Martine Ilana, Founder, La Mer Collections
Venice Beach, CA
Interview by Laura Piety
A Rverie Conversation with Martine Ilana, Founder and Designer of watch brand La Mer Collections.
Martine started the company, which is now known for popularizing the wrap watch, out of her small apartment in 2001. It has since grown to over 20 employees and is retailed at 1000 plus locations worldwide, including Henri Bendel and Shopbop. We visited their offices in Venice, California to hear about how Martine started the business, her love for travel that permeates every collection and campaign, and how she created a sustainable brand without seeking help from outside investors.
Do you have a background in fashion and how did that evolve into starting your own business?
I started the business in 2001. I had been living in Cape Town, my whole family is from there, and I loved to travel, in fact I visited Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Swaziland the year before. I wanted to create a product that you could wear every day, but something that also acted as a souvenir of sorts, bridging the memories of my travels. So I started creating! I'd literally go to Target and buy watches, cut them apart, go to an automobile store, grab leather and just start exploring how to create something.
I ended up selling them in a couple of local stores and then I contacted a company in New York.
They told me they couldn’t help me directly where I was, but did offer me a job to show me the business. I had no intention of moving to New York. I really wanted to go to San Francisco, or to Colorado, and travel some more, but I knew I needed to do it.
So La Mer took me to New York and I was there for three years. I learned the business. I traveled to factories and understood how to deal with construction. By day I would work for big companies and at night I would create my own collections. After living in NYC for a while I needed a different environment, somewhere with sun and air. I ended up moving to Boulder, Colorado, and working as an interior designer. It was really cool because I was working for a smaller business.
I went from working for this giant company to really seeing how a profitable smaller business can function. It gave me hope that everything didn't always have to be so mass market!
However, I knew that Boulder wasn't where I was going to land. I really missed the ocean and wanted to get a more formal education in fashion. So I ended up going back to school and got a degree in apparel manufacturing. I ended up working at Vans for 3 years after that as their accessories designer. They had a pretty sizable retail department which also exposed me to international business.
Meanwhile, I continued working on La Mer in the evenings, it was my creative savior. I was still selling to stores and slowly just building a line and learning, gathering information.
Urban contacted me in 2006 and asked me if I would like to wholesale. I had to figure out working at a bigger scale quickly, working with manufacturers to help me mass produce the straps because at the time there were no other wrap watch companies. It wasn't your standard watch.
The other thing to note is that while I was working this whole time, every moment I had with any extra money, I would go travel. I'd go to Puerto Rico, if only for two days.
I wanted to expand my mind, do something different, and see the world in a different way.
That's really the basics La Mer started. It definitely wasn't an intentional, nor did I know the path.
When did you move to LA?
2006. I was with Vans at that point.
And then you struck out on your own working from your kitchen?
Yes. I was working out of my garage!
You were in Venice?
Right off of Abbot Kinney before it was the Abbot Kinney it is right now.
Before GQ named it.
How did you start bringing on a team? How did you choose the people you wanted to work with at such an important stage of the business?
That's a really good question and it's an ever evolving thing. I decided that if I was going to really expand I needed to have sales, and I'm not a sales person. I know the product and I'm a designer.
So I found a showroom through some connections and they helped me open new accounts. I started taking La Mer to trade shows and it was really well received.
I had enough capital and moved into a new space. I ended up hiring this one woman who was fresh out of school and she was really my first employee. Then all of a sudden, we brought on a PR firm. It was my first experience with PR, and the company exploded.
At that point, all my friends were unemployed because it was the height of the economic collapse. Somehow we managed to navigate our way through that as we didn't have any investors and just worked with what cash we had.
At different points during the crisis, al of my friends ended up pitching in with La Mer, the whole neighborhood in fact. After that season came to a close, I realized that we really had something and I had to protect it because it took so much energy to get where we were. This meant hiring the right people.
I started looking at people who were interested in logistics, but who were also really motivated around the creative industries. I found that the people I hired tended to have some kind of East Coast/ Midwest life experience. There's something about their work ethic that has really held strong with us.
That's really great, yeah.
When I first got to LA, I couldn’t figure out why everyone was hanging out at 2:00 in the afternoon at a coffee shop?! I didn’t understand I mean, where are you going? It's 1:30pm!
Haha! It’s baffling!
Yeah, that was really an interesting shift, but once I started bringing people on it was really cool. There's something about our product that's really interesting. People actually produce the watches in the office which means there’s a sense of ownership over every piece that feels very genuine. You're putting a watch together, and then you see it go out in an order, I think that is really satisfying.
We have a really low turnover rate, and everyone feels responsible for the success of our products. They've made it with their bare hands.
That's how I like to look for people. Can they work with their hands? Are they educated? Are they motivated?
That's great. You've got everything here, there's such a high satisfaction level and people are so connected to the product…
How have you gained your own business skills?
I originally studied industrial design, but went back to college to get my next degree for product manufacturing, and I discovered that for some reason I was really good at merchandise math. Some weird part of my brain is just fully obsessive about numbers!
Which is the perfect mix.
I really focused on the math and the margins of our products because I knew how much it should cost to actually make a piece and so I knew how to scale based on those numbers. From a business standpoint, the biggest challenge has been operational, from a human resources perspective.
Are there any books you would recommend for this area?
There's one that I read called "How to Manage Yourself," and also "Finding the Perfect Match" with regard to employees. The biggest thing I had to overcome was time management and balancing the creative with the business side.
How have you honed your creative vision and design process?
I know what has not worked. That always helps. I also think that there's always a split between the creative and the commercial - the bread and butter of the business - so when something is selling really well, we have to be sure we chase the business.
The other side of that is if something is inspiring me, and I want to test the market, I'll just create it. For those pieces, I really start from a color and experience, normally travel experience.
It's also making sure that the pieces being created are wearable. When I first started I'd just make pieces with the craziest beads, chains and stones. There's no way they would sell.
Could you tell me a little bit about your customer base?
Sure, it ranges, from probably fifteen to sixty-five or seventy, if you can believe it. I feel like it crosses over. Even if you go onto Instagram right now, we have really high international distribution.
It's cool because we have Japanese women who are wearing a La Mer watch. We have women in the Middle East who are wearing a La Mer watch. We have women in Indonesia and Ecuador and the US, it's so accessible.
I feel like the main value is that they want something that's just for them. You don't want to see somebody walking down the street wearing the same thing as you have. You want to know that it has some handmade aspect to it, that it's made for you. I feel like the appreciation of a hand crafted product is definitely our main value. It's ageless almost.
It really is.
We've just started a lot of new distribution relationships and seeing it go live so fast, especially with social media, has been super inspiring.
That's amazing, especially with social media. You can tangibly see what's going on with your customers and product on a day-to-day basis. It's very cool.
Can you talk to me a little bit more about the highs, maybe some of the more difficult times, of running La Mer?
Oh, it's always difficult. Everyday. I fell like with growth, obviously there is so much opportunity but it also creates adversity.
I feel like a lot of the deadlines, the logistics, have been challenging. Especially when you're shipping overseas.
Finding the right people also has been a challenge. Human resources is a big part of any business, getting people on board and having them understand the main value and intention of the company.
Because we do not have investors, managing the cash flow and the growth of the business is always a challenge. Also customer service. I think making sure that our customers are always happy and keeping things positive, especially when you're in a product customer service business, is definitely challenging.
Honestly, overall, every challenge always brings something really good to the business. Change is so welcomed here that we're all pretty up for it. It's good.
Last question. You've really gone through the journey of starting something and making it really successful. What advice would you give to an entrepreneur who wants to start a business?
I feel like there was a moment. I remember the day that I quit my job when I was at Vans. I remember thinking to myself , "Oh my God. I am now going on a journey and this is what I need to do right now in my life." It was like all things aligned and I had the confidence.
I feel like trusting that inner voice of knowing that it's a good time, and being ok if it's not the right time to go forward. Trusting your own intuition is really important.
The thing is, I just knew that somebody would understand what it was that I was trying to do. I'm like, "There has to be somebody out there that this would resonate with these products!" Just having that confidence was really important.
For more information visit http://www.lamercollections.com
Images courtesy of La Mer Collections