Nearly two decades ago, fashion industry professionals Monica Zwirner and Lucy Wallace Eustice decided to launch their own company to fill a hole they detected in the bag market — the need for accessories that are every bit as functional as they are stylish. As co-founders of MZ Wallace, they did just that.
Since launching in 1999, it's been their mission to build a business that's centered around style, rather than fashion, so that their product could outlast the grueling pace of the fashion industry trends.
Both Zwirner and Wallace Eustice spent years working in the fashion industry, yet they each had a unique background — Zwirner is a former fashion stylist to high-end clients, such as Gucci and BMW, and Wallace Eustice was an accessories editor at Harper's Bazaar and Elle before becoming a design and product developer for European luxury accessory brands— which helped diversify their approach to building a company and brand.
The result, MZ Wallace, has become known for its trademark quilted bags, available in a wide array of colors and styles. Best sellers include the nylon "Metro Tote" and the "Jim Bag," a unisex duffel, which have grown in popularity among city dwellers, commuters and travelers.
"In terms of our signature quilted bags, we wanted to make something that was really soft, durable and could easily roll up or pack flat when going away," Wallace Eustice tells CNBC Make It. "We also wanted it be relatively simple, clean and kind of iconic in its silhouette because we don't reinvent every year."
In the beginning, MZ Wallace had just one brick and mortar store located in New York City. In addition to opening a second location, the brand also got a fairly early start in e-commerce by launching its digital store in 2004. Today, online sales make up 85% of the company's total transactions. And in the last two years, total sales have doubled, the company reports.
Although MZ Wallace isn't a brand that gives into trends, the co-founders haven't been afraid to experiment and innovate on their own terms. In November 2019, the brand will venture into men's fashion by launching its first-ever men's bag collection. And in order to support causes they feel strongly about, Zwirmer and Wallace Eustice started the "MZW Gives Back" program.
In an interview with CNBC Make It, the MZ Wallace founders share how they birthed their business, the best financial advice they've ever received and the items they always keep in their wallets.
Wallace Eustice: "The most rewarding part is that no one tells you what to do. And the most challenging part is that no one tells you what to do. You are responsible for everything. And in a way, I think part of being an entrepreneur is knowing that you can't just slack off, that you're always trying to push and you can't relax."
Zwirner: "I think one of the most rewarding things is that we've survived and grown. It's quite rewarding to come in and see all these people here that are part of this team. I think one of the hardest bits is when you begin. You have this moment, naively, where you think when we get to this level, it's gonna be easier and less stressful. And I think it's never not stressful. In the beginning, it might be the payroll, but later it might be the production. But it's always there. The stress just morphs."
What came first for you: the idea to start a business or the inspiration to make this specific product?
WE: "I think it was both! It wasn't like we got together and thought 'Should it be shoes? Should it be clothes? Should it be jewelry?' We had a vision and we knew what we wanted to do."
Z: "Yes, and we definitely felt that, at the time, fashion was very logo-crazy ... as it kind of is now once again in in the industry. I was never a logo or picture type of person. We felt that that there was something missing in the market, and to be designing for the type of women with the lifestyles that we had, it didn't feel like what we wanted could be found there, either. A beautiful heavy leather bag was available, but a great looking, practical bag, less so."
WE: "Mine, I think, is quite simple. That is to have automated savings, meaning have a portion of your money taken out for savings before it even hits your spending account. Then, you won't notice it at all, and you'll just forget about it and it'll build."
Z: "Mine was to not spend more than you have. A pretty conservative piece of advice, I guess. But I think we've run our company that way, in the way that we've grown organically and invested what we could, but we've never done anything that we felt was going to jeopardize the health or longevity of the business. Both personally and professionally, live within your means."
WE: "I carry an MZ Wallace wallet, of course. I have no change. I have four credit cards. I have a two business cards, a Chase Ink Business and an American Express Platinum. For personal, I have an American Express and a Visa Sapphire Preferred. I have two different sections in my wallet for cash, one for big bills and the other for small amounts. I also have my medical cards, driver's license and my library card."
Z: "Full transparency, I always use an MZ Wallace wallet because I feel like, you know, I want to represent. Until recently, I've always had a pretty big wallet and I've been a big receipts saver ever since my days as a stylist, where we had to save every shred of a receipt."
"Recently, I switched to the smallest wallet that we make because I wanted to see how it felt like. I decided, 'That's it. I'm going change-free, I'm getting rid of the receipts.' And so far, I'm loving it! I have nothing in there but the four cards I use, which include two business and two personal cards, plus my metro cards. That's it. The end."
WE: "I have a Pikachu Pokémon card from when my son was little. And I have a bookmark that my daughter gave me from when she was little."
Z: "I have two metro cards, and there is one that only has 25 cents on it, but for some reason, I can never get rid of it. Because I don't throw money out. So, I have the one that works and the one that always says 'swipe again.'"
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