Over the past few years, a slew of mid-range accessories brands have emerged as the victors of our wardrobes. At a more attainable price point than luxury and heritage fashion houses, but with the same high quality and innovative design, these brands are producing investment pieces worth saving for while tapping into the fact that their customers look to street style and Instagram (rather than biannual catwalks) for their sartorial inspiration.
From Manu Atelier to Yuzefi, Elleme to Boyy, each brand has a distinctive aesthetic – think puritanical belt details, hoop fastenings or chain handles – that is as identifiable as Gucci’s GG logo. Stroll through a department store like Browns or Selfridges and you’ll notice that the shop floor, once filled with legacy brands priced between £700 and £2,000, is littered with mid-range labels that most likely already have a loyal following on Instagram.
One such brand is Dutch accessories label Wandler, which hit the floor of Harvey Nichols with a pop-up last week. Founder Elza Wandler built her business from scratch in under a month back in 2017, and it’s been nothing but success ever since. Launching with the curved top-handled Hortensia handbag, which won over buyers and customers alike (and spawned a million copycats), in April of this year Elza unveiled her debut footwear line. The directional edit is as instantly recognisable as a Wandler design as her bag collection.
With playful colour palettes – think tomato red and millennial pink pairings – and architectural shapes (hello, square toes and origami details), it’s no wonder the brand has gained 56,000 Instagram followers and fans including Lady Gaga and Gigi Hadid. "We’re delighted to be Wandler’s department store partner in the UK as I feel that this is one of the most relevant brands of the moment," Laura Larbalestier, group fashion buying director at Harvey Nichols said of the launch. We caught up with Elza ahead of the pop-up opening to discuss making collages as a child, mid 20s insecurity, and naming bags after her favourite women.
Was fashion design always on the cards for you?
As a child I wasn’t really a reader and I had trouble with following the school rules. I was always busy with fashion, always! When I was 8, I had my little fashion agency, where I would cut things out of catalogues and make collages, draw stuff, and make pretend appointments with my sister, who was definitely boss and had the nicest position in the company. My mum saved everything, which is nice – it’s funny to look back on now.
That’s so nice! Do you still make collages?
Definitely, I love making them. I do a lot of my designs by hand, I can’t do them digitally as it doesn't work for me.
How did you go from fashion-obsessed kid to designer?
I studied design at the Fashion Institute in Amsterdam, and afterwards I went to work at Levi’s Made & Crafted for four or five years, designing clothing in Amsterdam. It’s not a fashion capital, so you’re limited to who you can work for. I liked what I was designing but I wasn't designing for myself, you design for your target market. I think I always had it in my character to start my own business.
Why accessories rather than clothing?
I’ve always had a thing with accessories, because I think they are very playful. A T-shirt is a T-shirt, but with bags the shapes are more free and sculptural. I wanted to explore that. I was already making bags as a freelancer so I thought it would be smarter to start with one accessory and then expand.
A lot of creative people find summoning that business acumen difficult, but it sounds like you got it straightaway.
In the company I worked for it was just me and another woman, so I learned quickly. For me I was seeing not only design but the production, travelling to Turkey and Italy to go to factories, meetings about margins and material costs; I gained a lot of knowledge. The size of the company doesn't really matter as the ingredients are all the same anyway, so that’s how I learned what worked and what didn’t. What I found scary design-wise was deciding when to design under your own name – you can only design once with your own name, it’s all or nothing.
You were just 29 when you launched your brand – did you ever have insecurities or imposter syndrome?
I was way more insecure at 25. Now I’m insecure but I know what I’m doing! At 25 I was way more dreamy. It just felt like the right timing at 29. You meet the right people, and the universe kind of brought everything together at the right time.
You know a Wandler bag when you see it; was the architectural and sculptural aesthetic always a clear design choice for you?
They’re distinctive designs but not too obvious. I want people to notice your bag when you carry it – a bag elevates your outfit but I don’t want it to overwhelm you. That’s the balance that I try to keep in mind with every design. I have crazy colours, but because of the shape being quite elegant, they all work together.
What relationship do you think social media has with your brand?
I mean obviously the world doesn’t exist without social media, so it definitely helps. I think it’s a great medium, and it has pros and cons like everything. Getting hype can be really hard, but that won’t sustain your business, so I wouldn’t say it has built the brand. Having interesting designs and major partners to help launch the brand is what builds it, and then they talk about you, which is then picked up on social media, so it all strengthens one another. I don’t think social media was the driving force initially.
The shoe collection is as strong as the bag offering. Did the design process differ at all?
I hadn’t designed shoes before, so I had no prior experience. Like many women, I love shoes and have way too many. With a bag you put it over your arm and one size fits all, but with feet, no one has the same foot. Each part of a shoe is made separately, whereas the bag is made in one factory. You can’t please everybody with shoes, but I had to go with comfortable and sexy. The feedback I get is that the shoes are very easy to walk in, but it’s a slim fit – if you have a wider foot you have to get half a size up.
I spent two months in Italy spending time with technicians and lace makers, testing every little detail. There is a big gap in the shoe market: you have designer and high street shoes, but there aren’t that many, and what is available doesn’t necessarily have the design appeal for me. I think my bags can sit next to big brands like Loewe and Celine, which they do in our eight retail spaces, and not look out of place. I wanted the same for the shoes.
Can you see yourself expanding the brand into clothing in the near future?
It’s my professional background so it wouldn’t be a difficult step for me, but I do everything based upon feelings and emotions. I can’t sit still, so I’m sure there will be something else soon. Maybe candles or pottery – I have an obsession with vases. In terms of bag designs, coming in August is the Georgia bag and I’m super excited about it.
You’ve named bags after your niece and mother, is the Georgia named after someone?
Yes, after my friend Georgia Tal, who does all the Wandler styling. She was like, 'All the bags in the collection have a name, and there isn’t a Georgia bag?'
What is up next for you?
I need a holiday! But I think brand-wise, I’m in an exciting place so I want to keep that momentum going. I try not to jump on the next thing too quickly. I'm just living in the moment.
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