Handbag designer Marina Raphael has just returned from a business trip to Dubai when she sits down with me in her office, nestled in the upscale, northeastern Athenian neighborhood of Nea Erythraia in Greece. On the wall to my right, there’s a large, glitter-y image of her signature Riviera tote bag — a style that has been seen on the arms of Jennifer Lopez, Katie Holmes, Adjoa Andoh, and Queen Máxima of the Netherlands, among many others. The carryall is one of Raphael’s first-ever designs, so she has a soft spot for it — which is perhaps why you can find it re-emerging in new fabrics and finishes in each new collection.
The blingy artwork pays homage to Raphael’s roots. Sparkle is not only a hallmark characteristic of her designs but also her family’s legacy: The designer is a sixth-generation member of the Swarovski family from her mother’s side. Her great-great-great-grandfather, Daniel Swarovski, founded the business in 1895. But while the historic company is based in Wattens, Austria, Raphael was born and raised in her father’s home country of Greece. She completed her schooling at the city’s St. Catherine’s British School in Athens, less than 10 minutes away from where her office now resides. The neighborhood is quaint, she tells me, like a village — everyone knows everyone and everything about its residents.
At 24 years old, Raphael has only left the Greek capital for a short period in her life: in 2017, when she studied business management at King’s College London. She recalls being struck by the city’s entrepreneurial energy and its strong fashion influence (world-famous names like Burberry, Stella McCartney, Manolo Blahnik, and Erdem have all set up shop there) after growing up in a place that isn’t widely known for fashion. Within her first year of university, she felt inspired to use her business degree to create a product of her own. She brainstormed ideas and considered her lack of technical experience in fashion before landing on accessories.
The designer leaned away from jewelry — what she’s known her whole life — and into handbags to carve her path. “I wanted to create something that is really high quality but also somewhat affordable and not a price point of 2,000 to 5,000 euros,” says Raphael, alluding to the pricing of established luxury labels. Indeed, Raphael’s handbags fall in an “entry-level” designer handbag price range of roughly 600 to 1,300 euros (roughly $595 to $1,285 in the current market).
Raphael wasted no time in pursuing the idea and entered a research phase in her second year of college, watching YouTube videos and reading books on manufacturing processes, leather types, and design. Upon securing a manufacturer in Florence, the designer says she even learned Italian to better communicate with her contacts about the production of her handbags. “I was fixed on the idea of Italy,” she says. “I loved the idea of creating products that reveal centuries-old [methods] of Italian craftsmanship.”
Since graduating from college, Raphael has fully dedicated herself to building the company, which she started with an undisclosed amount of seed money from several family members. “The first amount has kept us going, and we have organically grown the business in order to be profitable,” she says. And by “profitable” she means, the business has doubled its sales every year since 2019.
Today, Raphael’s handbags and wallets are made in Italy, inspected in Austria, and packaged in Greece, to fulfill orders from the company’s website, as well as a long list of wholesale partners, including Koibird, Harvey Nichols, and Luisaviaroma. She has also worked on several collaborations, including a mini bag with Greek fashion blogger Evangelie Smyrniotaki (a favorite of Megan Fox and Ashley Benson) and the Venyx bag with jewelry designer Eugenie Niarchos. (The first 10 customers to purchase the style also received an original, animated video NFT of the design; a limited-edition rainbow crystal choker designed by Niarchos; and other exclusive benefits, like invitations to private events, early access to product launches, and a custom bag by Raphael.) The statement styles are great for going out, but not exclusively so. “I see my bags as pieces of jewelry, as really unique things that can upgrade and uplift any look,” she says, pointing out that you can leave home “in a pair of jeans and a white T-shirt with a really cool, sparkly bag” and be well-dressed for myriad occasions.
Her pièce de résistance thus far is a clutch that’s on display in her office atop a small pile of coffee table books, made in collaboration with Swarovski’s global creative director, Giovanna Engelbert — a former fashion editor with an exuberant-yet-elegant approach to fashion. “My God, it was a real experience [to create the bag],” Raphael says, laughing almost nervously. The process to complete the Swarovski bag lasted one year and felt like a total departure from all that she’d learned while crafting handbags from leather and fabric. The challenging parts of the process? The crystal bag required the concealment of screws and a crash test to make sure it wasn’t too susceptible to shattering. In the initial test, it broke. “Then there were probably another three months of trials to get it where it had to be,” she says. “We introduced this piece of art knowing it was perfect.”
Raphael admits that she was privileged to have a foot in the door thanks to her family’s financial investment and many connections in the industry. But she also believes the hard work she’s put in has been crucial to growing her business so quickly. She considers one of her main tools for success to be the values — like honesty and commitment — that her family instilled in her from a young age. “I don’t just do something quickly to launch it if I’m not 100% sure that it adheres to my standards,” she says. “Whatever I’m going to do, I’m not just going to say yes to get it done. If I’m going to do it, I’m going to be invested.” She applies this thinking to her plans for expansion as well, by taking care not to grow in a manner that’s quicker than she can handle in the long run.
At the end of the day, Raphael knows that the key to her brand’s success is both innovation and the grit it takes to see her ideas through. “I have to keep learning and expanding my knowledge. That’s how I’m going to keep on bringing new stuff to the table,” she says. “Four years ago, I didn’t know anything. Now, I know how to make so many different bags, so many different structures, so many new things. That’s the best part about this job.”