The Fashion Twins: Duke Coeds Turned Entrepreneurs Build Their College Trunk Show Start Into a Mini EmpireBY Hannah Swiggard // 09.21.16
Twins Lizzie and Kathryn Fortunato are the duo behind NYC-based accessories line Lizzie Fortunato. Lizzie designs fashion-forward jewelry drawing on historical, artistic, and architectural references inspired by her travels around the globe, while Kathryn oversees the operations side of the brand. Since their launch, in 2008, Lizzie Fortunato has expanded its repertoire to leather bags, belts, hair accessories, scarves, and more.
What makes this brand a must-own for the fashion obsessed? From handbags to tasseled earrings, each piece has the ultimate statement-making power. My personal favorite? The Western Collar II with turquoise, coral, and pearl beaded strands punctuated by a tassel tie.
We caught up the designers before they make their way to Houston for their trunk show at Kick Pleat Friday afternoon to chat all things Lizzie Fortunato.
When did you decide you wanted to go into business together? How did it all start?
Kathryn: Lizzie has always been incredibly creative (she made her high school prom dress). At Duke (where we both went to undergrad), Lizzie would make jewelry for fun and the girls caught on: we had a captive audience of friends with nowhere to shop at the time in Durham, so they’d stop by our dorm room and ask to borrow a necklace or earrings for their formal or party that night.
That was the moment when I decided we should start hosting on-campus trunk shows. Our first sold out in 30 minutes, and we booked enough orders to necessitate my going [in her place] to Lizzie’s Biology and Spanish classes for the rest of sophomore year!
Despite having great traction in college (semi-annual trunk shows subsidized college spring breaks to Paris), we assumed that after graduation we’d get “real jobs” — Lizzie went into fashion PR at Paul Wilmot, and I began a career on Wall Street. Many of our Duke friends also moved to New York, and were lusting for more Lizzie Fortunato. In 2008, a year after graduation, Lizzie decided to take a risk and launch Lizzie Fortunato Jewels from our Lower East Side apartment. I joined in 2010, when the business was big enough to support both of us. Now we are a team of eight with 65 accounts worldwide.
What is it like working with your twin sister every day?
Kathryn: It’s the best. Lizzie is creative and I am numbers-oriented, so we really balance each other out as left and right sides of the brain. We also sit at opposite ends of the office, so there’s no confusion about our roles. I can’t imagine designing a necklace and she can’t imagine doing QuickBooks, so we’re a really good pair from that perspective. We’re also best friends and have utmost trust in each other. We didn’t move apart from each other until last year (at the age of 30), but we still live in the same neighborhood and commute to work together most days.
Lizzie: I feel incredibly grateful to work with my twin, especially because she excels in things that really aren’t my forte. I often say that if it weren’t for Kathryn, there would be no business to speak of, because I would be giving the pieces away or would have spent all the money. She really makes the wheels turn, which allows me to focus on design — it’s a gift to have such a talented partner, whom you also trust implicitly because they’re related and you know them inside and out.
Travel is a large source of inspiration for a lot of your work — are there any places in particular that have had a significant impact on your designs or fueled a lot of creativity?
Kathryn: Lizzie can elaborate here, but yes, we love gathering inspiration and materials from other countries and cultures. Lizzie is exceptional at collecting textiles/wall hangings/rugs from faraway places and incorporating the colors and weaving/braiding techniques into our collections. Recent trips included Japan, Mexico, and India, and most recently Lizzie was in Vietnam and Cambodia, where temples overwhelmed by the jungle inspired the Spring/Summer ’17 collection.
Lizzie: Absolutely, the American West repeatedly influences my designs. I love Native American beading and the motifs of that culture, and it certainly plays a role in my work. International travel has also inspired a number of our collections. Prior to designing SS14, I was in Japan (Tokyo, Kyoto, and Naoshima), and that trip really had a visible effect on the ensuing collection, which featured a bright neon story to echo the chaos of Tokyo and a blue and white porcelain bead assortment to reflect the serenity of Kyoto.
That season we also designed a clutch embroidered with sushi and sashimi that was a bestseller. I just finished designing the SS17 season, which is inspired by a recent trip I took to Vietnam and Cambodia; however, the inspiration is not quite so literal. This time, I was looking at the Ta Prohm temple in Siem Reap — an incredible 12th-century Buddhist University that has been enveloped by the jungle’s overgrowth. The result is a collection that includes both simpler geometric styles and also highly embellished styles, which reference the order of the temple and the disorder of the surrounding jungle landscape.
How is travel reflected in your designs? How do you incorporate materials and textiles into your collections?
Lizzie: The influence of travel really varies from the vague (a landmark or experience sparking some inspiration) to the more tangible and specific (a textile I pick up abroad might provide the basis for an embroidery design, or the braiding and beadwork I do in a necklace might mimic the craftwork of a certain community or geography). I really find the artisanal craftwork (textiles, ceramics, handicrafts) of different communities and geographies hugely inspiring, and it tends to spark new ideas of my own.
As the size of our collection/production continue to grow, it is not often that I’m incorporating the actual textiles or materials that I bring back from trips with me into the design. Rather, a textile or string of beads that I bring back will influence what I source for that season. After I have the inspiration for a collection mapped out, I source materials from all over the world in order to execute that inspiration and make it come to life. We source semi-precious stones from Asia and South America and African glass from Kenya and Ghana. We set stones and do inlay work in the Pacific Northwest and make handmade tassels right in our NYC studio.
We use a huge breadth of materials from all over the world, and our production is really hands-on. Pieces are not made start-to-finish in one place or factory, but go through the hands of many people who excel in different fields (casting, polishing, beading, enameling … you name it) before they are shipped to our retailers.
What are your best-selling pieces right now?
Kathryn: Earrings. We love statement earrings as the easiest way to dress up a look. I love our Colorado Column semi-precious inlay earrings ,and fringe/tassels are a top seller too: These tassel earrings and this collar are two current stars from the Fall collection.
What can we look forward to seeing from Lizzie Fortunato?
Kathryn: We are so excited about product development. We launched leather waist belts and rope tassel belts for this Fall collection (in stores now). For SS17, we’re currently showing new neck scarves with semi-precious closures. We are so excited to be expanding into different accessories – jewelry, leather goods, hair accessories, scarves, and more.
Shop and meet the Lizzie Fortunato designers in town from NYC during their trunk show at Kick Pleat this Friday, September 23, from 2 to 6 pm, 2565 Kirby Drive