Dreaming of a warm weather escape this winter? New York-based accessories brand Lizzie Fortunato can take you there.
Mother-of-pearl, African bead and black raffia "Hula" earrings transport you to an island luau in Kauai. A peacock-colored pearl, brass and bone "Moroccan Sun" necklace beams you to the Majorelle Garden in Marrakech, and an "Arrow T Bar" cuff to dinosaur fossil beds in Colorado.
Kathryn and Elizabeth Fortunato travel the world gathering stories of place and craftsmanship, whether they are visiting the Lightning Field in New Mexico or a beach bar in Tortola, and then translate them into artful modernist accessories with an exotic flair.
"We're not trend driven," says Elizabeth Fortunato during a recent interview in L.A., where she was hosting a trunk show. "Our pieces are for any age. We've never had a hot actress or model as a muse. We like dressing original dressers."
The 31-year-old twin sisters grew up in Wilmington, Del., and went to Duke University, where they started making jewelry as a hobby, to wear to parties and formals. By sophomore year, other students took notice and asked if they could buy the pieces. The sisters staged their first trunk show in the back of the Durham, N.C. restaurant where Kathryn was hostessing. They sold out of their seed bead necklaces with tiny charms in the first half-hour and continued to make jewelry throughout college to fund spring break trips.
After graduation in 2006, they moved on "to real jobs" in New York City. Elizabeth joined fashion PR firm Paul Wilmot, and Kathryn was hired as an associate in investment banking at Goldman Sachs.
But jewelry was still a dream. Elizabeth made pieces in her spare time and sent them to editor friends at magazines to try to slip into fashion shoots. After a year in PR, she decided jewelry was her calling. She started Lizzie Fortunato from her sofa on the Lower East Side in 2007. The first store that picked up the collection was Albertine General, an influential boutique on Christopher Street. Bergdorf Goodman followed, and Elizabeth officially had a business.
"I was sampling, producing and selling it," she remembers. "I would call Kathryn desperate, and say, I just had a meeting and they want 'net 30,' and I don't know what that means! She'd be in the middle of a trade but would go into the bathroom and explain it."
Kathryn Fortunato laughs when she recalls giving her sister business advice out of the bathroom at Goldman Sachs. (As for "net 30," that meant the retailer wanted 30 days to pay for an order.)
"I always told myself, if the business gets big enough, I'll leave," Kathryn Fortunato says. "I didn't want to wake up in my 30s or 40s and realize I never left to take the risk with my sister to become an entrepreneur."
Kathryn joined the brand in 2010 to run the sales and finance side. That first day, when the two were trying to make it work in an apartment without air conditioning, she questioned the decision to leave her cozy Wall Street digs.
But not now.
"Now we have a studio with air conditioning and eight people on payroll," she says. "We do production in New York and some in L.A. So much of the work involves intricate beading and metal work, so we have a lot of people who are seamstresses. We call it the slow production movement."
And they're fine with the pace.
"That's kind of our thing," says Kathryn. "It's not about retiring early or having explosive growth in selling. It's about having a sustainable long-term vision."
In 2012, they expanded into handbags, which have the same transporting look as their jewelry, often incorporating natural wood and raffia materials. Now bags represent 25% of their business. Lizzie Fortunato is sold in more than 70 retailers worldwide, including Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and specialty stores such as Ten Over Six in Los Angeles, as well as on the brand website LizzieFortunato.com. Prices range from $105 for Evil Eye brass and turquoise eye-shaped stud earrings to $795 for a T-flap leather purse with onyx bead-decorated bar closure.
In stores for the resort season, the Port of Call clutch ($575) is decorated with whimsical, raffia house plant details, and the Tropic Fringe style ($505) has a gold-and-navy blue palm print with gold braid fringe trim.
"For the woman who has her Celine or Balenciaga, this is something different — a conversation starter," says Kathryn.
A collaboration with Atlanta artist Sally King Benedict is scheduled to hit stores in February, incorporating her linear face paintings on leather and linen bucket bags, totes and pouches. "I love mixing fine art, travel and fashion," Elizabeth says.
On the Lizzie Fortunato website, product layouts mix jewelry, travel souvenirs and snapshots with images of art by Matisse or Agnes Martin. And last year, the sisters launched a new online category called Fortune Finds, where they sell art and decorative items from their travels.
"We decided to bring some things to our customers to help tell the story," Kathryn says. "Seeing a fringe necklace next to a fringe wall hanging, people understand Lizzie's world. That's how she decorates her apartment and what she wants to communicate to her customer. This week, we've sold necklaces and earrings online and a beautiful celestial print, a Moroccan rug and pillows we made from fabric we found in Oaxaca."
A store is a natural next step, they say. But again, they are in no hurry.
"I don't ever want to make things I'm not proud of," Elizabeth says. "And I never want to be creating just for the sake of creating."