Interview: Michael Saiger, founder, Miansai
There can't be many people who can claim to have created a whole new fashion category - in this case affordable yet beautifully crafted men's jewellery - before they've even left college, but Michael Saiger, founder of Miansai, is not like most people.
Saiger was single-minded from a young age about his ambition to be an "inventor". He was brought up in New York and his mother was an antiques dealer so his respect for quality and heritage is ingrained and his attention to detail is nothing short of obsessive. Even the USB stick he proffers with his brand information on it is made from a beautiful polished brass and is finished with a loop of his signature nautical rope (frankly you could hang it round your neck and it would pass for a nice pendant) and when I produce a paperback notebook (albeit a very nice one) from my bag to record the interview in, he says rather sweetly "oh, you should have said, I would have brought you a leather one". Saiger believes if you are going to have something then it may as well be something nice, but that doesn't necessarily translate as something that should cost the earth, more of which later.
So when Saiger made himself a bracelet during his college days using some leather rope and an old WWII medal (he had collected them as a child for no other reason than he liked them and hadn't really thought about how to apply them to anything until that point), it's perhaps no surprise that it wasn't long before his friends started to request he made bracelets for them too. Because you can be sure this bracelet would have been beautiful and, what's more, no one was really making jewellery men felt comfortable wearing. "How many times in fashion can you say that something hasn't been done before?" he says.
Buoyed by this early success Saiger made a batch of the bracelets and took them to a store in Miami (where he went to college) to sell, for circa $125-$150, while he went back home for the holidays. When he returned to enquire how sales had gone, he was told they had sold out within a week. Saiger took the proceeds and while his fellow students were off partying and enjoying themselves, he bought "machines" and started to learn how to make even better versions of his bracelets ("I had my fair share of fun," he says, "but I was also at the office working my ass off!"). He decided to "up the game" combining nautical rope with silver and gold, for instance, and it helped that his best friend was a master goldsmith.
Before long he was selling to the best specialty stores in the US and got his big break when Barneys and Bergdorf Goodman took the brand on in 2008. Given that many designers spend years trying (and often not succeeding) to get stocked by names like that, he makes it sound very easy to get the retailers on board. "But no one was doing was I was doing," he says by way of an explanation, though he does admit he was "hustling every single day". His line was selling for $50 to $150, so not only was it new, it was accessibly priced and its simple design appealed to men. "If a guy will wear a watch, he'll wear a Miansai, it's a piece you can wear everyday," he says.
Indeed the Miansai collection has since been extended to include watches - which can be complemented with a signature nautical rope bracelet - as well as leather goods such as a rucksack, tote and briefcase, which are all pared back in aesthetic and high on quality (though, crucially, the prices remain accessible with a textured leather rucksack selling for around £600 and the tote for £395 on Mr Porter). "I have always been obsessed with craftmanship," Saiger explains, "I have standards and I'm really particular. If I were to buy something for $200 and it were to break, I would be very disappointed."
Saiger has recently turned his attentions, and his standards, to fine jewellery too with a new collection for women, key pieces of which include the Screw Cuff (this is, effectively, Saiger's answer to the Cartier Love bangle) and the Screw Cuff Ring which have been reinvented for women using 18K gold and pave diamonds – all are available in rose, yellow and white gold. The angular earrings, which can be worn in a modern mix and match style, also look set to become modern classics. Prices for the line range from $450 to $6,200.
With this product expansion has naturally come an expansion in retail partners and an interesting take on own-brand retail. Miansai is now sold in 36 countries around the world (including Selfridges and Mr Porter in the UK) and has its own brand stores in Soho, New York (opened in 2014) and Venice, California. The own-brand stores are, as expected, beautifully designed and fitted out with furniture, as opposed to store fixtures, but Saiger is not necessarily rushing to open new stores having found a way to combine another obsession - which is to say sourcing and renovating vintage vehicles - with creating memorable retail experiences.
In fact before he opened a physical store he was taking a renovated airstream, that served as a mobile retail unit, to festivals such as a SXSW and Coachella as well as stopping off at the Hamptons during the summer. It proved so popular that two vintage Piaggios have been added to the fleet and will be stopping off at various locations this summer with plans to bring one to Europe. "We can put them in high traffic areas and if it does well, we can keep them there and if not, we'll move them," he explains.
These vehicles are also something of a metaphor for Saiger's approach to design. They are nothing short of wrecks when Saiger buys them and by the time he has finished with them they are impeccable. It's just like taking a piece of nautical rope and elevating it to a luxury item. "Raw input, refined output," he says.
The customer clearly likes this formula; Saiger has established his own manufacturing unit in Miami and is now producing between 300,000 and 400,000 items a year and has no plans to slow down. "I want to be one of the biggest and best accessories brands in the world, one of the biggest and best American jewellery houses, I'm here for the long run."