The Laws of Style hosted by Douglas Hand Episode 12 – Melissa Joy Manning
“Style is ingrained, fashion is an artifice. You can buy into fashion, you can be shown something that’s fashionable, but style is something that is part of you.” – Melissa Joy Manning
SUMMARY Doug sits down with Melissa Joy Manning, a Brooklyn-based handmade jewelry designer. Manning has been handcrafting eco-friendly luxury jewelry since launching her namesake brand in 1997 and currently has stores in Brooklyn and Berkley. Manning discusses how you shouldn’t have to sacrifice style for sustainability and how companies like hers can start small and contribute to cumulative change that engenders big impact. Also discussed: style vs. fashion, jewelry vs. apparel, sustainability as a luxury concept and the trickledown effect.
MELISSA JOY MANNING’S ENSEMBLE:
Jewelry – Melissa Joy Manning, Polly Wales, Lauren Wolf, Cartier (bracelet) Chinatown (bracelet)
Clothing – Gary Graham, Dries Van Noten
Shoes – Nike
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Douglas Hand: Hello, and welcome to the podcast, “The Laws of Style,” downloading to you from [high above] Bryant Park in the fashion District of New York. I’m your host Douglas Hand, fashion lawyer, and fashion law professor. I’m joined by Melissa Joy Manning, who is both a jewelry designer and a sustainability activist, I’ll say, but we can deep dive into that as the questions plum further. So welcome.
Melissa Joy Manning: Thank you.
Douglas Hand: So, I guess just for our listeners that may not be familiar with the line, tell us how you got into jewelry design and a little bit about the brand story.
Melissa Joy Manning: Okay. I’ve actually always made jewelry, like lots of kids that started in Montessori school, but I kind of just never stopped. In high school, I was making and selling things and just always creating consumer pieces, hairpieces, pins, but my parents are classic overachievers, and were, “Art isn’t something you should do,” so I actually tried to study law and ended up withdrawing from classes and found traditional metalsmithing in Mexico.
Douglas Hand: So was this after high school or was this your undergraduate years?
Melissa Joy Manning: Yes, undergraduate years? I was at UC San Diego, trying really hard to fit that mold in a sorority, all these things because my mom was… God, yeah, La Jolla.
Douglas Hand: Pre Law and La Jolla. Hard.
Melissa Joy Manning: Yeah. It was challenging. So I ended up like, disappearing into Mexico which has always resonated with me – a place that I love.
Douglas Hand: But not in a really bad way that sometimes people do these days.
Melissa Joy Manning: No, more…And yeah, no, there were no…Yeah. So I ended up studying at Instituto de San Miguel de Allende, traditional metalsmithing and I just loved it. And when I came back to the States, San Francisco State still had a public art program. I was lucky enough to go there. And I studied jewelry and sculpture actually, so academically trained. But then when I graduated, there were no opportunities. It was posted NAFTA, height of NAFTA so all skilled trade jobs were offshore, and I couldn’t really find anything. But I’ve always loved to sell. So I was in high-end retail.
Douglas Hand: In what brands?
Melissa Joy Manning: I was at Wilkes Bashford.
Douglas Hand: Okay.
Melissa Joy Manning: And some other smaller boutiques in San Francisco, and restaurant work. But the parents weren’t super happy with that trajectory. What are we going to do?
Douglas Hand: She’s not in big law. She’s showing people to tables and taking reservations.
Melissa Joy Manning: Yeah. And it was just kind of like, I went to a vocation—my mom sent me to a vocational counselor, my mom’s a lawyer. And I sat down at this table and took all these tests and the results came back, I should be self-employed, which kind of isn’t a surprise with my personality type. And they said, “What can you do?” And I said, “I can make jewelry.” And Betty said— that was the counselor’s name—said, “Well, there you go. Be a jewelry designer.” I had no idea what that meant. Like I had my walls were plastered with L when Jill…Everybody would have [inaudible] all that beautiful fashion. I’ve always loved it. But I had no idea to start my business.
So I went to the Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center in San Francisco, which is a business kind of incubator for women and minorities, you have to have a viable business idea to be accepted. I went there and got a boot camp of business and then started my own brand with $500 at 26 by walking around two stores I liked and asking them to carry my work. Fast forward 22 years later, and basically still doing the same thing.
Douglas Hand: Well, let’s put a pin in San Miguel because I would love to hear about what it was like back then…
Melissa Joy Manning: No, it was so much fun.
Douglas Hand: …. change drastically. But it’s just much more populated by, you know, people who may not live their whole year round.
Melissa Joy Manning: Right.
Douglas Hand: But then let’s talk about your design process, has it always been the same? Has it evolved? You’ve obviously trained under masters, and you’ve seen a lot of different you know, I mean, jewelry is one of those items you can go to a large jeweler and really almost span the globe of influences from you know, from Greek and Egyptian to Central American influences in design. How did your design process evolve? And do you feel that it continually evolves? Does it change season to season for you still?
Melissa Joy Manning: I mean, for me, it’s interesting, I had this conversation yesterday with someone about design like we were actually in a brand exercise, and it was kind of like, “How do you design and most people I know sketch, they do inspiration boards?” I just kind of walk around thinking about things. I’m really inspired by everything I see around me: people, environment. And it’s just this kind of like visual processing, where things just begin to coalesce in jewelry in my head until it becomes to a point where I just need to get it out. So there’s usually very little sketching; it’s just pen to paper drawing patterns. And then those patterns get translated into work. Sometimes, a lot of times when I do color stories, so I tend to divide my work into three categories. And the color story work which I was up to be a lot of my one of a kind bigger pieces are about the stones. And it’s you know, I’m from Berkeley, and I’ve always hated this idea that, oh, you’re this hippie from Northern California, you know, especially when Birkenstocks were in style, I would just not touch them. And it was just kind of like…But I do feel like the stones kind of tell me what they want to be. For me, the work is really just about allowing the beauty of nature to come through. So it doesn’t need a lot of designer, it doesn’t need a lot of fuzziness; simplicity for me in terms of just giving them somewhere to shine so people enjoy them and give them a new life.
How I design, though, the language of it, for lack of a better word, does change season to season, sometimes in terms of, you know, the architecture of the piece, engineering of the piece, my language tends to be really round, because I’m a changemaker in general, but this season throwing a lot of straight lines. So I think as a designer, you always want to change and evolve because that’s what’s inspiring.
Douglas Hand: So it’s jewelry. It’s not tabletop, it’s not…You haven’t really branched out into, you know, jewelry is obviously the most intimate use of the precious stone and the metals. Have you ever done beyond the traditional body parts of the neck, the ears, the wrist, the fingers? You know, have you done…? I know, I have a few tiepins of yours, which unfortunately I’m not wearing one today because…
Melissa Joy Manning: Shame on you.
Douglas Hand: No, you should never wear a vest and tie pin.
Melissa Joy Manning: Laws of style.
Douglas Hand: Laws of style. Exactly.
Douglas Hand: But have you branched out into other body areas or do other body areas excite you from a design perspective that might not be obvious?
Melissa Joy Manning: I mean, one of my—who’s now absolutely one of my best friends, Do Re Chung when she had her label, Do Re, we work together on a really interesting collaboration for runway where I was doing these big like gloves, metal gloves and like pieces like Warren pieces that were more kind of a nod to chain mail but modern armor. So I have done things like that for specific projects. I mean, it’s interesting conceptually to me. What I’m more interested in is taking jewelry, sometimes you referenced it a little bit as is for me, like going back to my sculptural route. So I’ve done some sculptural installations using jewelry components, which I really enjoy. And I would like to do more of, meaning mean might be a future endeavor that I’m thinking of considering. I really liked the fusion of the two of how I can…Because a lot of times how I design is I design big and then I scaled down. So it’s kind of like if I could just, you know, cover your wall with something, I’d be really happy.
Douglas Hand: And it’s not because technically, that affords you the opportunity to really kind of get into the weeds of how— if it’s a gemstone, how it’s going to be effects and how it’s going to look and then you know, as you reduce the size and the scale, you kind of have that master plan. It’s like your master blueprint, or is it just you think big, and then you realize commercially, it can’t be that big?
Melissa Joy Manning: Right. I think it’sjust creativity like I like just putting together big things. And I love playing like almost like puzzle pieces, like putting all the stones together, so end up with a really big color giant cough. And then it’s like taking that color story and diffusing it down into the most wearable pieces. Because the majority of what people buy is pretty simple. So you know, it’s like, you’ve got this one big press piece or archival piece, and then you’ve got all these…And then sometimes they sell and I’ve been known to cry about it like, “Really? You’re gonna take this from me?
Douglas Hand: Well, for our listeners that may not know the distinctions. Your jewelry is considered fine jewelry. Are there other levels and you know, sort of at the bottom level there would be costume jewelry? Is there a tween region and what does fine mean versus costume?
Melissa Joy Manning: So there is a tween region, which is called demi fine. It used to be called bridge. But I think they call it demi fine now. I sometimes wonder if I’m more demi fine than fine, because I don’t use 18 karats all the time and I don’t use super precious gemstones all the time. I think that the difference is materials, and workmanship. So the crafting of fine jewelry is usually done like what you said, by a master, so someone who’s very well trained, very well paid, because they have to have the ability to engineer and create these pieces. And then the kind of consumer goods that are more easily attain that you see on you know, what they call TOC, Top of Counter Rotating displays that are costume. You know, those are synthetic materials that aren’t natural, and they tend to be made and mass-market consumer spaces, maybe offshore somewhere. And places that don’t treat people as well sometimes, so…
Douglas Hand: And the relative price points. I mean, obviously fine can get in the stratosphere. But typical if I’m walking into Bergdorf or Barney’s and I’m looking between fine and costume, what’s the price differential there, typically?
Melissa Joy Manning: I mean, it really depends because there are fashion costume designers now who do generate a lot of desire for the work so they can be up to $500, $700 for something that’s not a completely natural material. But I mean, my line, for example, we have an accessible price point, so we start at like $100, and then we go from there. So the majority, I think, of demi fine or bridge fine sets, you know, average price point $500 to $1,000. And then fine-fine is way up there, you know, White Glove service.
Douglas Hand: Right. Right. So you are the co-chair of the CFDA’s Sustainability Committee.
Melissa Joy Manning: Mm-hmm.
Douglas Hand: And you’re an advisory board member of the Lexus CFDA Fashion Positive. You’ve also been quoted as saying, “Being mindful of our impact is rooted in our—your brand’s design philosophy—we seek to redefine what precious means and to create pieces that are unique, where instead of contributing to a culture of disposable fashion.” Talk to me about the JMM ethos around sustainability.
Melissa Joy Manning: Well, it goes back to my brand inception. So it really was core principle to the creation of my company. I spoke earlier that when I started, there were no jobs available. For me as a trained jeweler, most things were being made offshore. I think there was a very small handful of jewelry designers at the time, who were making things in the United States. And when I sat down in the business program with advisors and mentors who always have a lot to say, they always told me, I would never be competitive if I made things on shore. You know, the majority of the industry in order to be competitive, you have to make it where they make it. And I just didn’t buy it, you know, I just really felt like for me, I really wanted to create a community with my company so I could offer other artists living working wage plus full benefits, health, vision, dental, disability life, and create a space where people who were artists could work and enjoy working together. And that’s what we did. So as I started growing and hiring people, I just kept my production in-house and controlling that. And you know, when I realized that there was room, especially in fine jewelry to do that, in terms of pricing and remaining competitive, that’s when I started looking at the environmental focus of what I was doing, you know, and then became committed to using only 100% recycled metal that is only refined in the United States in another certified green studio, actually certified green refinery out of Virginia. And then when I was like, “Oh, you’re certified green, what does that mean?” And then figured out we could be certified green in the state of California, which is actually a very rigorous process.
Douglas Hand: So what is that process? And what does that mean?
Melissa Joy Manning: Yeah, so we just re upped it. So we were one of the first people when they first did it, like five, six years ago, and then we had to redo it, become recertified. And it’s this huge list, and you have to have like 60 to 70 points on it in order to be certified. So it’s everything from water usage, chemical usage, electrical usage, the amount of post-consumer recycled products you use in your back office operations, including pens, papers, carbon, offsetting your shipping, our material usage, our zero waste philosophy, to even like now we have bike repair kits available for employees who ride bikes to work. So it’s encouraging mass transit instead of…
Douglas Hand: And that gives you points?
Melissa Joy Manning: Points.
Douglas Hand: It’s an objective standard based on those points.
Melissa Joy Manning: Yes, and then you come out at the end. And so it’s like some things you can’t do right because we can’t be recertified, we can’t redo our building but we can do all these other things. And then part of it is, you know, the messaging. So we talked about it so that other people think like, “Hey, maybe I can do it, too.” And then, so part of their requirement is referring people and then having those friends go through the process and become green certified as well.
Douglas Hand: Do you feel that it also has a market impact at all with consumers?
Melissa Joy Manning: I think it does now, I mean, back when I first started talking about this, it was crickets. I mean, my first day as a CFDA member, I stood up and asked Stephen and Diane, what our industry’s plans for sustainability were, and the room was dead silent, and I like turned bright red, and they looked at each other and were like, “None,” and I sat down and to their credit, it’s now one of their pillars. So it’s definitely changed, which is amazing. But most people didn’t want to talk about it, you know, at trunk shows, I would try to talk to consumers about it but you know, they get in their car and they drive home. And unfortunately, we live in this culture where we’re defining people by what they do wrong, rather than what they do. And so it’s hard, it’s challenging to gain momentum and have a positive conversation about it. But I think that that’s starting to happen so that’s really exciting.
So from a consumer perspective, I think it is important too, especially with transparency and culture, and the millennials really wanting to find something that they believe in buy into and be part of a story that resonates. So I think responsibility is starting to become a purchasing point. The design always comes first. It’s always about the design.
Douglas Hand: And sometimes price.
Melissa Joy Manning: And price, for sure. Yeah.
Douglas Hand: You know, one of the things that jewelry stands apart into a degree from apparel is certainly for fine jewelry; most of those pieces are going to be kept…
Melissa Joy Manning: Correct.
Douglas Hand: And handed down, you know, put in a will if someone is keeping a will. And that makes the product category inherently friendly to the environment in the sense that there’s a lot of supply out there, which is just changing hands through legacy.
Melissa Joy Manning: Correct. But there are a lot of people who sell that or don’t use it anymore, but it is different than apparel for that, for sure.
Douglas Hand: But I’d like to…And I hear that a lot, and it makes sense. Also, the luxury price points, I mean, even with apparel, if you’re talking about a $4,000 garment, well, that’s probably going to be passed down too. But most apparel is in the price range of $15 to $30.
Melissa Joy Manning: Right.
Douglas Hand: And those things are not going to be passed on unless they’re repurposed in some way; they may not last past one year. But in the jewelry industry—and fine and costume and bridge, are there examples of wastefulness and what are those? And in here, I’m speaking environmentally.
Melissa Joy Manning: Oh, I mean, yeah, jewelry is really dirty. I mean, it’s really dirty. And that’s part of my challenge. And part of why my business has changed so dramatically over the last couple of years is really facing that, right? So being this idealist of like, I want to leave the world a better place for my existence. I want my child to live in a world that was similar to mine, or, you know, when you drove down the street bugs were on your windshield. Where’d all the bugs go? Like they’re gone, right? So it’s like, how do I reconcile my desire with what I do? And jewelry is inherently dirty, you know, there’s now the option for fair trade gold, but some of the standards aren’t necessarily the same across a lot of different platforms. So I’m still most comfortable with recycled gold. But then there’s the argument where it only has to be recycled once where did it come from the first time? Because mining is, for lack of a better word, a minefield, right? So they pour chemicals into the ground, people are treated horribly and I mean, that’s mining for stones and for metal. So it’s just kind of like, the more you learn, the more you’re like, “Oh, my God, what am I complicit in? And we’re all complicit; every single one of us is, so just kind of in a supply-demand economy, how do we start demanding better supplies so that we can change the ability to do we have better choices?
So for me, that’s really changed a lot of the stones I use, how much jewelry I actually physically want to make. Because it is really dirty. You know, everyone remembers the word, you know, that movie, Blood Diamond.
Douglas Hand: Right.
Melissa Joy Manning: And, you know, they came up with the Kimberley Process to certify the stones that they weren’t coming from that space. But it’s really easy to get those across country lines. And it’s just…It is a real challenge, you know. And the United States tried to do something about the money laundering issue with gold so they did the Frank-Dodd Act, and there’s murmurings that there’s going to start doing something with stones because a lot of the stone supplier controlled by sometimes terrorist organizations or come out of specific regions of the world where they’re using the money to buy arms like so there’s a lot of geopolitical as well as environmental aspects from the raw materials and in jewelry.
Douglas Hand: Yeah, well, you hit on something as well about being an independent brand, and being able to make what you want in the way that you want to make it, which I think resonates here, where you may lose margin by doing what you’re doing. You do lose margin?
Melissa Joy Manning: I do. I absolutely do.
Douglas Hand: You may gain some customers, but it could be we’re still at an imbalance, where you’re not getting enough customers to justify in a cold, rational financial sense, the margin loss.
Melissa Joy Manning: Absolutely. It’s an uphill battle.
Douglas Hand: Right. Right. But do you…? I guess, here, I just I want to applaud to that. And I guess, say that, did you ever feel pressure earlier on? Or do you still now to transform the brand into something that could be a billion-dollar brand, a lifestyle brand? Or are you content? I don’t want to lead you to the answer. The answer is the answer. But content to have a business which is sustainable, both from as much as you can an environmental perspective, but also financially, that it’s making a profit, and it may not be a profit that’s going to allow to IPO, but one that is going to allow you to raise a family and live a life in the way that you want to live it.
Melissa Joy Manning: Right. So that’s a really interesting question. And for me, the space within sustainability, and speaking about that has really morphed into this as well. We’re conditioned as Americans to always want to be bigger and better and grow and post bottom lines and make money. I mean, look at the game life, right. I used to play that game all the time when I was little. And I figured out how to spin it just right. So I always landed on doctor. So I got the biggest paycheck, right? For Kids drove the car to the end you in life, right? We’re conditioned everywhere we look, that we are defined by how much money we make. And that’s awful. Like, to me, that’s not true. It’s not true love. It’s not true life. It’s not who we are as people is just a mass stuff. But I was conditioned that way. And I’m not gonna lie, or try to say I wasn’t like, I used to really want that I used to think that I wanted this brand that was, you know, everywhere, you know, and you could see it and all the stores. And I chased that for a while. And that was my ego. It was my ego wanting this kind of sense of satisfaction.
Douglas Hand: To be fair to you, perhaps your education. I mean, you were educated here. And that is, you know, from an early age, what you’re reading about the history books, and the way that certainly when you get into your undergrad years and your professional studies. You know, that’s winning the game. I mean, that’s the goal of the educator, as well as to get you to that place where you are doing well, financially.
Melissa Joy Manning: Right. And I just kind of started questioning that around the birth of my son, and around the closing of my flagship 12 booster. And just, you know, I’d sat in on all these meetings with the CFDA and with a lot of advisors, and I’d actually gone to them with this idea of an exit plan. Because for me, it was really challenging to reconcile, like, I’ve said a lot of the things in this conversation, and it was kind of this “Well, you shouldn’t just leave like you need to build the brand, sell it and exit.” And it was like, “All right, okay, let’s think about that.”And then started talking to an investor and started getting all of these. I think at one time, I even asked you your opinion on one of these investor plans. And just really started thinking about it. And I was like, these are just modern pyramid schemes, right? It’s just one person coming in and putting a lot of money and saying [inaudible 24:15] company’s bigger and then the next smock’s going to buy it. And then the next one, and then you just have to keep churning out stuff. But none of its real.
Douglas Hand: Yeah, we had some version of this conversation at that time, too.
Melissa Joy Manning: Yeah, probably. I was probably already thinking about it. So I just kind of really looked at that and thought about it also too from the sustainability perspective, what was I going to be making and was it meaningful? And what were my resources going to be and how much was I going to consume. And really, if I want to start reporting just on bottom line numbers, that means I have to make concessions on how I treat people, how I pay people, the choices I make as a designer in my raw materials. And I just couldn’t do it. And it just became part of my philosophy is I just backed away. I mean, I voluntarily last year went from 250 accounts worldwide to less than 100. And I just really focused on making better product, stronger relationships, and focusing more on my retail, my own retail, and telling our story in a way that made sense and resonated to our consumers, and was able to change the focus of the brand where, you know, we’re a successful company, but I don’t know how much more I need. Like I think what I need and what success means to me is, I get to live my life the way I choose to, I get to wake up in the morning, spend time with my son before I get to go make jewelry. The fact that people buy anything that comes out of my head, I’m like, “Wow, that is what’s amazing.” So I don’t need more than that, you know, I’d like to pay for my child’s education. I’d like to travel because that’s where I derive so much of my inspiration. But I don’t know if—I don’t think I need my name everywhere. I don’t need to grow this huge brand.
Douglas Hand: Well, and you’re being modest because 100 accounts and you have too brick and mortar stores. One is still in Berkeley, California.
Melissa Joy Manning: Right.
Douglas Hand: And one now in Cobble Hill, having close this Soho flagship, you know, I mean, that’s a by coastal and international business that you’re well known for.
Melissa Joy Manning: Well, I’ve done it for 22 years, though, I mean, pre-internet.
Douglas Hand: Yeah. Well, and so let’s talk about that. What was it like as that was transforming the business, transforming the industry? And do you feel that there was a boat missed there or that a bullet dodge there that you’re not this massive brand that, you know, as a whole costume arm because you have to? Because you’ve got a huge econ presence.
Melissa Joy Manning: I mean, I don’t know, it’s an interesting thing. I’ve always loved technology, right, but not being a baby of it. You know, when I grew up, I didn’t have a computer. It was like typing on a word processor.
Douglas Hand: You’ve had that?
Melissa Joy Manning: Yeah.
Douglas Hand: I had the three ring, you know?
Melissa Joy Manning: Totally. I mean, word processor was very end of school.
Douglas Hand: Did you have Wend?
Melissa Joy Manning: I think it was HP.
Douglas Hand: Okay.
Melissa Joy Manning: Yeah. My first computer was like this deep, right? I remember my dad had a cell phone…
Douglas Hand: Floppy desk, you’d have to put about eight floppy disks in to get to something beyond the DOS prompt.
Melissa Joy Manning: Totally. I mean, it’s just remarkable. You know, now my son is going to be growing up with AI. It’s just so different, and how fast we’ve just, it’s this acceleration of culture, which is really interesting. But I’ve always adopted it. Like, I liked it, like when e-commerce came around, we’re immediately like, “Ooh, this is fun, what we can do with it.” And we got a technology loan and built a website and paid for itself within three months. And it was like, “Well, what’s this?” And then that’s how the retail model for us started really early. But I was primarily a wholesaler, because it was like, you didn’t have the opportunity to reach on consumer you had to rely on the stores. So that’s why I’ve been a wholesaler for the past 22 years. And the wholesale relationships I have now are based on long-term relationships, they’re marketing relationships as well because still allows me to reach consumers I can’t reach on the internet or through my stores. Had I had the opportunity to start direct to consumer, I probably would have. I mean, I think it’s a really interesting space because you can tell your story directly in a voice that you want and you can control that’s transparent and authentic. When you are a wholesaler you rely on people to tell that story for you. So part of the relationship choices I have are because I feel like people tell that story right. That resonates with me as an artist.
Douglas Hand: How much of that story is informed by your two retail locations? And what is it…? What are the challenges of in addition to being a designer who has wholesale accounts, also being a shopkeeper with two stores 3000 miles apart?
Melissa Joy Manning: Yeah, thanks, Douglas. That’s an interesting question. I have never made been one to make easy choices. The reason why we still have Berkeley is I started my business in Berkeley, committed to creating that community. And when I decided to move here, I couldn’t uproot all those people and I couldn’t take away their jobs. I just didn’t feel right doing that. So I left Berkeley. But continue to visit it and manage it so that we can keep that space alive and well for those people. Were I a different person and didn’t care about people as much? Maybe it would be here, all in New York. That’s not something I consider lately. So as challenging as it is, and disruptive sometimes to go back and forth, it’s, again, part of the brand ethos, in terms of is it challenging to tell that across the two stores? No, because it’s about those people, and when we create those relationships and have those people that we rely on and trust, the reason why I do is because we share values. And so they can speak about them the same way I would speak about them. And I’m really lucky to work with the people that I work with. And they, you know, do that in the stores whether or not I’m there. And it’s also, we don’t hit someone over the head with it when they come in. It’s more like, they look around and it’s our choice of extreme and how the stores are put together.
Douglas Hand: It’s very subtle, but it feels…And hippie is the wrong word. I don’t know, it feels like a really chic kind of urban version of a Saloom stand. I don’t know.
Melissa Joy Manning: Thank you. I love that. I mean, Saloom’s a great space; I used to go all the time. Yeah, and that’s one of the hardest things about sustainability, right? Is it is a luxury concept? Because when we talk about the idea that most clothing 15 to $30, it’s what people can afford. I mean, when people are thinking about where’s their water’s coming from, their food coming from, how are they going to pay their electric bill, their phone bill, any of those kinds of things, they don’t have that disposable income to make a better choice about the raw materials. And that’s where I think it is our responsibility from a luxury standpoint is to make better decisions so they trickle down. And then the as materials become more available, the hope is if the demand for them comes up, you know, they’ll be more and eventually price will become less of an issue, and we have to switch. I’m headed to the UN later this afternoon for convening on sustainability. I mean, the idea that raw material resources are just going to cease to exist, because we no longer have the water, or the space, or the sunlight to grow them or it’s too hot or too cold, and we’re going to have food shortages, how are we going to be growing cotton? You know, these are really compelling issues, but they’re scary. So a lot of people don’t want to talk about them or face them. So it isn’t, you can’t hit them over the head with it, you’ve got to just start the conversation.
Douglas Hand: Well, do you feel that we’re being pushed in a good way, really by this younger generation who is forcing that conversation with some of their choices. I know still plenty of Gen Z and Millennials are buying Zara and H&M, not to point fingers.
Melissa Joy Manning: Yeah, I mean, they’re doing better than they ever have.
Douglas Hand: Right. But what’s doing better and is projected to continue to do well is a lot of repurposed clothing options. You know, we were talking before we started shooting about certain repurpose brands, I’m doing some work with the goodwill with a couple of designers for William Good to try to activate the huge inventory of gently used clothes that they have. And so you do see them pushing the conversation, hopefully, more and more financially. But do you feel that they’re the best ones to be pushing it? I mean, you know, obviously, at those ages, they’re not the most educated, just the most educated avatar of that issue. And you do find amongst our generation and older generations, a little bit of, whether it’s denial, or it’s just a scary conversation to have.
Melissa Joy Manning: I think what you’re talking about is huge, for many reasons. One, okay….There’s a huge…There’s a boatload of greenwashing going on, right? So Millennials are really susceptible to marketing and advertising. So there are a lot of transparent pricing models that everybody loves. But how transparent are they if they’re lying about how much it costs to make something in the first place? So there’s that issue, which is a big one. So that’s a challenge. But what’s even more challenging as I think some of the older generations are scared, because they don’t want to give anything up. Let’s be really honest, right? So I make choices as a small company to pay my employees well. If bigger companies made choices to make things onshore and to pay their employees well, they’d have more money to buy a better product. So if we’re…
Douglas Hand: Employees.
Melissa Joy Manning: Employees, yes. So if we’re talking about large corporations trying to maximize their bottom line, by paying people minimum wage or getting upset when we raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. $15 an hour? Are you kidding me? That’s nothing. How do we expect people, millennials, young kids with smaller budgets to be able to buy better things? We’re forcing them into these choices of Bizarro or reuse culture because other people are amassing wealth. And the disparity between the haves and have nots is just growing and continues to grow. And it’s, you know, we have to…There’s almost…Activist is a word, right? Revolution, I don’t know. I just think that we’re in a really dangerous space where we’re not sharing resources, and we’re taking away people’s choices and forcing them to make bad ones. And if we continue to do that, we’re all going to suffer.
Douglas Hand: I have found that the Gen Z, the millennial population, certainly is forcing the conversation of environmental impact and the potential for true, horrific Armageddon. Whether they’re doing that commercially through their buying behavior, perhaps remains to be seen. There are offerings out there that are repurposed and repackaged use clothing that are becoming very viable and branded. But you still see that segment buying from H&M buying from Zara. You also see our generation and older Gen. Baby boomers who have a lot and want to hold on to what they have, somewhat potentially greenwashing the conversation through big business. H&M has…Every brand has an environmental component to their story and messaging now. Your thoughts on that in general, and your thoughts on activating that Gen Z millennial consumer in the right way.
Melissa Joy Manning: Yeah, that’s a good one. It’s a big one. We talk about education. Maybe they’re not the most educated. I’m going to push back on that a little bit, because some of the most educated people are the ones who are manipulating the conversation because they’re doing it for personal gain. So I’m just happy someone’s pushing the conversation forward. I mean, someone has to because I don’t think there’s any…The fact that we’re heading towards the positive ability of a green Armageddon, and that lack of natural resources, food of mass…Look at what’s happening in Venezuela, like you know, more than 2 million migrants walking out on foot. And even if you look at aerial views, it’s not necessarily just geopolitical; deserts exist that didn’t exist previously. There’s no food. So these things are happening. And you know, people don’t want to admit it, because it’s really scary. But we have to start the conversation and we have to move forward, and we have to have better choices. So, if we talk about these young kids, they want this, but they’re still buying from Zara and H&M; we’re complicit in that because the people who don’t, that you mentioned, don’t want to let go of things are the people who are paying those kids. They’re coming out of jobs, they’re coming out of school, of opportunity to get jobs, a lot of them if they’re getting jobs, they’re not high paying jobs? I mean, $15 for minimum hour, when people fight back about that, $15, it’s ridiculous. What do you expect people to buy? What are they able to buy? So it’s kind of like, it is a cultural issue. It’s really about how do we share resources? And those resources are also money, like how do we trickle down more funds for people to make better choices? How do we look at who we are as consumers and our economic policies and make a more equitable space, and not get fought back and say, “Oh, you’re being a socialist or a communist, or you’re too radical.” This is about survival. It’s literally about survival. we’re arguing about clothing like people are…What’s going to happen when it comes to the food? You know, by 2050, we need to grow something like double the food that we have now. How are we going to do it? You know, the European countries are doing a lot of this technological research and developing abilities to do that. But are we in the US? No, we’re still giving subsidies for political reasons. And it’s an interesting…I could go on forever.
Douglas Hand: You know, I know, the stratification, you know, this wide, wide chasm between the haves and have nots…
Melissa Joy Manning: Which is bigger than it’s ever been.
Douglas Hand: Exactly. Has that kind of insidious offshoot which the have nots simply can’t afford to care about some of these things because they’re struggling to survive.
Melissa Joy Manning: Correct.
Douglas Hand: And the people who have, sure, they may be spending very responsibly, because they can afford to buy sustainable luxury products, and making luxury products sustainable, as we started with, I mean, jewelry, fine jewelry, very sustainable once made, because it’s going to last.
Melissa Joy Manning: But it’s also supporting a company that pays people. So it pays people who can go out in the world and have a better life for themselves and their children and have health insurance, and have a future, right. So it’s those choices, like when we look at transparency and pricing. Sometimes when we make jewelry, if it’s not a super high-end product, one of the most expensive components of our cost of goods is the labor, the landed labor. And that whole battle, that challenge is I’m competing with people who make their stuff in Bangladesh and Mexico and China, where laborers, you know, it’s not even close to the most expensive…
Douglas Hand: And those are the apparel hotspots as well. Certainly Bangladesh and Pakistan, Vietnam. And there have been efforts, but those efforts require… I mean, perhaps your conversations at the UN today will touch on that because there are advisory groups who are monitoring factory conditions and living conditions because what most people don’t know is the factory workers actually live at the factory. I mean, it’s like flashing back to, you know, a gold mining camp in 1849 in San Francisco.
Melissa Joy Manning: Yeah. And people in the states get mad when all the Chinese factories closed for three or four weeks. Well, that’s the only time that those people get to see their families. They leave the factories and they go home and spend time and then like, “What? We can’t make clothes?” I mean, it’s like, come on. It’s we all just have to—we have to start thinking differently.
Douglas Hand: Well, I will pivot a little bit out of that dark culdesac. Bridal.
Melissa Joy Manning: Yes, the light.
Douglas Hand: Always a big part of a luxury businesses portfolio of revenues of income. How do you touch on it? Do you do wedding bands, wedding items? And what are you seeing in that industry, if you do do a bit of that, that is bringing even more efficiency into it with respect to your ability to interact with those customers who are at that life moment?
Melissa Joy Manning: Yeah, I mean, for retail, it’s the biggest part of our business, and I don’t do it at wholesale. For the longest time, I didn’t want to get into it because it is a conditioned market behavior that this idea we should all spend two months salary in a ring and it should be this perfect white graded diamond. And, you know, it’s a status symbol. For me, you know, I…
Douglas Hand: For the guy who’s been married and divorced twice. It’s just a pain point.
Melissa Joy Manning: Yeah. Well, I mean, maybe the third time’s the charm. There’s a whole push back on that now, which is really interesting. I actually started by making men’s bounds because, in California, you could have a ceremony for same-sex couples way before it was legal. And I had some friends who were getting, you know, married for lack of better word, and they are and I started making rings for them. And then it just became kind of word of mouth and started making some other things. And I was really afraid of the bridal industry and what it represented. And then just realized I couldn’t do it my own way. And really started using and looking at alternative stones, responsibly sourced stones. I buy my diamonds from only one person who is willing to put on paper, you know, and that they’re transparently sourced and cotton mined. And my customers are really cool. I mean, they’re really interesting people, the way they come to us is because they research wedding jewelry, they research what it means. The stats are crazy. Supposedly men will look at 60 brands online before they pick 12 to visit in person, and then they defined from the 12. Women are more–like they like what they like if it looks good. And then the fusion of that, from a bridal perspective has been really interesting to watch, is that even from the female perspective, that choosing a better product, right, that they want the responsibly sourced diamond, they want to recycle metal, they want to meet on shore, they want transparency on where it’s made. And we check all those boxes, and then luckily enough, the design resonates with them.
And they’re really cool, they come into the store, and they come for multiple visits, and we have lots of talks, and they end up in like this conversation much bigger than just about jewelry. And you know, then they keep coming back and we see them and they send us pictures of you know…Like one guy did a surprising proposal on Central Park with a bunch of friends that just came out of the trees. It’s just like all these great stories, and to be able to mark someone’s occasion like that and to be something that they’re going to love and be that heirloom that’s going to pass down as an artist, I really couldn’t ask for more. To play that part in someone’s life is really remarkable. And it’s just really remarkable that those customers are the people that are pushing this conversation forward, who want to be participants in this and who want the world to be a better place for the choices they make as consumers
Douglas Hand: Yeah, it’s certainly a life moment, and if a couple feels that way, that’s a great way to also segment the pact. Unisex, perhaps. I mean, jewelry does have almost an inherent component of being unisex, although I know sizing can vary. I have worn many of your pieces. Today, I will flash some up, images, if you’re watching on YouTube. But really lovely pieces, and I think they were made with no particular sex in mind.
Melissa Joy Manning: Except for your cufflinks.
Douglas Hand: Except for my cufflinks, yeah.
Melissa Joy Manning: I was hoping that Ellen might come in and get one.
Douglas Hand: Yeah, I mean, I think women and tailored clothing and crisp white shirts are…
Melissa Joy Manning: One of my favorites, too.
Douglas Hand: Yeah, it’s a great look. But what do you think about it more broadly considered in apparel and jewelry and other…? There are a lot of now unisex offerings, brands that are really planting a flag that we are unisex, we are not even going to designate any of our items as for a man, for a woman, everything is unisex.
Melissa Joy Manning: We actually really kind of always felt that way. Like when someone comes into our store and wants to know is this for ladies or man, it’s kind of always been like, well, it’s for both, it’s for whoever resonates with. You know, the cultural momentum towards recognizing many different genders and identities, I think it’s a natural progression for adornment and that it can welcome anyone. I mean, a lot of times I have great social media team and Dan who runs my social media takes amazing pictures of him off the rings that he wears, and his hands look beautiful. And people always just assume that it’s a woman and it’s like, no, Dan’s got great hands and he wears our jewelry well and nail… I mean, I love the idea that we can embrace everyone, and that, you know, unlike clothing that it’s sized or…Jewelry can fit. It just can. And that’s what’s for me, what I love about jewelry is it’s always been this kind of tribal classification, you know, where you come from, what you believe in, and you… Sorry, keep clicking my ring. And you wear these things to align with something so it’s neat to be able to reach more people and I love that men now also feel like they can wear jewelry without being judged. I mean, there’s a progression in a culture of that as well without it just being the watch matching the wedding band, like you can wear a lot more.
Douglas Hand: Well, so maybe a more femoral question, but do you have thoughts on the difference between fashion and style?
Melissa Joy Manning: He knew I do that that’s really an interesting question. I think style is ingrained and fashion is…What’s the word I want to use? Fashion can be a mask, maybe. It’s something that…It’s an artifice, right? You can buy into fashion. You can be shown what it is to be fashionable but style is something that’s part of you. You don’t need to buy a label to be stylish, you know, whereas I think in fashion you want to be current, you want to wear the right designer, the right shoes but styles just part of who you are.
Douglas Hand: Well it’s really time for your four W questions, okay, we’re talking fashion and style. So you know, who, what, where, why, when…
Melissa Joy Manning: Lot’s of W’s.
Douglas Hand: There are too many W’s. It’s actually five W’s.
Melissa Joy Manning: They’re five! Okay.
Douglas Hand: So mine are what, who, when and why? And the what and perhaps the who, I’ll allow you to answer at the same time. What items are you wearing? And this is really for our listeners who aren’t watching YouTube? What are you wearing and who designed it? Which brands designed it?
Melissa Joy Manning: From jewelry, most of it as me, although I…
Douglas Hand: Can you throw your hands up just so the camera can capture some of your beautiful elegance there.
Melissa Joy Manning: Yeah, thank you. I mean some of it…And my horrible nails. I do have some of my dear friends’ jewelry…. In fact, we always think fashion is so competitive, but I think a lot of times that’s by the people around, the actual designers themselves can be very close. So I have on Polly Wales and Lauren Wolf, who are two designers that I love and admire and have a long relationship with. I’m wearing my Year of the Pig bracelet that my partner and I got on…
Douglas Hand: Are they prayer beads or just Year of the Pig? Someone got me these but didn’t describe them as Year of the Pig.
Melissa Joy Manning: Well, they’re just New Year’s braces. So we got in China Town. So I’m saying the Year of the Pig. They’re cool. I like them because I just love texture.
Douglas Hand: They bring a wonderful texture to them.
Melissa Joy Manning: Yeah, I am wearing the infamous cardio love bracelet, which is an interesting reason my parents got it for me on my 40th birthday. My parents have been split up for a really long time and can never figure out how to do anything together especially from a loving place so they came together to buy me a love bracelet. It’s pretty special so I’ve never taken it off once since I got it.
Douglas Hand: And the love bracelet is a great concept, right?
Melissa Joy Manning: It is.
Douglas Hand: I mean, you could admit to that even you know, this is of course mass and highly luxurious, but it’s a beautiful concept.
Melissa Joy Manning: It really is. It’s a very well…
Douglas Hand: For the listeners, the small slither of listeners who don’t know what a love bracelet represents and how it’s affixed, can you just…
Melissa Joy Manning: It’s basically a precious handcuff. I mean, it’s a thick piece that you know, it’s gold that has a lock, so it doesn’t come off easily with the idea, I think that love shouldn’t either. So that’s from a jewelry perspective, from a clothing perspective, I’m wearing [inaudile 51:09] and…God, he used to have a store in Tribeca, Gary Graham, loved him.
Douglas Hand: Oh, wow. Yeah.
Melissa Joy Manning: Yeah, love to Gary’s stuff.
Douglas Hand: Absolutely wonderful nets, and just a really great design perspective.
Melissa Joy Manning: Also, just such a cool dude. The first time I met him was post 911. And we were all doing a trade show called “The Workshop” which doesn’t exist anymore. But for his headshot, he got a friend of his to do his makeup to look like he’d gotten completely beat up. And that was his picture in the portfolio. And I just was like, “I have to know this person.” Like how awesome. Talk about style is like, here’s this great headshot, but I’m going to look like I just got beat up. It’s just such a great…And then I have on Nike.
Douglas Hand: Nike?
Melissa Joy Manning: Yep, old Air Force ones.
Douglas Hand: And so when is really the question of seasonality to the extent any of these items are seasonal Are they all fall/winter? Do you have anything on that’s spring/summer? Do you have any seasonless items?
Melissa Joy Manning: All my jewelry is seasonless. I think my Gary Graham t-shirt is seasonless. I mean it from who what where perspective it was when he still had a brand. Drees to me is just you can wear it anytime whenever you want, which is why I love it. And also something you don’t get it rid of so from buying something, that’s what made that come last. And then I’ve had these shoes since before I had my child so they are four years old. These are my winter boots.
Douglas Hand: They’re high top Jordans. I am not a complete sneaker head so I can’t say exactly…
Melissa Joy Manning: I’m all about the sneakers, yeah.
Douglas Hand: Yeah, that’s right. You were saying you’re selling most of your high heels or other shoe collection to default to sneakers? And how about the why? So you’re coming in here today, you’re also headed to the UN, you know why this particular ensemble today?
Melissa Joy Manning: Ah, well, I just came off two weeks of market so most of my other stuff are in dry cleaning. But I mean these are this go-to’s for me. It’s snowy, it’s slushy outside so like I said, my Air Force ones are my snow boots.
Douglas Hand: We’re mid-February and we’re after two, three inches of snow last night. So, yeah, it’s a mess out there.
Melissa Joy Manning: Yeah. And I had a couple of Mezcal Margaritas last night so it’s like throw on something easy, all black and ready to go.
Douglas Hand: Right Is black a default for you? Or do you do dawn color from time to time?
Melissa Joy Manning: I’ll work color in the summer sometimes. But for me, my color usually comes from the jewelry or the sneakers. So it’s usually black, gray, blue.
Douglas Hand: And is there you know, in the laws of style, I talk about a lot of different laws, that…
Melissa Joy Manning: You’ve helped me with some of them, thank you.
Douglas Hand: You’re very welcome. They really govern you know, how someone in my chair is best advise to present themselves, which is to say, a white collar professional, who’s a service provider for others, and some safe default, but also some safe extensions of self within style, that that can be explored. You obviously have much more latitude in how you present yourself. But I’m curious because going before the UN, that is a fairly formal affair, it’s one of my favorite buildings and complexes in the city as well. I always sort of go a little retro, kind of mid-century, if I’m going there. Not that I go there often. But anyway in particular that you present yourself somewhat consistently, that you think best shows you as a founder, as someone who’s serious about sustainability?
Melissa Joy Manning: No, I think I just always am authentically myself. And I think maybe that sounds out in the room. So what you’re talking about is this idea of buying into how we’re supposed to look in order to be perceived a certain way is, I’m going to walk in being me. And that in itself might stand out as some little form of, you know, activism in a space that then makes people be like, “Oh, wait, she’s got on Air Jordans at the UN like, what is that?” But I also think that aside from you, and I, a lot of people don’t even notice. So we’re in fashion, we’re in style but…You know, and to be honest, I didn’t even think about it that way, I just put on what I was wanting to wear today and just walked out the door for the day.
Douglas Hand: Well, you know what? People do notice because I would agree with that, most people don’t notice exactly what you’re wearing, let alone brands or seasonality. What they undoubtedly notice is your confidence, and you’re bearing. And when you feel that you have dressed authentically you and you feel good about what you’re in, that’s enhanced, I think.
Melissa Joy Manning: I totally agree.
Douglas Hand: You know, so clothes and accessories can do that, even in a way that it’s almost a placebo effect, right? Nobody really cares about this person is kind of beaming in a positive way. And if that’s because of the clothes or because you had a great yoga workout in the morning, or whatever it is, it’s good to do.
Melissa Joy Manning: I completely agree. And for me, full circle when we talk about design inspiration, that’s where I get it, a lot of it is I’m the person on the subway, who’s looking at everyone like I just love it. I love to see how people express themselves, like growing up outside of Oakland and spending a lot of time in Oakland, I mean, street style, street fashion, that’s where everything starts. So for me, it’s just always interesting to see how people are putting themselves together and the conversation that they’re willing to start in the world by how they’re, you know, what they put on their bodies.
Douglas Hand: Well, and that inherent first impression that they know they’re going to create. It’s going to immediately for frame where that conversation starts. And again, you know, for me as a lawyer, I want that conversation to start from a place of comfort, as well as a recognition that this person looks quite capable while looking elegant. I mean, that’s what I’m striving for. Maybe not always hitting it, but that’s what I’m striving
Melissa Joy Manning: No, I think…You know, the first thing I said was I like your purple tie.
Douglas Hand: Well, thank you. There’s a way to operate within… And I think that’s sometimes how you make the biggest change is operating within the confines but changing the conversation just slightly. We’re using the same language so what I try to do with my work, we’re using the jewelry, which is choosing different elements and components but let’s have a different conversation with it, rather than it just being about further stratification, showing people how much we can buy. But when we buy, what good can we do? And I think that’s one of the most exciting things about the future of consumer goods is the social entrepreneur piece.
Douglas Hand: Yeah. Well, you certainly typify that. And on the subject of conversations, ours, unfortunately, is at an end.
Melissa Joy Manning: Thank you.
Douglas Hand: Thank you, everyone, for listening in and watching. Thank you for being here.
Melissa Joy Manning: Of course, this is a great conversation.
Douglas Hand: And you can follow my musings on “Hand of the Law” on both Twitter and Instagram, any social media plugs or other things you are active on that you want to shout out to?
Melissa Joy Manning: I mean, we have our websites melissajoymanning.com, like Eli and Peyton, the last name – but no relation. And same on social media: Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, you know, all the ones.
Douglas Hand: All the big.
Melissa Joy Manning: And then the two stores. So if you live in New York, come say hi. If you live in Berkeley, San Francisco, come say hi too.
Douglas Hand: Thanks so much for coming in.
Melissa Joy Manning: Yeah, thank you.
Douglas Hand: Bye now.