Hi Neri, thank you for taking the time to tell us about your eponymous business, Neri Karra. Let’s start by learning a bit about you.
If you weren't running your business, you' be… a writer and speaker.
Your career role model is… Oprah Winfrey and my father, because they created something out of nothing through hard work and perseverance.
The best advice you ever received is… Remember to have fun and enjoy (from my husband)
You feel most inspired and creative when… During a long walk in nature.
Your favourite app is… Apple podcasts.
The handbag you couldn't live without is… Neri Karra Mini Missy bag for every day, and Serpui mother of pearl clutch-bag my husband gifted me with for my 41st birthday.
In 5 years, you'll be… I hope to still be healthy and content - it's all that matters.
Thank you. Please tells us about your sustainability journey — how did you get into this industry?
It starts in my childhood. I grew up in Bulgaria during the communist era. I grew up in a poor, ethnic minority family and we grew all our vegetables and fruits ourselves. Even the meat we ate came from our own animals that were at home. Looking back, I can identify this as a sustainable way of living. We got new clothes only twice a year, during special occasions like religious holidays, and our grandmother sewed them.
My grandfather always talked about the importance of self-reliance. Instead of looking to the outside or someone else to give you things, it’s important to be self-reliant. This has been a philosophy that has always guided my life and my business. It doesn’t mean you don’t collaborate or have partners, but you don’t over-borrow. You don’t do anything outside of your budget. It actually makes you a lot more creative, when you know you have a certain amount of money or resources, you don’t try to overstretch yourself. It can make you very innovative.
We started the business over 20 years ago, without much capital. I didn’t know the famous fashion people or have the connections that people in the industry would normally have. Instead, we knew distributors who were selling textiles to my father. So when I started my own business, I went to these suppliers and asked for their leather waste, leather that wasn’t in fashion, and I bought it for cost price. This is how we made our first collection. We didn’t have any money to start our stores, we asked people we knew to take the collection and sell it in their countries, and that’s how we grew.
What are some of the values you wanted to imbue in your brand from the offset?
One of the things we have always focused on is quality. And quality is synonymous with sustainability. Today, everyone is talking about sustainability, but I think they forget about quality, durability and craftsmanship — the things that make something last long. For us, this was non-negotiable. It was always going to be Italian leather, made by Turkish craftsmen who were also immigrants in Turkey just like us. They had difficulty finding jobs, but they were exceptional at their craft. We bought together a team of people around the vision that we had, and it’s how we started our brand.
I don’t love the term sustainability because it’s become so overused. Who even knows what it means? That’s why I think we need to go back to the origins of how a business should operate. It should all be about ethics and values. I wish consumers would pay attention to that when they make buying choices.
In the beginning, my entire family came together to make the business a success. Working in a family business isn’t so easy, but it was common sense. The business was initially built in Russia and Ukraine instead of going to London or Paris, we didn’t have the money to do that. Now, we have 175 craftsmen working in the factory in Istanbul.
I’ve noticed that the Neri Karra bags are classic in their design. Is that an intentional design choice to ensure customers will wear them for many years to come?
I don’t do trends or seasonal collections. For me, it’s about timelessness and longevity. The designs we have now are the same designs we drew years ago. We work with a renowned stylist to create 3D designs from my designs on paper. Everything comes to life in his atelier in Moderna initially. We have a team of designers who work in Istanbul to develop ideas, but I focus on everyday life, and how people live. Practicality is the number one priority. We have a really close relationship with our Italian suppliers. I only use traceable Italian leather that has a gold standard from the Leather Working Group.
I’ve worked with the same suppliers for the last 20 years, and this is also sustainability. In today’s life, everything is fast and transitory. You have working relationships that change quickly. We’re still working with the same craftsmen we started out with at the beginning of the business, and that is a big sign of success to me. Of course, finances are important, but to me, our relationships are a big part of success.
As a sustainable business owner, is your definition of success, profit and growth shaped by your values?
We have to be a profitable business because we employ hundreds of people, we have to pay their salaries and we have to make a living ourselves. But I find there is a conflict. I have to sell as many bags as possible, but I’m really against the idea that you should convince people to buy your bags because that means you’ve achieved a certain status. The psychology and marketing that comes into play in fashion are completely against what I believe. I want to focus on quality, how good my product is and how well it’s made.
Success for me is that all my family is well, they are employed, they live well, and all of our employees are paid well above the living wage, which is very important. In Bulgaria, 90% of our employees are women from disadvantaged backgrounds. To me, that is success. I don’t have the profit margins of luxury brands, but I think the business is successful.
Your brand has a lot of certifications, including B Corp and Positive Luxury’s Butterfly Mark. Why was it important to you to achieve these signifiers of sustainability?
I know I have a sustainable brand, but in order to say I’m sustainable, I wanted to go through the process to make it more legitimate. Also, I wanted to find out how well I am ranked and where I needed to do better.
During the process, we had to legitimise and formalise a lot of things. For example, we had to create a formal employee handbook, a formal recycling programme and our take-back scheme. Over 90% of our employees are women from disadvantaged backgrounds and believe it or not, I didn’t think that was important, I just wanted to do something to help my community, and this made sense. I knew my business, but I hadn’t put myself through this kind of analysis before. Now we know that social innovation and employee well-being are where we excel as a business.
How do you promote responsible consumption through your business?
I don’t encourage mindless buying. I don’t have seasons and I don’t overproduce. In our factory, we have a zero-waste policy. Even the tiniest piece of leather waste is recycled and turned back into leather. We encourage people to bring their products back to us to be recycled back into new leather, and we offer free lifetime repairs.
About a month ago, I received a briefcase that someone bought from us 20 years ago, and we repaired the broken handle on it. No questions asked! This customer still wanted to use the briefcase, which is wonderful and it’s quite rare.