MARTINE ILANA // LA MER COLLECTIONS
Martine Ilana is the founder and president of La Mer Collections’ Timepieces. She has been designing La Mer Collections since 2001 and has grown its following to both domestic and international. After living and working as a designer and merchandiser in four major cities (Cape Town, New York, Boulder, and Los Angeles) in 2009 she re-launched La Mer Collections’ online store and website and created a customizable handcrafted watch DIY feature that embodies both the concept of a souvenir but remains true to the core company values of design inspired by the color of travel and art.
How did you come up with the concept behind La Mer Collections?
I founded La Mer Collections in 2001 just after I had taken a year to continue my design studies and travel overseas in Africa and Asia. I love souvenirs because once I’m back from any trip I can look at an object and dream about where I picked it up. I was so inspired by my time away that when I returned home, I wanted to design and create a line of watches that reminded me of my travels.
I could not find a watch that I wanted to wear that was both feminine and unique, so my goal was to create a beautifully designed watch that was durable and functional, but also that expressed my personality.
Once you knew you wanted to launch La Mer Collections what steps did you take to make that a reality?
The launch of La Mer was a slow and organic process. I never intended to have La Mer be my full-time job as I loved working with other brands and developing multiple products for different international markets. In 2006 when I was approached by Urban Outfitters to sell La Mer Collections on their site, the first thing I knew I needed was production help — I could not physically make hundreds of watches alone. I hired a leather company on Craigslist to help make the watch bands and then hired a few local LA jewelry designers to help with the chain and charm embellishments. This was my first step in turning La Mer into a larger, more stable design project.
The next big step was hiring a showroom to help me with sales outreach, and another major step was designing a beautiful website. Once those key parts of the business were in place I spent the next 5-6 years, for 12+ hours a day getting the company to a place where we have amazing customers, a strong product assortment that is received in multiple markets, and created team that hand-wraps every order that ships out.
What lessons have you learned along the way?
Ask for help before it is too late.
Put something out into the market as a test, you may never be totally ready but customers will let you know what is or isn’t working within a few days.
Do you have a daily routine or certain rituals you do?
My days start around 6:15 am and I have to have lots of coffee! I am glued to my email from about 7 am to 11:30 am and because La Mer is an international brand I am working with time zones around the world. When I wake up I have answers from customers and factories in Asia, work with our East Coast contacts, and still have time to call South America and Europe. The end of my day always ends with a walk of my dog Frank Capers down to the beach.
What hardships/obstacles have you had along the way?
I believe that any business owner will agree that running a business has obstacles on the daily. The ones that stand out are:
Presenting La Mer Collections to buyers and having them understand our company vision and designs. Trying to enter the consumer product market can be difficult with a fashion watch collection that is very niche as we fall into contemporary clothing, gift, and surf/skate markets.
Creating a working environment that supports the company’s core values but also allows for growth.
Keeping our collection consistent worldwide. We want to ensure that all of our customers get the same quality and service.
What do you wish you would have known going into this?
It’s a 24-hour job!
Your products are handmade in California, any specific reasons for that?
I began my fine arts education at a institution called Cranbrook Kingswood, which was founded in the Arts & Crafts movement. There is such value in a handcrafted item – it is near impossible to match this type of detail, color, and execution in a mass market production run.
When I founded La Mer in 2001 I was making the watches by hand by myself. I wanted to create something that was unique and had this visual and artistic value for a larger market. As the company has grown, having our products be handmade what helps us stand out from all of the other watches in the market. It is important that our customers know that we are handmade in California and embody the California lifestyle – we are a few blocks from the beach, our watches are colorful, sophisticated, and are inspired by the idea of exploration.
What have you found works for you as far as organizing your business and time?
Google Calendar is my bible. I also love Dropbox on my phone, this has helped tremendously in sharing files if I am traveling or in transit. La Mer as an office also has many systems in place via Google docs that allow me to have visibility on the day to day in order to ensure we are on time for production and shipping.
When you travel, are you traveling specifically for the business or looking for anything in particular? Or do you just travel personally and let inspiration come to you?
I travel a lot. Last quarter I was on 14 flights in eight weeks! Usually it is for work but when I have a place I am dying to explore, I will work out a way to incorporate a La Mer photo shoot, or a business meeting so that I have 12-24 hours there.
I am inspired by anything that has to do with a new environment. I recently ended up in Florida and the beaches were white and the ocean a light icy blue – this is so different to the Pacific Ocean’s deep blue. As a creative person I let inspiration come to me but I do need to be in a calm and visually stimulating place to start.
How do you plan out new designs and product launches?
La Mer has a core collection that ships year-round, then each quarter we release a new capsule collection. This year we are staring to move toward other accessories assortments such as a travel bag collection and also a capsule jewelry line. We want to ensure that our customers can access our iconic wrap watches in basic colors, but also have access to our embellished collection every few months with a fresh view.
Highlight of your career so far? Low point?
Seeing La Mer worn worldwide through social media.
Securing new business with top tier retailers such as Nordstrom and Isetan in Japan.
Building an amazing team of people to help grow the company – coming to work each day is really fun and such a pleasure.
There really have not been any low points outside of business operational hurdles – trying to keep budgets on target while still being able to deliver our collection on time.
Looking back, what would you do differently?
Ask for help earlier than I did.
Best advice you’ve been given? Any advice that you’d give other entrepreneurs?
I think that formal education and training is extremely important to provide the mental and physical tools to run a business. Hands-on experience paired with education is a winning combination. Every day is different when running a business. Make sure that if you start your own business, you are flexible with your schedule.
Ask for help! This is something that took me a while to do as I thought I could take it on everything but it is surprising what people will do if you ask nicely and if you share your passion for the project or business at hand.
Last piece of advice is to create a plan. I am a firm believer that with a plan, anything can be executed.
Behind the Biz takes a deep dive behind the scenes with business owners and entrepreneurs.