Mignonne Gavigan turned a scrap of torn fabric into a sparkle- and spangle-filled earring-focused fashion jewelry empire
Sometimes, destiny is decided by a single impulsive act. For designer Mignonne “Maggie” Gavigan Smith, that moment occurred when she was remaking a vintage beaded couture dress. As she ripped the gown, a swath of it fell to the floor. She tied it around her neck and within an hour, “three people stopped me on the street and said, ‘Where can I get that necklace?’ ” she remembers. “I said, ‘Give me a month, and I’ll make it for you.’ ”
Never mind that the Parsons-educated apparel and handbag designer, who worked for companies including Rachel Roy, Loeffler Randall, and Marc Jacobs, had no jewelry-making experience. The North Carolina native began whipping up her scarf necklaces, calling upon her network of fellow Southerners in New York City to host trunk shows. She got enough traction that in 2013, she and business partner Layne Logigian were able to debut Mignonne Gavigan with loans from their friends and families.
Six years later, the company boasts 14 full-time employees, who work out of an open-office showroom in New York’s Tribeca neighborhood. While the scarf necklaces remain the heart of the brand, it has expanded to offer four seasons of earrings, which make up 80% of the business, as well as bracelets, necklaces, brooches, and hair accessories. With a price point ranging from roughly $150 to $450, the jewelry has found myriad fans among customers who flock to the company’s engaging website, follow it on Instagram, and shop at stores such as Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom; celebrity clients include Jessica Biel, Sofía Vergara, and Katy Perry.
Sitting in the conference room of her sunlit office, where bookshelves and tables are piled high with her colorful accessories, Gavigan is a manifestation of her design aesthetic. (Editor’s Note: This interview took place in February, before COVID-19 took hold in the United States.) She is fashion-magazine stylish in a denim shirt, black pants, and white sneakers, bedecked in dangling pearl and hoop earrings and stacks of bracelets. But she’s quick to point out that the shirt is 10 years old, the pants are from Zara, and, until recently, she insisted on cutting her own hair. Ask her about her can’t-live-without beauty secret, and she answers easily: “Blue mascara!”
The designer understands the importance of communicating her chic-yet-approachable sensibility to her customers. “I feel like they know me,” she says. To achieve that aura of familiarity, she stars in many of the marketing campaigns (insisting that her image is not retouched beyond necessity), engages in social media platforms despite admitting to being a terrible photographer, and continues to attend trunk shows where she can interact with the public. She’s not there just to shake hands; each customer’s opinion is taken to heart.
“This is about making people feel good,” she explains. “In my previous design positions, I learned that if you don’t take critique, your company will sink. So whatever it is, I want to hear it. If there’s something you don’t like, let’s make it better! For example, our Lilac-breasted Roller was our first bird earring,” she continues, “and people asked if I could make a smaller one, so we did the Finch earring, which I love. And when our sales director started, we were making our first Madeline wing earring, and I was making them in neon green, orange, turquoise, and silver,” she remembers with a laugh. “Our sales director asked, ‘Could you make me some in neutral colors?’ Now our white and gold one is our best seller. She was right.”
Gavigan comes by her team-player mentality naturally, growing up with three brothers in Charlotte, a place she says has informed her designs as much as her own sense of adventure. “I love color, which probably speaks more to the South than the typical New Yorker who only wears black, but I was always doing things differently,” she says. “I didn’t like how J. Crew jeans fit, so I cut up my dad’s old jeans, which had a perfect wash since he’d been wearing them for 15 years, and resewed them for a wide leg. Everyone in the South wears their grandmother’s pearls,” she continues, “and the original scarf necklace was a new way to wear pearls for me. It’s lopsided, and the pattern’s not perfect. So for someone who never really fit into the typical Southern traditional way of wearing anything, it spoke to me.” It also spoke to the masses, and pearls remain a constant in her collections. “Each season, we try to update what our ‘cool girl’ pearl situation is,” she says.
For inspiration, Gavigan—who lives four blocks from her office with her financier husband, Gray, and their 3-year-old son, Fields—mines her years of traveling the world for work and pleasure. “One of our best-selling pieces is the bird earring,” she explains. “That came from being on safari in South Africa, where everything is a dusty beige color, and suddenly this fleck of turquoise and magenta flew by and it was a lilac-breasted roller. You look at the bird, the color story, and you see such beauty.” And while she’s been more grounded since having Fields, “I’m never out of ideas. They’re happening in the shower or in the middle of the night. I always have a sketchbook and a pencil in my bag. I have my hands in so many other parts of the business, it’s a luxury to be able to sit down and sketch.”
As the company continues to evolve, Gavigan and Logigian are keeping a close eye on just how far they can push the designs to grow their customer base while keeping their loyal clientele. For Gavigan, the sweet spot lies in balancing a sense of whimsy with practicality. “When I was at Rachel Roy, I was making these crazy shoes, and the president of the company said, ‘Look, you have to have the simple basics, too, which are your cake, and you build up from there.’ So maybe we have one fantastic earring or necklace, but what is the cake, the basics that help build the collection?”
That means the majority of earrings are priced $150–$250, “but we go up to $425, and we see a lot of success at those higher price points because they are so specialized and people are obsessed with them,” says Logigian, illustrating her point by pulling beaded earrings designed to look like vodka and Champagne bottles off a shelf. “We have a lot of customers who are collectors. One woman bought the Jacobs Bandana necklace to hand down to her daughter and her daughter’s daughter.” Regardless of the investment, she says, each piece should “sit between fine heirloom jewelry and fast-fashion, trend jewelry. We see so many fashion brands focused on being the cool kids on the block, and we’re really focused on the brand being friendly, fun, and approachable.”
It’s a market Mignonne Gavigan continues to conquer, with growing sales and discussions about opening brick-and-mortar stores in the near future. “I want to make people happy and give them a sense of confidence that maybe they didn’t have before,” Gavigan says. “So in five years, I’d like to still be doing this, but even more successfully. The sky’s the limit.”
Top: Aztec Layne necklace with silk chiffon, metal sequins, glass beads, metal chain, and resin stone micro seed beads; $575; Mignonne Gavigan; email@example.com; mignonnegavigan.com
(Gavigan: Erik Melvin)