"I had a full-circle moment when a store I visited on my honeymoon in Japan before I had even launched my brand, placed an order for my pieces," recalls Emily Antonian Li Mandri, founder of the accessories line MLE. "I remember thinking how beautiful everything was in the store and am honored to now have my designs included." Take a gander at the MLE collection and it's of little surprise why Li Mandri's handbags, jewelry, and select apparel resonate as much as they do: They're refreshingly playful, made of high-quality materials, and still retain a charming DIY, homespun flavor (most everything is made-to-order by a small team of craftspeople, including Li Mandri herself).
The current arsenal includes the likes of brocade clutches made from deadstock fabrics, hair clips of croissants and poodles, silk sleep masks with hearts for eyes, and sterling silver jewelry of eggs (10% of proceeds of the egg pieces, a nod to women's rights, are donated to Planned Parenthood). Since its launch in 2018 from Li Mandri's NYC apartment, MLE has been worn by style tastemakers like Emma Chamberlain and Iskra; the Gentlewoman’s Agreement Necklace, which features a handshake clasp, was worn by model Jasmine Sanders on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s 2020 Swimsuit Issue; and MLE has launched collabs with fashion blogger Amy Rolland of @afashionerd and visual artist Amber Vittoria. In addition to the online offerings, MLE is also stocked at Nordstrom, Anthropologie, Urban Outfitters, and Wolf & Badger, and can be found in over 150 stores globally. "We’ve grown so much that we now have a production space and showroom open to the public by appointment in Saugerties, New York, in the Catskills," Li Mandri says, of where now lives full-time.
Ahead in this edition of Talking Shop, we catch up with Li Mandri on her brand's evolution since her move out of the city, why she's unwavering when it comes to sustainable practices (despite its challenges as a small biz), and her thoughts on why these whimsical, upscale MLE keepsakes have struck such a chord with customers.
I am in love with your sense of humor. Where do you think it comes from?
"My sense of playfulness is a result of being a creative soul and still holding onto the childlike wonder of experiencing the world. I still feel like a kid inside even though I’m an adult!"
Do you have any sort of design or inspiration process?
"I spend a lot of time experimenting and sourcing materials and get inspired by the materials I find. I have many different notebooks and sketch my designs and put together mood boards. I also spend a lot of time with my two rescue poodles, and they are an endless source of inspiration for me."
I see that most everything is made to order as a means to not overproduce. Is this model particularly challenging as a small business or have you found a way to make it work?
"When I started my brand in 2018, I thought about the impact I would be making by creating these additional objects in the world and the permanent space these objects and their manufacturing byproducts would be occupying. I wanted to create objects that would be cherished for a lifetime. Made-to-order is truly the best way to produce sustainably, as it forces both the consumer as well as the manufacturer to be more mindful of materials and resources. It’s also important from a business standpoint to produce only if there’s demand, to avoid getting stuck with inventory and needing to discount prices to quickly move units.
"Operationally it is very challenging to run our business in the made-to-order model because not only do we make many of our pieces in this way, but many of our products also use deadstock materials, which limits the number of pieces we can actually produce. As we have grown over the years, we now also have so many different products and we still have a very small team to make the pieces, that it can become overwhelming. We now have systems in place to keep track of the pieces that need to be made, and we organize incoming orders by categories so the orders can be forwarded to the correct departments for production."
You moved from Brooklyn to Saugerties during the pandemic — I wonder if the move upstate has allowed you to evolve as an artist and designer in an unexpected way.
"We bought our house upstate before the pandemic with the idea we would be escaping the city on the weekends. Once the pandemic happened, we decided to relocate upstate full-time. Moving upstate has given me, most importantly, more space, physically and mentally. I have literally more space now to spread out and work on my different projects between my home office and downtown production space and showroom. In Brooklyn my production and order fulfillment took over every surface in my apartment to the point it was starting to get in the way.
"But also, having the stillness of being upstate has given me the chance to focus more on creating and innovating. Before when I lived in the city, I spent a lot of time going out and experiencing all it had to offer, but then I found while I did feel inspired, I would be a bit drained from taking it all in, and it was harder to actually create anything. I now am more accustomed to working with my team members remotely. I am also able to take advantage of being in nature, going on walks and hikes regularly with my dogs, who both came into my life once we decided to move upstate."
What can fans of MLE expect in the new year ahead?
"We have some major collabs in the works, so get ready!"
In Refinery29's Talking Shop series, we're chatting with owners of up-and-coming small businesses about their experiences launching, the big challenges and wins they've faced, and of course, their products and services.
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