Startup Success: Marie Conrad Owner of Emici Livet: Handmade Modern Heirloom Accessories
October 12, 2015
Antique flower presses are and have been for the past sixteen years an extension of Emici Livet Modern Heirloom Accessories owner Marie Conrad’s right hand, so much so that it might be tough to tell where the bronze or cast iron mold and her delicate phalanges fuse together when forging a single hand-pressed silk petal. A petal followed by a leaf which cascades effortlessly out of the press as if a fall breeze were ushering it to ground, contrasting the surgeon-like precision sharp edge detail the naked eye assumes is only achieved by a high powered laser and not the work of a singular human hand, is a true testament of Conrad’s skill.
One petal or leaf is a work of art unto itself. Not unlike Mother Nature who weaves leaves into blankets of deep rich colors at the base of a tree on an autumn day, Marie Conrad’s exquisite handmade heirloom pieces are woven together with unparalleled skill, selection of silks, velvets, freshwater pearls, beading and attention detail that have even Mother Nature a little jealous. Conrad designs and hand-makes every item she sells through her company Emici (em-ee-see) Livet (lee-vet) which means “the life” and a nod to her Norwegian roots.
There are really two stories to be told: the first about the design elements that encompass techniques and molds that were adapted from a salvaged 50- year old millinery shop in the New York Garment District, that are as much a part of Conrad’s finished pieces as she is; and, the second, highlights the adaptability of selling sustainable, quality products for almost two decades. Emici Livet was a startup well before Silicon Valley made the concept popular. Nine out of 10 startups fail, and at the center of both stories is why this startup has succeeded, Marie Conrad a passionate, driven wife of 17 years, mother to a son (16) and daughter (13), who’s been known to put the family to work in Spokane, Washington.
“In the beginning we had a kiosk in the mall,” where Conrad, who enlisted the help of her husband, sold hand-embellished children’s flower girl & ring bearer apparel and accessories, “I was always designing things, creating, it’s how I’m wired.” Initially, she’d often deconstruct an extra flower girl garment and repurpose those elements as a means to achieve continuity in style with the ring bearer ensemble or accessory.
Like any successful business, adaptability is a key element, an element Conrad not only embraced when she pulled everything back in-house to her studio but elevated with thousands of hours of self-taught trial and error design, element techniques and properly identifying her market. Emici Livet until last year was known as Emici Bridal, but Conrad (thankfully) saw a much larger application of her designs. “Live is for living and putting things around you that are beautiful, don’t just save things for special occasions,” Conrad suggests pulling a little beauty into everyday with belts, hair accessories, shoe clips. Nothing’s wrong with feeling like you’re walking down a Paris fashion runway in the frozen food section of the grocery store (notice I didn’t write acting like). “It’s more inspirational wearing what you want to be or how you want to feel. I work mainly by myself, and still get dressed and wear things that make me feel happy or inspire me,” Conrad stated passionately.
And if Conrad’s passion for her work and designs aren’t obvious yet,“My husband offered to buy me jewelry for this past birthday, but I wanted a flower press instead,” Conrad shared through a lilt of laughter, that’s perfectly believable when she recounts how she acquired some of her antique die-cut cast iron and bronze tools used to make the flowers and leaves in her designs. “They were rescued from a 50-year old millinery shop in New York’s Garment District that was closing. They were almost lost forever, headed to salvage, the bronze melted down for scrap getting pennies on the dollar, and a fraction of their true value!” That value is not only calculated from a utility standpoint but because of their historical significance. “Some of the molds weren’t full molds,” she said with momentary sadness but quickly stated she’s working with a machine shop in Seattle to recreate the other half of the mold.
“They were throwing away 15 rows of boxes full of flowers, leather… it all couldn’t be saved!” her panicked heartbreak was understandable and immediately met with sympathy, reverence, and silence. For a phone conversation between two strangers that started two hours earlier where the mutual love of fashion & design dispelled of any of the usual awkward pauses, this was no awkward pause. This was two women paying respects to a part of history forever lost. Akin to the feeling one gets when images of pristine, preserved china from the Titanic are shown from the Ocean’s floor; and, just as we want to know about the people who ate from that china we want to know who wore the designs created by the half-century old tools.
“It’s really amazing to know that my designs are part of someone’s important special day,” Conrad stated as she shared a story about a recent piece she made for a mother-of-the-groom for a wedding in England. “I asked my son to pick the colors and some of the embellishment elements for the piece I was about to make for my client in England and asked him to name it, he came up with The Atlantic,” she said beaming as any proud mother would.
Conrad’s designs have understandably garnered her positive worldwide press and the attention of Seattle bridal designer Luly Yang. She recounted when The Luly Bouquet walked in the Yang’s fashion show, “I’m not embarrassed to admit I got a little teary-eyed seeing that design make its way down the runway.” It’s that kind of pride that shows in everything Conrad touches, including her own website where she also photographed all her designs.
Conrad also escaped the pitfalls of many startups and priced her items appropriately based on the quality of work, textiles and number of woman-hours (a single flower can take anywhere from one hour to three and a bouquet up to 24-48 hours if not longer). The price points for Conrad’s one of a kind designs run from typically from $110-$1,900 (and up for custom pieces). I was pleased, as someone who sold high-end designer sportswear and first to market expensive medical devices, when I asked Conrad if she ever gets push-back from customers on pricing to hear her answer like someone who knows and understands the value of their quality work, “I don’t and if I do it’s usually only until the customer holds and sees the piece live.”
When I asked Conrad about her goals for her company scalability was an obvious problem one in which she’s already working on a solution by creating additional duplicate molds in the hopes of one day implementing a template for employees to follow. Normally there’s concern over quality with expansion, this is one time I’d not be worried about that as Conrad will train any employee with the same skill and passion she does when creating one of her magnificent and stunning handmade modern heirlooms.
Other startups and established companies could learn from & should replicate Conrad’s ethical business model. Her ability to create a quality product where her company grew slowly over time, adapted and expanded by knowing & understanding her market, and how to set proper pricing is a much-needed formula for an ethical business that we all should encourage and reward. Purchasing from a small, non-Venture Capital backed company, like Emici Livet, is just one way to we as consumers can reduce fraud.
Ethical Disclaimer: I’ve not been paid or compensated in any way for writing this piece. I found out about Emici Livet through Instagram when doing marketing research and reached out to Marie Conrad who embodies a positive ethical startup business run by a woman.