Women in Business Q&A: Martine Ilana, Founder of La Mer Collections

La Mer was established in 2001 when Martine rummaged through her jewelry drawer and could not find a simple, stylish and feminine watch to wear. Combining her passion for design, love of quality materials and simple beauty, La Mer Collections was born.
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La Mer was established in 2001 when Martine rummaged through her jewelry drawer and could not find a simple, stylish and feminine watch to wear. Combining her passion for design, love of quality materials and simple beauty, La Mer Collections was born. Inspiration is drawn from her journeys: South Africa's colorful markets, Bali's lush flowers, Italy's gorgeous leathers and Thailand's clear blue ocean. Each season La Mer's color palette is chosen from these bright and colorful experiences. La Mer Collections' focus is on classic watch faces designed exclusively by Martine Ilana, paired with beautiful leather straps. Every leather wrap watch is hand assembled in the United States and made with care.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Family, friendship, education and having new experiences are my core personal values. I come from a family of 'travelers' as my great-great grandparents were pioneers of Johannesburg, South Africa in the late 1800's and my parents immigrated to the United States in the 1970's. This mindset of taking strategic risks to achieve goals is part of my DNA and how I choose to lead La Mer Collections.

My family is multi generational as my parents are 11 years apart and I have a sister who is 12 years younger so growing up we were all speaking a different 'languages' but having had that experience I believe, it has allowed me to understand and connect with people within my office that may have different perspectives.

Additionally, I have lived and worked in three major US cities: Manhattan, Boulder and Los Angeles. With each location is a new culture and way of life, from the fast pace of NY, the outdoor focus of Colorado and then the sun and sand and more relaxed way of doing business in California, and from these experiences, I have picked up an understanding of how different domestic markets operate and what each part of the country is looking for form a design, style and function standpoint.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at La Mer?
I started my career as a watch designer in New York and landed this position after showing the VP of Merchandising my university's independent study also known as: 'La Mer Collections'. It was in this first job that I learned the foundation and nuts and bolts of creating a product that is marketable for retailers, alongside learning how to work with international factories and suppliers to help achieve the right costs and quality.

Once I moved to Boulder, Colorado I worked for a woman owned 15-20 person interior design firm and this experience showed me the power of a small business. We were designing for the highest-end luxury hotels and resorts in the country including The Ritz, The Park Hyatt and many others. The size of this firm was a huge advantage as the owner showed me how to make quick thoughtful decisions that would save the customer money or help grow her business, but that otherwise could not have been achieved in a larger organization with so many 'cooks in the kitchen'.

After spending a few years in Colorado I was eager to move closer to the ocean and also continue my education in product development and this is where I really caught my stride. I focused on gaining experience in the surf and skate industry and worked for companies such as Billabong and Vans. Working as a designer at Vans, who is owned by VF Corporation (the largest apparel conglomerate of the world) opened my eyes and expanded my experience in international design and production. I finally could see how all of the pieces fit together in regards to: design, merchandising, sales, manufacturing, purchasing, shipping and development across the world.

All of these experiences are applied on a daily basis to my business.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at La Mer?
My highlights include: Daily media exposure world wide of our collection; Working with incredible team members both internally and externally to execute a vision that is somewhat outside the box for a watch brand; Working alongside international distributors, retailers and buyers who understand our core values of 'design inspiration by travel' and interpret the brand in a way that best fits their own customer base.

The challenges include: The 1st large holiday season when I did not have enough help and was working 23 hours a day to get orders out!; Starting from a one woman show to expanding to a larger team of employees and clarifying roles, expectations and continued growth to keep things fresh and exciting for everyone but also keeping the company's health on the forefront of everyone's minds; keeping up with production so that we are cost efficient and finally focusing on trend but also keeping the core La Mer wrap watch design aesthetic. It's a constant evolution!

What advice can you offer to women who want to start their own business?
Start small and do not over extend your resources.

Often I think that people feel that they are not ready to launch something or its not finished yet, but you will never know until you test it out or try it.

Make carefully thought out decisions that take into account your original vision or goal, and listen to your intuition as often this gets lost in the busy-ness of trying to launch or run a company.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
No one person operates alone and each role within in a company feeds and affects the others, so taking that concept and reality into account everyday is mass critical for the performance not only of the business at large, but the success of those members who make it up.

As well, its imperative to slow down - mistakes are made when one moves too fast and does not focus on completing one thing before moving onto the next.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I love the outdoors and try to do yoga, hike or jog to the ocean (I live in Venice Beach, CA) as much as possible, this clears my mind and opens up my creative flow. As well, I love working off site as I often get inspiration from an operational standpoint of other ways to be running the business.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Specifically to women, I think the 2 biggest issues in the workplace are: 1- what are their expectations and performance ability once they have children and 2- what happens when they get older and technology has changed so drastically (this applies to both genders). I truly believe that with some flexibility on both sides (employers and employees), gained trust and mobile working ability I feel that anything can be achieved.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Mentorship was a foreign concept to me for the early years of my company's growth as I was making decisions solo and without anyone else's input. After I made a conscious decision to grow La Mer into a full time business, and the business's needs changed and it was critical that I have guidance and receive advice from extremely experienced and successful business professionals!

My mentors have given me the ability to look down at my business from a bird's eye perspective and see the weaknesses, pressure points and issues that need to be addressed for longevity and long term profitability.

As well, they have instilled within me the confidence that I can achieve what I set out to do with a clear plan and a clear mind. This has affected me both professionally and personally as my work / life balance is so intermixed.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I admire female leaders who have been honing their skills for decades. The motivation to keep on moving forward for years, despite all issues that arise in running a successful business takes extreme mental strength and even physical strength. The top of my list within my industry (consumer products and fashion) would be Diane Von Furstenberg. She started with a simple design, went though massive growth, a restructure financially and then rebuilt her business so that 40 years later it is stronger and more exciting than ever.

As well, I highly admire Sheryl Sandberg the COO of Facebook because of her book 'Lean In' and the fact that she brought this conversation to the forefront for all generations of women.

What do you want La Mer to accomplish in the next year?
My ultimate vision for La Mer Collections is to create a internationally recognized lifestyle oriented accessory brand that is known to create beautiful, high quality designed items, that are design-wise accessible and understood in domestic and foreign markets, along with physically distributed in markets in a strategic way that positions the brand in its best light.

In order to execute these goals this year we will be launching a new international photo-shoot taken in Mexico, creating a 2nd shoot overseas into 2015, also opening up our product assortment to travel bags and jewelry, along side working with some amazing retail partners around the world to help us bring our brand awareness further into the market.

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