
'My first 10 handbags were a disaster'
Raphael was born and raised in Athens, Greece. She entered the International Baccalaureate program at St. Catherine British School in Athens, then studied business management at Kings College London.
"Kings College was so much about theory, but I am a practical person," she said. "I wanted to go out there and create something of my own."
She said her journey into the fashion industry stemmed from her entrepreneurial drive and her passion for luxury. This led to a year of her learning how to design and draw the technical sketches for her handbags; she studied topology and learned how to choose leather as well as how to understand the weight of the bags.Raphael chose handbags, she said, because they are "investment pieces" and "no matter what age you are, you can always wear a bag."
"Handbags are a personal accessory," she said. "I wanted to give my clients impeccable quality, but still be sort of affordable, so it's still luxury."
She then spent a year learning Italian and headed out to Florence, Italy, to find a factory that could produce her handbags.
"I speak Spanish, English, Greek, and German, and so I learned Italian because I wanted to be able to communicate with the factories and have a hands-on approach," Raphael said.
There are currently seven people working for Raphael full-time, but she said it took more than 200 people, including press and sales teams, to get her operation off the ground. She recalled that her first year of production was like it is for most entrepreneurs: a bit wobbly.
"My first 10 bags were an absolute disaster," Raphael, now 22, recalled. "But all of these things happen and they are just part of the job. You just have to keep moving on."
Disastrous situations taught Raphael how to set realistic goals and expectations for her brand and for her journey as an entrepreneur. She said one of the most important things she did was take the time to learn how to work with her team and simply listen.
"Sometimes being young and being stubborn you think you know it all, but you need to learn how to adapt your ways and listen to your customers and change your product," she said. "It's important to take criticism."
'We had nothing to lose — so we sent out a bunch of emails'
Once the first collection of handbags was completed, Raphael hired New York-based strategy firm Tiger Shark to represent the brand and began working with its founder, Elizabeth Manice, to send out cold emails to retailers. The goal was to get one of them to pick her young brand up.
"We had nothing to lose. So we sent out a bunch of emails to random people," she said.
Luxury retailer Moda Operandi took an interest early on, becoming the first online retailer to sell Raphael's bags.
"One of the first people that actually believed in the brand was [Moda Operandi cofounder and chief brand officer] Lauren Santo Domingo, and she specifically loved the bag — she said, 'Let's give it a shot.'"
Now, nearly two years later, Raphael says the brand is "going really well" and works with top influencers including WhoWoreWhat founder Danielle Bernstein. Queen Máxima of the Netherlands is also a fan of the brand — the royal has been seen on numerous occasions sporting Raphael's latest designs.
Raphael has also joined the growing number of young emerging designers at the forefront of fashion's sustainability movement. For her own brand, she has made sure the company incorporates ecological wool and biodegradable leather.
She is also following a near-zero waste policy, where the company tries to reuse old leather and skins.
"Sustainability is the future of fashion," she said. "Everyone should be educated on how they can make their company more sustainable."
But Raphael said people remain skeptical of her leadership and taste due to her young age.
"I didn't have much experience and they questioned my quality and my motives," she said. "They think, 'Oh, she is 22, let's see the brand for another three, four, five seasons — if she continues."
But Raphael is doing well. Very well, actually. She just launched a crystal handbag collection with fashion blogger Evangelie Smyrniotaki, and told WWD in November that her company saw steady growth amid the pandemic, seeing a boom in sales during the first few months of the pandemic — more than they've ever had.
"I failed so many times in the beginning," Raphael told Business Insider. "But without failure, you don't learn. Failure is so important in any company because it's what brings you to the next level. And it is what separates you from the people that quit."