What It's Really Like To Launch An Indie Handbag Line

The handbag market is a pretty crowded corner of the fashion industry to truly make a mark: It's populated with O.G. It bags by, say, Gucci or Louis Vuitton, that's immediately identifiable by familiar logos, and the occasional, stealthily-appearing newcomer (hey there, Mansur Gavriel) that's suddenly slung on the shoulders of seemingly every fashion editor and street style star. But what's it like to transition from working behind the scenes for other designers, to taking a stab at running your own show? Just ask accessories designer Gretchen Maull, who debuted her label, GG Maull, last year.

She started her career as a studio assistant at Proenza Schouler in 2006, back when the luxury label was just four years old, and it's where she first realized she wanted to have her own line. Stints at brands like Missoni and Oscar de la Renta followed; she then joined the accessories design team at Calvin Klein, helping conceive a diffusion line (Calvin Klein White) from scratch, down to the hardware. After cutting her teeth on "Made In Italy" design for contemporary and luxury names, Maull wanted to get experience on a more mass brand with production based in China. It was also a label her teen self (and, likely, yours too) would appreciate: Juicy Couture. That job, coupled by a family incident that jolted Maull's career goals into perspective (more on that later) led the Bay Area native to get moving on her own brand, ASAP.

Some serendipitously-salvaged leftovers from her Juicy gig were Maull's starter stock for GG Maull, an accessories line designed in NYC and produced at a factory in Italy that works with major luxury names like Dolce & Gabbana and Prada. The brand, which is currently carried at boutiques like Intermix (with some department store stockists on the horizon) has been a labor of love. Starting an accessories company from scratch means doing everything from hustling for celebrity cameos to taking an emergency trip to Italy (where she works with a team she dubs her surrogate "famiglia") when there's a hiccup in production. Ahead, Maull shows us the process of creating and cultivating a luxury handbag label from the ground up.

How did your time at Proenza Schouler kick-start your career?
I got my internship at Proenza to prove to my father that working in fashion was a real career. I also wanted to move to Italy and pursue a more serious curriculum centered around fashion and accessories design. My parents didn’t agree with my move to Europe, or my career choice.

"Working at Proenza alongside Jack [McCollough] and Lazaro [Hernandez] planted the seed that the ultimate goal would be to have my own company. I loved everything about the experience: seeing the bright colored python skins they were selecting, running out to JFK the day of the runway show to make sure the accessories made it through customs, bringing swatches to Lazaro at home while he was designing a new collection,Tom Ford coming into the office to mentor the boys, and the raw Chinatown space with a manual elevator.

"Proenza was the only true start-up I ever worked for, and when I was selecting my own office space or materials I would reference back to Proenza and how they would have done something. My office is in a similarly raw space in the Lower East Side; I love using python in my handbags. I am able to purchase python from the same factory as owned by Kering, formally the Gucci Group, so I'm working with the finest skins as all the luxury brands I have worked for before."
What was it like getting to concept a whole line from scratch during your time at Calvin Klein?
"I worked on the launch of the White Label for Calvin Klein at G-III. I got to work with, and learn from, some of the most amazing designers in the industry; it was also the first time I designing signature hardware and selecting 'basic' leather for handbags. Most companies already have established their signature colors, hardware and materials before you get there. Getting to help select them and see how a brand is birthed was a wonderful experience."
What prompted you to go to Juicy Couture?
"I wanted to see what it was like to manufacture handbags in China. I also was curious to learn how a more vertically-integrated company was run, and how to revamp an old brand. Plus. my 13-year-old self could not say no to working at Juicy Couture..."
Why did you quit Juicy to launch GG Maull?
"It was a pivotal time at Juicy and in my life. Juicy Couture had just been sold to Authentic Brands Group. Approximately 90% of the company was let go, including the patternmaker who had been at [former parent company] Liz Claiborne for over 20 years. One day, as we were boxing up the Juicy Couture offices, I was showing corporate liquidators around, and we stopped at our sample room, where there were old leathers, materials, and machinery to make handbags. These liquidators told me that they had no use for any of this 'junk,' and that I should donate it to someone. A light bulb immediately went off: The universe was telling me it was the right time to leave and go out on my own. This, combined with the fact that my sister was hit by a car the week before, made me re-prioritize my life. Instead of starting my company one day, it needed to be today."
What was the process like of finding a factory in Italy to produce your pieces?
"It took two years of driving around northern Italy, about six trips in total, and lots of rejection to find my factory. My factory in Italy is literally my second family. I speak to them almost every single day. Maurizio was worked in his father’s factory, which produced handbags from Louis Vuitton, Bottega Veneta, Dolce & Gabbana; the best [brands]. A couple years ago, Maurizio asked to take over a smaller factory his family had purchased that his father was going to sell. He left the larger company and took over this smaller factory to venture out on his own.

"Since Maurizio was also young and starting out his own business, like me, we had a instant connection and sense of understanding. Now, we're growing and building our businesses together. Over the past two years, brands such as Dolce & Gabbana and Prada have begun working with Maurizio's factory. I am so proud of him and the factory's success. I work hard to make larger orders for them, and while I'm growing, they look out for me; they're my famiglia."
How'd you convince the suppliers you'd worked with at places like Calvin Klein and Juicy to take a chance on working on smaller orders, for a completely new brand?
"Our factories are truly our partners, and we have a symbiotic relationship. Our success is their success, and our failures are their failures. The best way to get a larger factory to take a risk and work with us has been by being an honest, loyal, and reputable person over many years of working together."
How impactful are celebrity placements, and what it's been like to get your bags on celebs' arms, competinf with well-known names?
"Seeing someone else wearing something you created it the best feeling. When it's a celebrity wears a GG Maull handbag, it's like the ultimate cool girl vote of confidence. As a smaller brand, it's such an amazing moment to have someone [frequently seen on] the red carpet support you. We all know that the major players in the industry pay celebs to carry their bags and feature them in ad campaigns, so when the person chooses GG Maull, it goes to show how much she loves the bag and connects with the brand. Having that support early on just brings more and more eyes to my collection. And makes me feel like I am not totally crazy for quiting my day job to follow my dream."
What challenges have you found with big Italian leather producers as new brand? How are these bigger factories monopolized by major luxury labels?
While driving around Italy with my [surrogate] nonna’s son, we got pretty far down the road with a few factories that loved my designs, and were excited to take on GG Maull. I decided on one factory in particular that worked with only one big luxury designer. When I flew over to finalize our agreement and begin sample production, they told me that the other luxury brand, which gave them 90% of their business, had forbade them from taking on another brand, even one as small as GG Maull. I went out in the parking lot to breathe, it dawned on me that is how major handbag brands monopolize that market and keep out smaller brands. They take small family run factories in Italy. Either they give them the maximum amount of work they can handle or they give them 80% or more of their business where they are able to control who the factory works with. I now believe it is another way that the major players control who is able to make handbags in Italy."
Stones factor in heavily to your designs: Where do you source them, and why is that a big part of the aesthetic?
"I'm a Cali girl, and have always been drawn to nature's beauty. As a child on school field trips, I loved playing with the Tiger's Eye and Fool's Gold rocks. As an adult, I spend more time at the Evolution store then I care to admit. Sometimes, your designs don't come out at all like you'd planned; the crystal studs I started incorporated on some of my bags came out exactly as I'd imagined. I was over the moon and began putting them on all my designs. Most of our stones are sourced in Southeast Asia, India, and China; I try to make sure that I can get the highest quality I can at the best price."
Did you previously cross paths with any of the suppliers you're working with on GG Maull while you were at your past gigs?
"All GG Maull’s hardware is made in China with the same supplier that made Juicy Couture's hardware; they also manufacture Tory Burch, Kate Spade, and all the big-time handbag players. They're taking a gamble on GG Maull, hoping that one day we'll be a big brand and will have grown with [the supplier]. Fashion is a cyclical business, so the big factories that have the ability to do so understand that they need to invest in new designers. I tested out making my hardware in New York, Italy, and China. In the end, China's automated systems offered the highest quality, and allowed me to use the highest quality base material, brass."
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