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Mary Lai: ‘Go for It and Never Give Up’

How a longtime corporate designer made the entrepreneurial leap and started her own handbag line called MARYLAI.
August 18, 2014

Back in early 2013, Mary Lai left her 10-year corporate career as a designer to launch her own company and line of handbags— MARYLAI—which is based in New York City. As Lai has worked to build her brand from the ground up, she's benefited from different opportunities to promote her handbags and accessories at various fashion shows and competitions, including the 2013 American Express OPEN Rising Stars of Fashion competition, where the handbag she designed and made during the three-day event took the top spot. In the year since, Lai has continued to work on promoting her brand both in the United States and around the world.

I recently caught up with Lai to talk about her experience as an emerging designer at MAGIC, what it’s been like to start and grow her own business, and the different avenues she's considering to help put her brand's growth on the fast track. (And to share some of her photos from the past year.)

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Designer Mary Lai, hard at work on her next creation

Have you always been involved in making things?

I have always loved art. I was always doing something creative and went to art school for college. I majored in graphic design. And it wasn’t until I started working for a fashion house as a graphic designer that I decided to make the switch to designing handbags and accessories.

So you spent a while honing your skills before branching out on your own?

I spent 10 years working for a range of brands that covered the high end, the mass market, and everything in between. That experience gave me the confidence to launch my own brand, MARYLAI, which is a combination of my first and last names.

It wasn’t long after you started your company that you were invited to the “Rising Stars” competition.

Yes, MAGIC was amazing. It was definitely one of my favorite experiences since launching my company. It was so unique. I had never done anything like that before. It was both nerve-wracking and fun. Making a handbag in front of a live audience was a great chance to show people what goes into making a bag and also show my passion for what I love to do. It was such a great platform for emerging designers and it really helped propel my brand.

Did you have a lot of experience making your own bags when you entered the competition?

I had only been making bags myself for less than two years. I was used to just designing, sketching, and passing the tech packs—which are the specifications used to make something—to a production team. But when I left the corporate world, I trained with a sample maker in New York City’s Garment District, who taught me how to sew and construct bags. It was something I always wanted to learn and I threw myself into it.

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A variety of leather handbags by MARYLAI

Wow. So how did you prepare for the competition?

I practiced beforehand and I gave myself a timeline and goals that I needed to hit each day. That’s how I kept on track, since two and a half days isn’t a very long time to make a bag. But then I came up with something new at the end I wanted to add and I ended up doing the final stitches right up until the very end.

What happened after you got back home to New York?

More and more people began contacting me. About a month after the competition, I did a trunk show, along a presentation the following season. Recently, I was nominated as a finalist in two categories for a prestigious handbag award. While I didn't win, it was great to be a finalist. It's really validating as a designer and a brand to get recognition from different platforms to bring brand awareness and get people interested in your products.

How has your business continued to evolve?

I am a small company. I am the only full-time person. My husband helps, but he has a full-time job of his own. I do everything from design and production to sales and social media. But I have really been focused lately on sales. The past year was all about building the brand so people understood what we were all about. The handbag market is oversaturated and there is a lot of competition. Since MARYLAI is still a new brand and a lot of people don't know it, it's harder to get more sales—but these are the challenges I am working on.

So what are you doing to try and stand out in such a crowded field?

Originally, my bags were all made in New York and came with a higher price point. But I am going to experiment with manufacturing in different areas as a way to lower my price points, so that my customers can buy something for $120 instead of having to spend $600. My biggest challenge is scaling the business in a way that is profitable. But to stand out from a crowded field, I am always trying to create innovative designs with the best materials and hardware.

Does it feel like a risky step to move your production out of New York?

For me, it’s all about testing out whether producing overseas will work or not. I don’t know if it will be the right answer. I've learned that my customer wants a quality product and great design at a good price. To get the better price, I am looking at production elsewhere, but the core styles are still produced in New York. The downside of working with factories outside of New York is that you can't talk face to face with the sample makers to check design and quality and make changes. But I am only doing small production runs to test things out. It's a costly mistake if you put money into a huge production run and sit on inventory that doesn’t sell. So I’m staying lean, making small units, and testing out what works best for the brand as we evolve.

Do you ever miss your old corporate job?

I miss my salary! But I knew what I was getting myself into. I am a creative person and always wanted to design from my own point of view. The business side is new to me and I’m learning so much as I go. I am stretched beyond my comfort zone and learning so many new skills that I would not have experienced if I remained in a creative corporate position.

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Handbag and accessory designs on display

Have the relationships you made while you worked in your corporate jobs helped you in getting your business off the ground?

Absolutely. The relationships I made over the past 10 years have been crucial to my success. For example, I would never have met the sample maker I work with unless I had worked with him at my former company. I am still in contact with a lot of my former colleagues. They help with referring me to leads on new suppliers, trade shows, press, and industry contacts. I also do collaborations with them and we are each other’s cheerleaders. That’s why I think it’s so important for other emerging designers to get experience in the industry beyond even the technical skills. It’s all the relationships that will help you build your brand.

Do you have any other advice for this year’s Rising Stars on starting and growing their own brands?

Well, I think I used to be more optimistic about telling people that if they follow their dreams and passions, everything will fall into place. I still believe that, but you also have to work really, really hard to make it and experience is key. When I came to start my business I had built relationships, paid my dues, and the timing felt right. My advice would be to do the research. And if you have always dreamed of owning your own business, then go for it and never give up.

Photos from top: MARYLAI; Young & Able; MARYLAI; Jennifer Matos Photography