PROfile is a series of interviews with artists and creative souls who have built businesses around their craft and passion. We'll dig deeper to try and find out everything you could want to know from seasoned pros who have experienced the full gamut of highs and lows that come from running a creative business.
This week we are profiling Neri Karra, the creative powerhouse who built a worldwide brand around her name. While we normally interview mostly small business owners, it's good to get a reminder that it's ok to be a creative and still dream BIG.
What was your first ‘proper’ job and how did you land it? Was it what you intended to do as a career?
First proper job was when I was 15, translating for the CEO of a leather products label in Turkey. It was a fantastic way to get started, and gave me the confidence to go further, and it served as a stepping stone to build my own brand years later.
Has design always been in your blood?
I am not sure if you can call it ‘design’, but I have always liked fashion and style, and was fascinated by beautiful clothes, and how one can express oneself through fashion.
How did you know you were ready to have your own business?
I had no choice but to do it. I was either going to work for someone else, or simply take that first step towards building my dreams. It was a scary one, I must admit, and there were a lot of challenges ahead, but I never gave up. What makes the road interesting is the fact that you never know what comes up ahead – be it good or bad. It is a fascinating journey so far!
How did you go about starting your own business?
I came back from the States, having finished my Bachelor’s degree. My family were immigrants from Bulgaria, living in Istanbul, and my motivation was to make use of the education I got, and create better lives for ourselves. I gathered my family together, and we were in my cousin’s house in Bulgaria, when I shared my idea with them. Then, the next steps were relatively more practical and business related. But what mattered most that the decision was made. The intention was very clear, and once the decision and intention is clear, then the path ahead also becomes more or less clear. This is what I know to be true.
How did you secure your first clients?
My father was working as a sales agent of a leather products label, selling their products in the Russian market. So, I first started approaching people I already knew, and people who already knew our ethics and how we work.
What is your typical daily routine like?
It really depends where I am – I travel often, and I live in two cities: Istanbul and London (and sometimes I travel to Bulgaria where our showroom and online operations are located). If I am in London, I always wake up with a song in my heart, and first thing I do is look up at the sky and give thanks for the day ahead. I do tend to have many meetings in London, that are mostly related on the creative side of the business, such as branding, PR and marketing. In the evenings, I would be attending events, openings, or I absolutely love going to the cinema and any cultural activities like opera, theatre, or ballet.
Istanbul life is very different to London. I am in the factory, where all of my products are manufactured and I employ over 300 people. I work on the latest collection, and normally, I would select colours and trends. We don’t work by seasons, and therefore, I always have to offer something new and exciting. In the evening, I would entertain clients (suppliers, distributors) or friends who would visit me from abroad. Istanbul always fascinates them, and I tend to have many friends visiting me.
I also visit Italy quite often, as all of our suppliers are located there, and we also have a design studio outside of Florence. I visit every single factory myself, and I pick every single skin that is used in our products.
Ah, and I forgot to mention that I teach Fashion Business once a month at Conde Nast College of Fashion.
What traits do artists have that help with running a business?
Creativity. Being sensitive, and bringing beauty to anything they do.
Why did you decide to specialise in bags?
I have had experience with working as a translator and brand expert for a leather products label, but what really drew me to bags was the fact that my grandfather was a saddle maker and I grew up watching him work with leather. Also the fact that I grew up in communism, where we did not have a lot of choice, let alone anything ‘fashion’ like, and I wanted to express my own individuality and create something that would be different and unique.
Artists and writers often describe the compulsion to work – do you experience an overwhelming desire to design new items or to develop something game-changing?
Absolutely. You have to! Otherwise, why be in the creative industry at all.
Do you ever feel alone in your work?
No, not at all. I am more and more realizing, and living the fact that we are all delicately interconnected, and whatever I have achieved, created and keep creating is because there is a very delicate balance of everyone else being part of it. I actually feel incredibly connected when I work.
How do you relax?
Reading, going to the movies, yoga, meditation and dancing.
Where do you find inspiration?
Nature, every day life, watching other people, observing.
What advice would you give to your 21-year-old self?
Know that all you need is already within you. Believe in yourself, and keep on!
What would you like to be remembered for?
That I have inspired countless others to follow and achieve their dreams.
What’s been the best moment of your career so far?
It is hard to pick one. But I would say realising that what I do has nothing to do with me. It is about sharing the love, sharing what I know, what I have, and that the meaning has always been about giving, not getting. This realisation was the best moment in my life, and it changed everything, and how I do business, and interact with others.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Knowing that what I have achieved, and what I do inspires others.
Have you had to conquer any fears when growing your business?
Yes, of course. I face and conquer my fears every day. When you are in the creative business, it almost feels like you are naked in front of others, in a way, because you show your soul to the world, and there will always be nay-sayers. However, now I know better… I know that what others say or do has nothing to do with you, and I am therefore freed from the fear of what others will think of me.
What have been the biggest challenges or obstacles you’ve faced in your business and how did you overcome them?
I am not sure if it is a challenge or an obstacle, but I started my business when I was 22. Many people assumed that I was doing things out of my bedroom (I have a business that employs over thousands of people, and a brand that is now sold in 15 different countries, and over 100s of boutiques). Again, it is just the assumption of others that I had to overcome.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Treat others as you would like to be treated.
If you could have dinner with any inspiring person (past or present), who would you choose?
Oprah – I watched her every day, when I was in the States, and she could easily be counted as one of the people who inspired me.
Tarkan – a Turkish singer, who I think is very sexy and have been his fan since I was 13.
Eckhart Tolle – a spiritual teacher, who has had a great impact in my life.
Steve Jobs – fearless visionary.
PROfile box portrait by Marianne Taylor, all other images by Neri Karra
Web: Neri Karra
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