Devi Kroell has always been about the exotic. The Austrian-born daughter of a diplomat father, Kroell spent her childhood traveling the world and absorbing the diverse cultures of Indonesia, Switzerland, Italy and the Philippines, to name a few.
So it’s no surprise that when Kroell, now in her early 30s, launched her namesake handbag collection in 2004, she decided to focus almost exclusively on exotic skins such as stingray, eel and python. “I like to work with different materials to give variety and an edge to my products,” she said.
Kroell’s deconstructed hobo bags, which carry retail prices well into the thousands, were an immediate hit with trendsetting celebrities such as Jessica Simpson and Nicky Hilton. Big-name retailers including Barneys New York and Saks Fifth Avenue quickly picked up the collection.
Footwear followed in 2005, and unlike her soft deconstructed bags, Kroell’s shoe designs are decidedly sleek and architectural. But like her bags, the footwear business has taken off, doubling each year since its launch, Kroell said. Today, the Devi Kroell brand is available at more than 100 stores around the world as well as at Kroell’s flagship store in East Hampton, N.Y.
This fall, Kroell will open a second store, on New York’s Madison Avenue, and her first ready-to-wear collection is set to debut in spring ’09.
Here, the New York-based Kroell sounds off on balancing between bags and shoes, the changing climate in the luxury market and the Hollywood effect.
1. What led you to a career in fashion?
DK: After getting my master’s degree in business from the Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration in Austria, I went on to fashion school in Vienna. I was there for a year and then was hired on the spot by French designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac. I later worked for several companies — I signed agreements saying I would not disclose those names — before finally going out on my own in 2004.
2. What inspired you to take the leap and launch your own brand?
DK: Ever since I began drawing — I drew little ladies with matching dresses, accessories and even umbrellas — my dream was to one day have my own line. When I started, the market was saturated with the same thing, and as I saw it, it was the wrong thing. I wanted to do something different. Timing is always key. A new launch has to be about the right product at the right time.
3. What do you bring to the market?
DK: My main focus was to create a distinctly different handbag from what was out there. I wanted to create a slouchy, less-structured everyday bag that was chic, luxurious and without logos, which was something I just did not see in the market. I launched my collection with our Classic Hobo. Eventually, I added shoes because my clients asked for them. Now I am finally moving into ready-to-wear.
4. How do your footwear shoppers differ from your handbag customers?
DK: With shoes, people are typically more daring when it comes to color, height and style, and they tend to spend their money on that. People will usually pay more for a great heel that has a unique style to it and a unique texture. With exotics, customers [notice] when higher-quality leathers and treatments [are used], so that is something we try to maintain.
5. What are the different challenges in designing footwear and handbags?
DK: With footwear, the most important thing is getting the production of the heel and the last right, as well as [achieving] a perfectly fitting pattern that works with many feet. With a handbag, it’s about creating the right structure and adding variation with size and shape. It’s two totally different realms, and the only similarities are [design inspiration] and skins to keep the balance each season.
6. What was the inspiration behind your spring ’09 collection?
DK: My footwear continues to have an architectural style to it, with mixes of high heels and flats. It’s a collection for a modern, intelligent lifestyle — nothing is up to chance, everything is cleverly thought out. I like to work with different materials to give variety and an edge to my products. I like texture, and exotics lend themselves very well to that.
7. How are you navigating the challenging U.S. economy?
DK: Store buyers are a lot more careful with which pieces they choose to carry. They want special pieces that will make their customer forget about the shaky economy. Some retailers are buying less, while others are compensating by buying higher-end brands like us when before they weren’t. So things keep moving ahead. As a designer, [you] have to take risks [right now]. For me, taking a risk has meant realizing my dream. If you don’t take that risk, you will always wonder what would have happened.
8. Where do you see the luxury segment headed in the future?
DK: I see a lot more structure and volume moving into bags, and a classic, sophisticated style moving into clothing. I keep doing what I do best: special, luxurious pieces. My customer appreciates that. Have I tried to produce in China to offer a cheaper product? No, and it’s not in the plans. Making things cheaper doesn’t protect you from a recession — only making things better than everyone else does.
9. You have a loyal celebrity following. How has Hollywood boosted your brand?
DK: Celebrities are the new fashion icons. What they wear, everyone wants. We are lucky to be a celebrity favorite. Mary-Kate Olsen, Sienna Miller, Reese Witherspoon, Kerry Washington and Kelly Monahan are among a few of the celebs who carry my bags. Some of our first fans were Jessica Simpson and Nicky Hilton.
10. What’s up next for the company?
DK: Our second store will open later this year. We will also explore other categories, including jewelry, luggage and wallets, to name a few. When I decide to take on a new project, it is because at that moment it feels like the right thing to add or to do for my company.