You probably know Dutch accessories designer Elza Wandler by surname-only. The 31-year-old built her eponymous brand Wandler from scratch in less than a month in April 2017, after dreaming up the geometric design for her cult Hortensia bag. With its distinctive curves, Wandler’s Hortensia (named after her mother-in-law) continues to succeed where other larger brands have failed – the medium-sized bag alone has contributed to over 20 per cent of the brand’s total sales and inspired dozens of copycats along the way – appealing to different generations of women who look to independent labels for handmade luxury that’s priced within reach. (The Hortensia starts from £600, other styles are priced from £385).
“I don’t want to speak to ‘cool’ women of Instagram only,” she says, smoothing her copper hair over the shoulder of her vegan leather Nanushka shirt. “I definitely don’t have just one woman in mind. For me, it’s the biggest compliment that it feels democratic. When I get tagged on Instagram, I see women in suits, or women wearing glitter and confidently baring their midriffs.”
The first Wandler bags hit stores in late 2017 and today, the designer helms a seven-person team based in Amsterdam, overseeing seven collection drops a year. The close-knit setup means, if you send a DM to the brand’s Instagram account, it’s most likely Wandler herself who’ll get back to you. “No one knows that it’s me replying to their DMs on Instagram. People think that it’s a big company, but in reality it’s me on the other end!”
It’s precisely this never not tapped-in approach that makes the designer so good at thinking up contemporary fashion’s next phenomenon. On 30 April, her midas touch is scheduled to strike again with the worldwide launch of Wandler shoes: a five-piece collection of heels for high-summer (each arriving in four or five different colours), starting from £375. Why only heels? “We’re in the midst of sneaker overkill,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong, I run around Amsterdam in sneakers, but I like bringing a little bit of a ‘sexy’ shoe back, if I can put it like that. I will do flats eventually, but I want to explore heels first.”
The tight edit is on-point. My eyes flick straight to the square-toe Isa mules in apple green (named after her niece). “These are my favourite shoes of the launch,” she says, following my line of sight. “I love them. I’m constantly doing this colour at the moment, and the style shows just the right amount of skin for a barefoot effect,” she says, her excitement clear. “It’s quite structured, as I don’t like shoes when they become too feminine.” There are curated colourways: think Pepto Bismol pink and scarlet. The peep-toe Niva references Nineties spool-heel mules (the sort that Carrie wore in season three of Sex and the City), appearing in glossy tan, and mustard.
“Do you want a sneak peek of the AW19 drop?” she says. I spy a pair of graphic white, square-toe ankle boots with an immaculate rectangular black heel that will be a surefire street style hit. It’s no surprise that the likes of Dutch influencer Linda Tol and Greek stylist Georgia Tal are among the well-connected international group of women that Wandler counts as her day ones, and who are helping put Amsterdam’s creative scene on the map. “Over the last three to four years Amsterdam has rapidly changed,” Wandler notes. “It’s becoming more relevant on an international scale with larger companies opening their European or global offices here.”
While you might think that this seemingly effortless success story sounds like something out of an entrepreneurial handbook for overachieving millennials, Wandler’s path hasn’t been short of obstacles.
Back in spring 2017 the designer suddenly found herself jobless after her employer, Levi’s, relocated its premium ready-to-wear imprint, Made & Crafted, to San Francisco. She’d originally joined the company as an intern, fresh out of Amsterdam’s Fashion Institute, before scoring a permanent role as a junior designer and working her way up. Unemployment flashed an opportunity that she was poised to seize. “I always knew that I wanted to do my own business. Even when I was four years old. I had to find what I wanted to do, no ‘what if’.”
Fate also had a hand. Shortly after losing her job, she gatecrashed a friend’s dinner in Amsterdam and met Bart Ramakers, the visionary agent who helped to launch brands including Vetements and Halpern. “I was talking about an idea I had for a handbag line and he said: can you have a collection sketched in three days? We launched the brand a month later.”
The pair, who had unknowingly grown up a few minutes away from one another in a small village outside of Maastricht, decamped to London and invited heavyweight international buyers from Matches Fashion, Net-A-Porter and Browns to inspect Wandler’s sketches, in the hope that one of them would take a chance on her designs. “The next day, I was travelling back to Amsterdam by train (I don’t really like flying) when Bart called me, saying ‘you’re not going to believe it, they all want to buy.’”
Brand? Check. Buyers? Check. Business plan? Not so much. “We had three months to figure it out before we had to get down to work. With every bank that said no, my friend’s financial adviser (who was working for me for free at the time) would tell me not to worry. Eventually one bank said yes.”
An emphasis on inclusivity flows through the company, with success never taken for granted – from the familial relationship she’s built with her Venetian factory team (including learning Italian from scratch and sending handwritten notes and homemade gifts to everyone at Christmas), to using only local materials. “Everything is made in Italy, even the hardware. I source everything as close as I can, within a 20-minute radius of Venice.”
With the footwear, the approach is exacting – “there’s a factory for every different part: a heel-maker, a last-maker and finally, a shoe-maker” – but worth it. “For accessories to elevate a woman’s own style without screaming is my ultimate goal. I love to see my designs on the street.”
Wandler footwear will be on sale from 30 April onwards at Net-A-Porter, Matches, Browns, Bergdorf Goodman, MyTheresa, Moda Operandi, Galeries Lafayette, Harvey Nichols and Lane Crawford. (DMs to Wandler showing her how you wear them optional).