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Creative CEO: How Cool-Girl Gelareh Mizrahi Broke the Mold in Luxury Handbags

Gelareh Mizrahi in her store.
Courtesy of Gelareh Mizrahi

Gelareh Mizrahi took her chic handbags from concept to international brand in less than a year, with celebrities like Hailey Bieber and Kylie Jenner donning them and features in Vogue, The Cut, and Allure. Her success is a tribute both to her incredible design and business sense and her mastery of alternative media, from TikTok and Instagram to urban pop-up stores.

A graduate of the Parsons School of Design, Mizrahi got her start as a designer at Chanel before branching out on her own in 2013. Her cult collection quickly gained notoriety, selling at Barneys, Selfridges, Lane Crawford, and in her pop-up boutique in Miami, which featured an indoor skateboard ramp.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, she switched gears, using her connections in Asia to source personal protective equipment for caregivers, importing 20,000 masks per week and raising money and awareness.

With her Miami store open for business, she is back in the game. In a wide-ranging conversation, she shared her ideas about creativity, teamwork, leadership, motherhood, Miami’s creative community, and the power of starting from a place of not knowing.

Q. How has the current pandemic affected your business, and how did you pivot?

In September of 2019, we took over a functioning bodega on Lafayette and Spring Street in SoHo; the concept was to do our New York Fashion Week presentation from inside it while it stayed open for business.

We painted the outside neon yellow and color coordinated everything inside. It was an absolutely wild success. We were only supposed to be there for six days, but we stayed open for five months. Moving forward, our strategy was to take the bodega pop-up concept worldwide. We recreated it in Los Angeles for Complexcon in November, in December in the Miami Design District, and in January, 2020, it popped up in London at Selfridges.

But then because of COVID, all of that changed. I immediately understood the gravity of what was happening globally. In addition to putting our traveling bodega pop-ups on hold, I canceled our Paris Fashion Week presentation. Then I pivoted, suspending the business and dedicating all of our resources to importing N95 masks for doctors and frontline workers across the nation.

We’re now slowly starting to re-emerge. Our store in the Design District has reopened with new socially distanced guidelines and mask requirements. We are regrouping and putting strategies together to go hard once the vaccine is readily available and it’s safe to go back out into the world.

In hindsight, I can say I was exhausted and a bit burnt out from traveling back and forth between New York, Miami, LA, and London, handling the two stores and being a mom. As excruciating as fighting the pandemic has been, the reset it brought forced me to slow down and take a much-needed break.

I wasn’t wrapped up with keeping up with anyone else or comparing myself with what they were doing. I was focused and clear on doing my own thing.

— Gelareh Mizrahi

Q. You moved from New York and started your business in Miami. Do you think it would have thrived in New York? How does the city of Miami help or hurt entrepreneurs launching new businesses?

I never imagined I would move to Miami. I started my business in New York. My family, friends and entire life were in New York. I had my first son in New York and gave birth to my second son 15 months later. Four weeks after I had him, we moved to Miami. I had just launched my collection at Barneys (RIP Barneys) days before we moved. I had no friends or family here and no help with the boys. It was wild. I didn’t want to leave New York; I cried for days leading up to the big move. When I got to Miami, I had to train myself to be grateful and appreciate living here. I’d walk around taking pictures and post them, saying “Miami, I love you.” It’s like I was convincing myself—and it worked. When the opportunity to open the store in the Miami Design District came, it really felt like Miami was saying it loved me back.

Gelareh Mizrahi outside of her store.
Gelareh Mizrahi outside of her shop in New York. | Courtesy of Gelareh Mizrahi

Living in Miami, the noise of what everyone else was doing wasn’t in my head like it was in New York. It’s kind of like how a writer goes on a retreat in the mountains to be alone. I got away from everyone and all the cool things that they were doing. I wasn’t wrapped up with keeping up with anyone else or comparing myself with what they were doing. I was focused and clear on doing my own thing. Miami is so beautiful in that way. I find living here and the beach very healing. Miami also has such an amazing creative energy and community, and it is supported by the city. Even though there is a young creative energy emerging, the old guards of Miami accept, appreciate, and uplift it. I love that about us.

Q. What advice do you have for entrepreneurs starting out?

Don’t let the fact that you don’t know what you’re doing stop you from doing anything. We start everything from a place of not knowing—walking, reading, dating, working. And through the doing, we learn. We may not get it right the first time, but eventually we know what we’re doing.

Q. What creative CEO would you love to have drinks with and why?

I think it’s super important to stay open to everyone who crosses your path. There isn’t one person I have in mind; I am open to all connections.

Q. Your best and worst leadership trait?

My best leadership trait is that I feel like I can learn from anyone and everyone. I love being around young people and learning from that energy, even if someone who’s young might not think I can learn from them.

Q. What traits do you look for in selecting partners, collaborators, or team members?

I look for someone who has a creative energy and who believes in their vision and what they’re doing, even if it’s not the same as mine. My brand really stands for creativity, so I look for someone who is at the forefront of whatever they do in creativity. Additionally, one of the most important traits for success is being a “yes” person. Not in the sense that the person only says yes or hypes something up, but that they are someone who won’t reply with “I don’t know if we can make ‘XYZ’ happen.” It’s limiting to think only about what could go wrong.

In selecting partners and advisers, the most important thing is that they’re creative, able to really think about the big picture, and that they come from a place of “yes”—someone who can take an idea and make it bigger and better. It’s like improv comedy—someone gives an idea and the next person makes it a little better.

Q. What advice do you have for working moms running a business?

I have no advice. You’re doing great; I love you. Don’t compare yourself to anyone, do you. You’re doing great.

Q. What platform do you think is the most relevant in building a customer base or audience?

I am fortunate for our community. In order to find it, I think we had to find ourselves and our own voice first—who we are, and what we stand for. It’s true what they say about how your vibe attracts your tribe. As long as you have the inner knowledge of what you do and are passionate about it, you will attract the people that support you, regardless of the platform.

For my business, though, definitely Instagram and now TikTok have helped in growing the audience. But it’s amazing to see how important the real-life experience of the store and the pop-ups are in spreading the message and getting people to really understand what we are about.

Gelareh Mizrahi has become known for her “Thank You” bodega bags and “itsy bitsy micro mini” handbags. | Courtesy of Gelareh Mizrahi

Q. What stifles your creativity?

Impatience stifles my creativity, not allowing the creative process to fully bloom. I forget that I have times when I’m more inspired and times when I am less and that that’s okay. It’s natural and beautiful to have times when I need to rest and recoup. I can’t get impatient or upset that I’m not at the place I want to be at, right then and there. It’s having the patience to know it’s getting there, to keep pushing forward every day. There can be weeks without making progress, but maybe that needs to happen to regroup and be able to come up with something super amazing.

Rana Florida contributor bio photo

Rana Florida is the CEO of Creative Class Group. An expert on business and leadership, Rana has written for numerous publications and been featured on programs such as The Today Show and MSNBC’s The Cycle. She is also the author of Upgrade—Taking Your Work and Life From Ordinary to Extraordinary.

(Photo credit: Gabor Jurina)

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