Joanna Laura Constantine
Jewelry designed with passion
June 27, 2013
Joanna Laura Constantine could have continued working on the sidelines with some of international fashion’s biggest names, but that would have been too easy. Instead, the Lebanese-born accessories designer started her own line of exquisite jewelry that is influenced by her Eastern roots and her Western style. Joanna’s latest collection includes pieces in bold colors emblazoned with the chic flair of Arabic calligraphy, striking stones, crystals and pearls. Today’s Outlook caught up with the New York-based designer on one of her frequent trips back home and got to know a little more about this proudly Lebanese woman who is making her mark in the fashion industry.
Tell us a little bit about how your love for design has transformed you into the successful accessories designer that you are today.
I knew what I wanted to do from the age of 16 – I wanted to go to design school. But as many of us know, design school does not exactly fit well with the Lebanese mentality of career orientation. Well, at least not with my parents’ mentality! They didn’t believe that it was the ideal career choice. So, with no motivation or encouragement to pursue my dream, I went to business school instead. After I began working in my field, I realized that I wasn’t happy doing what I was doing; I knew for sure that it wasn’t for me. So, I quit my job and applied to Parsons School of Design in New York. I was accepted and I couldn’t resist! With the support of my parents this time around, I moved to New York and went to fashion school. It was a fresh start for me, both personally and professionally. I completed my degree very intensively, in almost one year, and at the same time I was doing an internship to learn more about all the fields of fashion and how companies work.
Is your focus more on fashion rather than design and accessories?
They are all related, all in the fashion field. What I do is fashion accessories. I did an internship at Donna Karan for a few months. I was lucky to work with her directly and I witnessed how a collection comes to life. I learned a lot from watching her. I was also backstage during the fashion week helping the models. That was a great experience because I saw it all from the first step of buying the fabric from Italy to seeing it come to life on the runway. I then did swimwear training with Badgley Mischka. I worked with many other names including Lanvin and Nicole Miller and basically, it is all fashion, it is all accessories and design; it's all about what women wear.
When did you launch your own line?
Well, the official date was August 5, 2008. That was when my line was actually registered, but I started long before, as I had been preparing for about two years. At the time I was doing my internship and was also working on my line every night. The launch was last September at a trade show in Manhattan, New York. In fact, I did the whole trade show on my own; from taking pictures to printing brochures, designing my business cards and even designing my own website.
And was that successful?
It was great. In only four days I took approximately 20 orders, which is a big deal bearing in mind that I am a new brand and a new line. The nice thing about American buyers is that they are very spontaneous. If they see something they like, they buy it. So of course, this worked to my advantage. The fact that my pieces have a story behind them and are made in Lebanon is also appealing to them. Since the launch, I have felt that there is a great potential for my designs and that I can do it. I became more courageous and I really started to invest more in my business.
You mentioned that there’s a story to your pieces, is there a story behind every design you do, or is the story behind the whole line?
There is one major story and that is the fusion of cultures. I am very patriotic and very much affected by the Lebanese culture and Middle Eastern design. I lived all my life in Lebanon and experienced its wars and hardships, which only made me all the more attached to my roots. It is not as though I left Lebanon and forgot my homeland. Not at all. But at the same time, as a fashion designer, I have to use fashion trends – I have to keep in mind what the latest trends are and what buyers are looking for. So I fused Western style with Middle Eastern design and created my line.
Why did you choose to launch your line in New York and not Beirut?
It was for two reasons. Firstly, the political situation in Lebanon has not been very stable the past few years and secondly, my personal life is based in New York. Also, New York is a challenge in itself. I felt that if I can make it in New York, then I have achieved something... something big!
Have you done many trade shows so far?
I did one trade show in Los Angeles and one in Paris. I then did my own show, a trunk show, in New York, under the patronage of the Lebanese Council in New York. I did it in an art gallery on Madison Avenue in Manhattan – a very unique location and the perfect place for an event. Diplomats, the Lebanese community, the press and my friends were all invited. It was more like communicating my line directly to the consumers. It was great to see how much people loved my line; people were placing their personal orders then and there!
Where do you produce your pieces?
Everything is produced in a workshop of about 20 people in Lebanon. I am hoping to get more orders and hire more people. Everything is handmade which means that if someone has a special order, we customize it and change it. I want to maintain this personal touch.
How closely do you follow current fashion trends?
A lot. I subscribe to many magazines in the States. So, every month I get about 20 magazines and flip through every page, tear pages out.... These include a lot of professional magazines about trends and colors. In fact, last April I went to Italy, to one of the biggest jewelry shows in the world just to see the trends, to get new ideas and to meet with suppliers. I am very active concerning trends.
What should we expect from you in the next few years?
I’ll be expanding my line to include handbags, but more like jewelry boxes not big leather bags. I would also love to start my swimwear line and beachwear accessories. That is what I would like to do in the future.
So you don't regret going into this line of business?
Not at all! It’s quite the opposite. I love it and I look forward to expanding it and hopefully I'll be selling all over the Middle East, the US and Europe.
With such fierce competition around, how were you able to get a foothold in the market? What was your strategy?
My strategy is to differentiate myself. A lot of people see my pieces and say that they are real jewelry or real gold, but they are not; in fact they are all gold plated. All my pieces look like they’re worth more than what they cost. So price plays a role. So too does quality and the hand-made aspect of the designs. They are unique; the Middle Eastern design is not common in the United States.
Where can someone find your collection?
It’s available in a new boutique at the Plaza Hotel on 5th Avenue, Manhattan. This is a very prestigious hotel and it's really great that they are carrying my line. I'm also selling it in specialty stores, in small boutiques in New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and Tennessee. In the Middle East I am selling in Dubai and in Egypt. It’s also available on an online boutique called treasurestyle.com. Hopefully bit-by-bit I will expand.
What is your message to those who are dreaming of starting their own line in fashion or jewelry?
If it's your dream, you should always try. Never regret anything or look back and say I wish I tried. It's always better to try because the chances of succeeding are great and if you don't, then at least it would have been a learning experience. Find your niche markets and try to follow up on all the details yourself. Don't delegate or hire others to do the work… keep it close to your heart.