African glass, vintage South American poker chips, Indian textiles: You never know what will spark Lizzie and Kathryn Fortunato’s creativity
Lizzie Fortunato took her first sewing class in elementary school, made her own high school prom dress, and began designing jewelry while studying art history and English at Duke University. “I love creating things from unexpected materials,” says Fortunato, cofounder of the hugely successful costume jewelry and accessories brand that carries her name. As a kid in Wilmington, Del., she would look around the house, plotting ways to turn the trim on her mother’s throw pillows into a necklace or earrings. “I always had a very clear aesthetic,” she recalls, “a mixed-medium vibe.”
Meanwhile, Lizzie’s twin sister, Kathryn, grew up pursuing her own interests and majored in economics at Duke with an eye toward a career in finance. The girls were best friends, roommates, and eventually business partners, with Lizzie serving as designer and chief creative officer and Kathryn as chief business officer. Their self-funded New York City–based company, which began in their apartment in 2008, has grown into a thriving business with a loyal clientele and an enduring emphasis on “slow production” and limited-run pieces combining semiprecious stones, beads, enamel, acrylic, fabric, silk cords, gold-plated chains, and much more.
“We function like a contemporary ready-to-wear line that has new offerings each season,” Lizzie says of presenting three collections a year during New York Fashion Week, the most recent inspired by her travels in India. “Once a collection is sold, we don’t put much back into production.”
The Fortunatos are chic, vivacious, and down-to-earth, chatting at top speed about their seamless partnership and what makes a piece of jewelry “a Lizzie.” Says Kathryn, “So much of our jewelry…” “…is tactile,” finishes Lizzie, in typical back-and-forth style. Lizzie’s hair is chopped into a perfect pixie; Kathryn’s is chin-length. Both exude effortless style as they model the line’s new freshwater pearl and gold-plated chain necklace (on Kathryn, who also wears a scarf designed by her sister) and a delicate chain loaded with small charms (on Lizzie). “I’m a big-necklace person and you’re a big-earring person,” observes Kathryn as Lizzie pops on a pair of oversized drop earrings studded with faceted stones.
When it comes to statement jewelry, the Lizzie Fortunato brand has managed to stay ahead of the curve, mostly because the designer herself refuses to stick to what she calls “one hit style.” The closest she’s come was a collection of silk fringe earrings in cheerful colors that were snapped up by celebrities and quickly copied by chain stores. Lizzie responded by altering the design and expanding her line to include woven drops, gold-plated hoop earrings with removable charms, and a variety of heart-shape styles.
“The nice thing about costume jewelry is that we can be flexible,” Kathryn says. “Lizzie reinvents the collection each season, which is tricky from a design and production perspective, but our customer keeps coming back because there’s always something new. Our hands are tied only to the extent that we don’t give Lizzie enough materials to play with.”
About that “costume” label: The Fortunatos don’t run away from it, because using 18k gold-plated brass is key to maintaining their target price—$195 to $495, with a few necklaces and handbags running a bit higher. “When we started out in our mid-20s, we wanted to create pieces that we could potentially buy,” Lizzie says. “Our materials are not solid gold, but we use a lot of semiprecious stones; my pearl vendor is the same as [high-end brand] Mizuki. We’re buying the A quality, not the triple A, but they’re the same beautiful pearls. The materials we use are made to last.”
Fine craftsmanship has been a key element in the brand’s success since the beginning, when one of the sisters’ first hires was a former seamstress for the Joffrey Ballet. While Lizzie still makes every prototype, Shannon, their staff design wizard, suggests better ways to fold ribbons, sew braids, attach gems, and string beads. Unlike many fashion jewelry companies, Lizzie Fortunato products are mostly American made. The sisters work with metalsmiths on 47th Street in Manhattan, purchase chains from a vendor in Rhode Island, and source beads and other unique elements on scouting trips to India, Mexico, Africa, Japan, and Turkey, where they also indulge their love of textiles and pottery.
“Some of our tiny metal components are made in Thailand, but at least 75 percent [of the construction] is done here,” says Kathryn, adding that U.S. labor costs are offset by savings in overseas shipping and import fees. In addition to 10 full-time employees, the company hires freelancers for detail work such as stringing and knotting pearls and connecting the links in chain necklaces. “We’re not one of those lines that sends something to a factory in China and says, ‘Hey, source this for us, put it together, and let’s see what it looks like,’ ” Lizzie says. “The fact that our production is limited and [done] right under our noses has prevented us from growing to a more mass scale, but it has also kept us desirable.”
Total sales generated by the company’s bright and inviting website and Instagram feed have grown from 15 percent to almost 25 percent. Equally important is a network of small boutiques, many of them in the Southeastern United States, where women crave colorful accessories and understand the appeal of a statement necklace with a plaid silk taffeta tieback. The current slate of about 80 retailers includes Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom, and online retailer Shopbop, as well as Hampden Clothing in Charleston, S.C.; Poole Shop in Charlotte, N.C.; and Barbara/Jean in Little Rock, Ark. These single-door shops “are never going to place a big initial order,” Kathryn says, “but they’re going to sell through at full price and not ask us to take anything back.” As a designer, Lizzie values feedback from boutique owners and builds loyalty with a generous exchange policy.
As the Lizzie Fortunato customer gets older, demand is growing for a fine jewelry alternative—and the sisters have taken a step in that direction by offering 14k gold hoops ($265 versus $95 for chunkier plated brass) that can be adorned with gemstone charms (about $200 each). Still, the lure of finding, say, 35 strands of vintage glass beads on a trip to Africa and working them into a collection remains strong. “Tell her about the poker chips!” Kathryn cries.
Lizzie enthusiastically launches into the tale of spotting and buying a cache of 400 hand-painted whalebone poker chips on eBay, all from 1920s-era South American casinos. The sisters and their mom flew to Uruguay to pick up the chips before Lizzie transformed them into pendant necklaces. Ten years later, the continuing demand for those long–sold-out designs inspired the designer to make a gold-plated brass and enamel version for the company’s 10th anniversary.
A decade in, the twins are looking for bigger office space in downtown Manhattan and offer their favorite textiles and crafts in a “Fortune Finds” section of their website. “We’re puzzle parts that fit together,” Kathryn says of running the company’s business while Lizzie handles the creative side. “We respect each other’s strengths instead of seeing them as a threat.” The fact that they’re both workaholics and live three blocks apart from each other in Brooklyn doesn’t hurt. “Our poor husbands know that they’re married to two people,” Kathryn says with a laugh. “But we love what we do,” Lizzie says, “and we still feel so lucky to be doing it.”
Top: Paradise charm necklace, $390; Mariner charm necklace, $380; Lizzie Fortunato; 212-777-1008; lizziefortunato.com