Everyone loves a record-breaker. Fashion media continues to focus on historic sales like the recent Sakura Diamond $29.3 million auction price tag. However, business analytics pages point out that the real “gold” is not in the unique luxury items, but in costume jewelry. Currently valued at a shimmering $33 billion, the segment is projected to sustain a nearly 8% annual growth over the next five years. The only other industry expected to do similarly well is the post-pandemic global passenger air transport! A year of virtual coworking enhanced people’s appreciation for personal adornments as the trend for embracing freer self-expression continues to rise. Any lucrative niche is naturally highly competitive, but the saturation rate within the costume jewelry market can be disorienting. From your local farmer’s market artisans to celebrity jewelry, hi-tech bling, recycled feel-good pieces for a charitable cause, and even jewelry for pets. How does one differentiate among all the offers that literally glitter?! I could think of no better person to discuss this challenge than Ellie Vail, founder of an eponymous waterproof jewelry line that went from a few orders on Etsy in 2014 to retailing at Revolve, Urban Outfitters and other international outlets pre-covid to mastering e-commerce in 2021. How did a college drop-out without a design background create one of the hottest jewelry brands in recent fashion memory? As many hard-to-believe stories, it started with an unexpected insight at an unlikely place.
“Spoiler alert” for anyone who does not know already. How is your jewelry waterproof?
It is made of the highest quality hypoallergenic stainless steel.
Stainless steel is not the first metal of choice for jewelers. Why did you pick it?
I think it picked me! I was living in South Florida, sweating all the time. You’re at the beach, at a club, or just running errands, and by the end of the day fashion jewelry would turn your skin green. The gold or silver plating would wear off so quickly. I started researching materials for my small jewelry line. I was at a nail salon and saw cutters in a bowl of water. It was like lightning: “Oh my God, what is that metal?! Why is it not rusting?!” The ladies told me it was stainless steel. I spent the rest of the day researching manufacturers. It was all sinks and pots, until I finally found those who could do jewelry. I got so excited, there was no turning back.
How did you get into jewelry design?
Again, I think it was meant to be! I discovered that college was not a path for me. I was working a data entry job and really missed being creative. One day I stopped by a crafts store and there were women making beaded stuff. I was like, “Oh, that’s so fun.” They were like, “Yes, we have classes on Tuesdays.” I went and loved it. I was making necklaces and bracelets for myself. My friends were commenting, “Where did you get that?” And I started taking orders from friends, then friends of friends. Then someone suggested Etsy. I saw this as a fun side hustle and wondered if I’d ever make any real money. Then I made quite a bit of money, at least for me at the time. I prayed to God that if I made a certain amount, I’ll take it as a sign. A couple of months later I did, and I quit my job. That’s when I realized I really had to get serious and began researching all these alternatives to cheap unsatisfying options on the market. Then, boom, I’m at a nail salon…
How did you convince customers to give stainless steel a try?
I was my own first customer! I knew if I had good designs and explained their hassle-free benefits, people wouldn’t think twice about buying steel. All girls know how jewelry can spoil our skin and clothes. We simply showed women showering with the necklaces on, swimming with bracelets, enjoying the water. It was a two plus two moment. Oh, I don’t have to take this off? Oh my gosh.
Who has inspired you as a young entrepreneur?
It’s a pinch-me moment, but I read so many Forbes articles! [Laughs]. I discovered three women and followed them through the books and podcasts. First was Sara Blakely who founded SPANX. Her whole bootstrapping business ethos, no debt, no investors, doing everything herself first. I thought if she could do it, I could do it. Her example and approach kept me going through those early growing pains. I’m working out of my mom’s spare bedroom. I’m shipping and handling. I’m PR and marketing. It’s funny how many of the most successful people in the world started the same way. However, the other lesson is not to bottleneck your business by doing everything yourself forever. Letting go is something I am happily learning thanks to my great team of eight miracle workers!
And who are the other two businesswomen that helped you succeed?
Jennifer Hyman and Jennifer Fleiss, founders of Rent the Runway. When they started, it was a new fashion concept, like mine. People were like, “What are you doing? Nobody wants to rent clothes.” They had to educate people and believe in it. That was so huge for me! Being an entrepreneur is about bringing something visionary, the first time, the new thing. It’s a gut feeling. I’ve heard so many people say this that I used to roll my eyes at it. Now I know! [Laughs] The biggest takeaway was that building a business requires a lot of patience to allow yourself to learn and adapt in the right ways. There were so many points where if I had rushed the process, I would have messed it all up. And now stainless-steel jewelry is a trend and rental clothing is huge. It is very inspiring.
Do you have customers who inspire you now?
Each and every one of them! But if you’re asking about style icons, we had three out of five Jenner-Kardashians! Kendall, Kylie, and Khloe wore our pieces, I’m hopeful Kim is next. I just absolutely love her more than life. [Laughs] But the thing is, people assume if you’re getting celebrity press, it turns into a million dollars in sales overnight. It is much more complex than that, especially for brands like mine. With over 100 styles, it is impossible to build a business around A-listers. One piece sells out, what about the rest? People move on from the “it” item, because there is the next “it” item. Sure, if it’s good enough for the stars, it’s good enough for anyone, but the long-term credibility is in the brand loyalty you build yourself. Consistency is crucial for people to trust you.
Speaking of consistency, how did your business weather the pandemic?
We got lucky with the timing of our e-commerce launch. I built a wholesale business first. It was easier to get my foot in the fashion door, to earn name recognition. About eight months before COVID hit, we started on B2C infrastructure. This year we completely flipped from 90% wholesale to 90% direct-to-consumer sales online. It was the hardest, most terrifying thing. We were growing at 300%, and nothing worked the way it did before. Marketing, internal and external operations, everything had to change, fast! It was a good problem, but it was a problem for a while to keep up with the demand. You had to make really quick decisions, and they had to be right.
What are some of the people’s favorites from your collection right now?
Ah, the shoe charms. It’s funny, because it’s one of my favorites too and it started as a joke! I went to visit my fiancé’s family in North Dakota and folks were wearing Crocs while deep frying fish. I had to give up my stilettos and order an emergency pair of Crocs to fit in. I ended up obsessed. One day out there I thought, “I’m going to make charms for my Crocs.” So many friends laughed it off as a hideous idea. After Vanity Fair chose our shoe charms as a fashion statement of the summer things turned out differently! It’s really hard to be unique these days, so this little success story reminded me of why I started this business. Now I’m working on a men’s line, because my fiancée keeps pointing at our chains and bracelets asking, “Can you make one for me?”
Give people what they want! A great business principle.
At the end of the day, jokes aside, it’s all about connecting with people, of course. I love sharing my designs as much as my journey. I started a podcast – WTF: We Talk Fashion – because I learned so much from podcasts and wanted to give back to those coming up behind me, also to connect with peers. I’ve always been a fashion girl, before the businesswoman didn’t even exist yet. I grew up with a single mom and three brothers. This type of success was not a given for my future. If you associated “Ellie Vail” with entrepreneurship 10 years ago, people would have laughed at you. I dreamed and studied. Honestly, it’s fun now to reminisce and cheer others on. When I’m out and about meeting people, they hardly ever assume I’m the business owner. I can wear the best suit and still get asked what type of work I do for the company or if I am an influencer. If people see a man in a suit, they don’t rush to similar judgements. Beyoncé said it well: “Best revenge is your paper!” Now I want all the girls to manifest their wildest dreams.