The big interview

Manu Atelier: meet the sisters behind the cult handbag brand

Chic and surprisingly affordable, the Turkish label is a global success story

How do you build a successful accessories label? These days, it’s not just a question of innovative design. It’s about understanding your customer base and creating an emotional impact through social media. This language of desirability has to be sincere and aesthetically strong, tailored to young consumers who expect transparency in a brand, as well as a narrative they can identify with. 

So here’s the perfect case study: Manu Atelier is a handbag and footwear success story for the modern age. Founded in Istanbul, Turkey, by sisters Merve and Beste Manastir in 2014, the young brand specialises in contemporary silhouettes that strike the perfect balance between everyday practicality and stylish flair. 

The sisters - both in their early 30s - are the ideal ambassadors for their own label. Beautiful, stylish, creatively bold and digitally alert, they bring a sense of authenticity to their products. Another value-creating factor is the company’s manufacturing ethos which is steeped in tradition: their father is a celebrated craftsman and leather goods manufacturer in Istanbul who set up his accessories business more than 40 years ago. 

Manu Atelier handbags are instantly recognisable by their insignia, an arrow-like emblem, which is both abstract and discrete. “It is actually a combination of M and A, inspired by our father’s original logo,” says Beste, who has dialed in with her sister to talk to me about their ever-expanding business, which now sells around the world online and in cities including Melbourne and Doha.

Manu Atelier

Lena C Emery

Bags and shoes are distinctly minimalist with a touch irreverence. As such, neat compact designs bring a cool kind of charm into focus, one that’s neither too serious nor too cute. Sell-outs include their signature Mini Pristine bag - shaped like a binocular case and available in a myriad of colours - and this season's square-toed Duck Face Boot, which has a devoted following on social media (see #manuspeople on Instagram). All products are crafted from vegetable tanned calfskin in the family-run workshop in Istanbul, following artisanal techniques. 

“When we launched, we felt there wasn’t a middle ground for luxury handbags, only very high end or high street,” Beste explains. “We wanted to offer women a quality product with a design aspect as well as a more accessible price point. We worked behind the scenes for a year-and-a-half before we properly launched the brand.” 

The girls’ father is still very much involved in the business, supporting his daughters from both a production and design perspective. “Our father has a very strong reputation for craftsmanship and his input has been crucial in setting up our business,” says Merve. “When you have only a small amount of capital [to launch with], the ability to work with the best suppliers is a blessing. Most people have to compromise, but for us, high quality has always been our  foundation.” 

Mr Manastir also did some straight talking about the viability of a new accessories brand in an already competitive market place. Merve added: “He told us that if we wanted to turn our idea into a real business, we would have to sell at least 500 pieces a month.”  

The sisters had no problem fulfilling this goal: they sold this many first edition bags at their local market back in 2014. Now their handbags are worn by the likes of Gigi Hadid and Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge. 

The pair have also followed a sustainable model of production from the get-go. Merve says: “Until we built a production house of our own, we would place restrictions on orders to meet demand; this allowed us to grow slowly and efficiently. We worked with vegetable tanned leather from the very start too. In the Turkish leather industry, this is not an easy thing to do as it’s more time-consuming and expensive for the factories. We use machines [to stitch bags and shoes] but we encourage a great deal of hand-cutting, as a way of minimising leather waste.”

Manu Atelier also makes use of leftover fabric. In the past, the designers have used deadstock suede for linings and leather off-cuts for a patchwork collection of bags. 

Manu Atelier

Lena C Emery

The sisters refer to their label as a “borderless company”, one that embraces a cross-cultural aesthetic. “There are no direct eastern references in our designs, though we do love colour - reds and greens especially - and you could say that comes from our heritage,” says Beste.  

And what is it like working so closely with your sibling all day long? Surely it’s not all smooth sailing. “Actually we used to not get on,” laughs Beste. “In our culture, the family bond is very strong. It was definitely intense at the beginning because we are both strong characters, but now we know our individual strengths. Merve is super detail-orientated, nothing gets past her, while I’m more results driven. Merve also attended a French school, while I attended a German language one. I love rock music, and Merve prefers lounge music, so our tastes can be very different. All these little differences show when it comes to design which is a good thing.”

Social media has played a huge part in establishing Manu Atelier’s brand identity and the girls believe in digital marketing that is adaptive, open-minded and versatile. “Social media is not just a ‘channel’ for us, it is part of our design story. Right from the beginning it became part of our vision and aesthetic because it brings us real customers,” says Beste. “Actually, I am really strict with it. I still do it all myself. Most of the pictures on Instagram are taken by me!”

It just goes to show that honesty is a powerful force in the science of brand building and that luxury design should be outward-looking if it is to flourish. Manu Atelier’s core philosophy is one of agility built around the feisty determination and hands-on approach of its founders whose focus is sharply fixed on building a rapport with consumers by listening to them as well as surprising them with creative verve. So watch this space. Famous royals and supermodels may be swinging their Manu bags around town, but these sisters are already working on cooler and cleverer things. 

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