Elisabeth Leenknegt – Head designer & glass-blower at Elisa Lee
When did the click come for you to start your own business?
Creating jewellery for my label ELISA LEE actually came about in a very organic way. I trained as an archaeologist, so that actually has little to do with this creative profession. I have always been really interested in the production process of glass blowing (I come from a family of glass artists), certainly in an historical context (glass blowing thrived under the Romans). And my final year thesis was about glass finds on a provincial Roman site. I went far in my studies: alongside the theoretical research, I also began to explore the techniques of those Romans in an experimental way. Initially I made replicas of glass finds from Belgian sites. But I soon began to experiment further with modern shapes and colours. A trip to sea gave had given me so much inspiration that I shut myself away in my improvised studio for two weeks. And then, all of a sudden, I had a mini collection. When my parents (both artists) saw what I'd made, they offered to exhibit my work on a table during one of my father’s exhibitions. That first exhibition was such a success that I sold all the jewellery at it, and had three upcoming exhibitions at art galleries in my pocket. In the meantime, I was also working full-time as a conservator in a Ghent museum, so all my free time and money went into creating jewellery. At some point, full-time became part-time at the museum, because I was getting more and more invitations to take part in exhibitions and design and fashion fairs. When a press agency elected me Fresh Fish of the year, articles followed, and my jewellery was often loaned for stylings and fashion magazines. That was when I began to think about making a quantum leap, even though my parents didn’t immediately encourage that (I had a really great, secure job in a museum, all the archaeologists I knew were unemployed and I was going to give up my job in the museum to become an artist: naturally, they didn’t think that was a solid plan!). But I couldn’t stifle the passion any longer. I found incredible shop premises 100 metres from my studio in Ghent and I decided to go for it: selling during the day and making new jewellery and orders in the evenings. Relying on good luck, with a bank balance way in the red, but with an incredible appetite.
What is the most important lesson you have learned?
That it is really important to surround yourself with the right people, who are smarter or stronger in areas where you are less capable.
What was the biggest challenge you faced?
A few years ago I shifted my whole business plan. Originally, I was making jewellery for about 30 boutiques in Belgium and abroad, as well as jewellery for my own shop in Ghent. Everything was running to a very tight schedule, with agents imposing deadlines and determining when I should bring out my collections. There came a point where I’d had enough. A lot of fashion boutiques were also struggling financially because of the rise of online shopping, mobility schemes that had been introduced, and other external factors. I decided to change tack completely and to just concentrate on the private, high end customers. I opened a second shop in Ronse, where the jewellery was also now being made, and got into a bridal collective/shop in Antwerp. That was the best decision ever! The workload reduced for me and team, which now numbered 10, and we reclaimed the freedom to bring out collections when I felt it was needed.
Which woman do you look up to and why?
Iris Van Herpen, because I think she is one of the strongest and most innovative designers of all time. She is incredibly idiosyncratic, and effortlessly blends old techniques with innovative procedures, which is also my favourite way of working. She experiments away and so the result is both wonderful and timeless.
What advice would you give to your younger self and why?
Ignore good advice and do your own thing! If you come up with an innovative plan, then you don’t care how others have already done it. Follow your own path and make all the mistakes there are to make, don’t dwell on them, and press on!