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The Mahlia Collection: A year-old store in Tucson has a style all its own

The Mahlia collection

The Mahlia Collection

Location: Tucson, AZ
Owner: Konstantina Mahlia
URL: www.mahliacollection.com
Year founded: Jewelry lines in 2005
Opened featured location: January 2007
Designer: Konstantina Mahlia
Total store area: 1,100 square feet
Interior buildout cost: $34,000
Revenue: $8 million
Slogan: Mahlia, A Name That is a Lifestyle


Konstantina Mahlia retails her classically inspired jewelry across from a Tucson hotel where notorious outlaw Frank Stilwell traded gunfire with Wyatt Earp in the Wild West. It’s an ideal neighbor for the Canadian-born designer, who is learning to dodge bullets and shoot back in her debut year. One shot came from her landlord, the city of Tucson, which has isolated her in a construction zone.

Still, she likes her location in the restored, circa-1900 Southern Pacific Railroad Depot. Arizona sun heightens the luster of its stone floors and cappuccino-color walls; strategic track spotlights bestow cut-gem sparkle. Mahlia (Ma-LEE-uh) marvels at how retail has changed her business. “It’s like a girl putting on a bridal dress. She’s still a girl, but now there are very different expectations of her.” — Harriet Howard Heithaus

FINISHING TOUCHES

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Pairing Quality with Ambience

Mahlia has diversified into accessory clothing: vintage-velvet sashes, pewter belt buckles and pashminas. It allows her customers to design a look on the spot. However, they don’t need to rush through the process at the Mahlia Collection showroom.

Visitors are invited to linger in plush burgundy claw-footed armchairs or other furnishings designed by Mahlia in her years as an interior designer. Her 1,100-square-foot space includes an opening into the work area. It offers a transparency her customers appreciate, Mahlia feels. Don’t expect traditional jewelry displays at the Mahlia Collection. Its owner disdains the “plastic necks and pillows” that she says minimize pieces. “I have it draping. It’s supposed to look opulent. What I’m showing in my own store is in cases I’ve designed.” Quality is key when each sale tops $1,000. “All of the benchworkers who produce my couture work are Hungarian (working in Vancouver),” Mahlia emphasizes.

“The sterling group is produced in Latvia because of the same reason: the quality.” Yet there’s an economy to the collection: The customer takes home the potential for several pieces in each item. With the addition of a pendant, a neckpiece changes roles; a stone lariat can be gathered by a brooch that turns its style 180 degrees.

MAKING HISTORY HERS

Getting in on the ground floor

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Mahlia says the living room also becomes a working showroom for the furniture and trim styles she still designs. The city gave her free rein to create her interior. The facade of the building, however, was another matter because the depot is on the National Register of Historic Places. “The Historic Commission had only a certain font, and metal lettering, allowed for the outside of the building, and that really doesn’t get attention, so I compensated with the metal grille of the Mahlia Lion logo, which fills the front window,” she explains.

The city’s $2.8 million project has repainted the two-story, Mission Revival-style depot building and restored its classic high-arched windows and massive double doors. The depot also houses the Southern Arizona Transportation Museum. Beside it lounges historic steam Locomotive No. 1673, a milllion-mile mogul that appeared in the movie Oklahoma! Amtrak still stops at the depot several times a week, but its primary use is for office space, public functions and festivals. A nascent retail plan would add a bistro and a lobby market. Her building, in fact, is the keystone for the downtown Rio Nuevo development, which includes condo and apartment projects now being sold.

Branding

Taking her Designs to the Street

“The showroom, of course, is a huge marketing tool. It is a representation of the lifestyle I’m building as a brand,” she says. But Mahlia, who wears only her own designs, is at the heart of the brand strategy. A striking woman who is her own best model, she  is a familiar face on her website. “It’s seamless marketing, because people recognize me as the face of the company and as the voice of the company,” she says.

She knows it’s paying off when women hop out of their cars to tell her how much they love her jewelry, as one did in San Antonio, TX. Mahlia was approached for an appearance on the QVC Shopping Network after she met one of its scouts, who admired her necklace while they were standing in a taxi line together. “I describe myself as something between a rock star and a traveling salesman,” she says.

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During the past three years, Mahlia also developed an international customer base by showing her designs at the desert spas that cosset a well-heeled clientele through Arizona’s temperate winters. Those customers deal with her through her website and MySpace videos of new collection items. An e-mail distribution list dispatches intermittent news of her store, her designs and her recent projects. However, customers still need to call in to buy. Revamping the website to create “a virtual Mahlia reality,” which will include purchasing capability, is her next step.

Friends with Ink

Bling for the Fashion Spreads

“I don’t advertise much because I don’t have a big budget for it,” Mahlia explains. Yet she sees print as her best promoter. “The support of the local press can be huge, especially, I’d say, with jewelry, where you can get exposure,” Mahlia asserts. She has contacted local publications to volunteer pieces for fashion shoots tied into themes or seasons.

Mahlia doesn’t limit herself to local media. Tucson has its toe in neighboring Mexico, so she organized a jewelry shoot with El Imparcial, a national Mexican newspaper with an affluent sphere of readership and circulation in Tucson. Then the local magazine Tucson Lifestyle used her work for a photo spread. Personal dealings with the media work best, she emphasizes. “I make the contacts myself. People say that’s not possible, but it is — and you have to do it.

For other marketing work, I think it’s more economical to hire a student in marketing,” suggests Mahlia, who says she told business classes that at the University of Arizona when she was invited to speak. “You get much better work because they’re interested in making a name and because that’s their full-time job, rather than with a PR firm, where you’re not their only client. I’ve had two PR firms. Even if I were 20 years into this and had money, I doubt I would ever hire a PR firm again.”

A History of Resilience

Devoting her Best

After she hired a manager, Mahlia discovered that her own employee opposed a retail expansion of her original-design business. Months after opening in the repurposed Southern Pacific Railroad Depot, the city of Tucson — her landlord — isolated her boutique in a construction zone. In February Mahlia fell and broke her elbow on an icy morning during a marathon of New York City distribution calls. None of the setbacks seems to have slowed Mahlia down. She now has a new manager.

She also won the contract to produce a limited-edition jewelry line for QVC, which debuted in April. Even with one hand out of action from her fall, design is the easiest part of her work, Mahlia says: “I can design maybe 100 pieces in three hours. It’s that easy for me.” She has never lost sight of the importance of her product. The tougher, critical, part is to pair good design with good marketing. “What’s your marketing strategy?” she would ask a would-be entrepreneur. “I’d say, know that above all.”

FIVE QUESTIONS

Konstantina Mahlia, owner

Konstantina Mahlia

1What has been the toughest challenge in your first year of retail? I think the hardest part was lack of a support team. It seems a lot of it rests on my shoulders.

2Your degree is in interior design. What brought you to jewelry? In design, you’re always looking for the next big trend. In jewelry, that’s absent. There’s more of a feeling of permanence.

3Do your designs reflect the Southwestern culture you live in? My work is influenced by my Canadian background. There’s a sense of heraldry. It’s more British, with cool grays and browns and very traditional. But I have also lived in Mexico, where the colors are very bright, and there’s some of that, as well.

4What advice would you give others planning to open a store? Be brutally clear about the lease conditions. My building was leased from the city. I knew there was going to be construction but it would have helped to know when and where.

5How is your retail business bearing up during construction? Because I really didn’t depend on foot traffic, I could open the most luxurious store in Tucson  and hold onto it because my clientele aren’t looking for something immediate.

 

HEARSAY

Said in the Store

This is the most incredible jewelry!

— From a first-time visitor and later customer.

STORE IMAGES

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This story is from the June 2008 edition of INSTORE

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