Last week the HBS Retail Club sponsored a discussion with Mimi So, New York City jewelry designer extraordinaire. Over the past ten years, So has built an impressive client list that includes the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Halle Berry, Jennifer Lopez, Destiny’s Child, Julianne Moore, and Jessica Simpson, to name only a few. Fans of HBO’s Sex in the City may also recognize Mimi So’s name from the opening credits-she has been the show’s leading jewelry designer for six straight seasons. Having made appearances at high-profile events ranging from the Academy Awards to the Grammy’s, Mimi So’s distinctive designs are quickly becoming as famous as the celebrities who wear them.
A third generation jeweler, Mimi So grew up in the diamond business. She learned a great deal from her mother, who was the first woman to own a jewelry store on Canal Street near The Bowery. Taking her mother’s example a step further, So determined to make a name for herself in midtown Manhattan. In 1993, at the age of only 24, Mimi So opened her own retail boutique. However, establishing herself in the male-dominated industry proved difficult. “I wasn’t welcome, and it was really tough,” remembered Mimi.
As the first, and still the only, female store owner on 47th Street in the heart of New York City’s jewelry district, she struggled to acquire any inventory. According to So, gem wholesalers were reluctant to deal with her until “eventually they saw that I was the first to open my store and the last to leave.” Fortunately for Mimi So, her unique pieces made instantaneous impressions on her customers, and after receiving the commission to design wedding bands for David Bowie and Iman, the retail store that bears her name has only struggled to keep up with demand.
Though hesitant to name a favorite celebrity customer, So did mention that “Michael Michelle has been one of the most supportive and loyal. She believed in me from the start.”
Impressively, Mimi So’s savvy as a businessperson rivals her international acclaim as an artist. Beneath the glitz of her sparkling designs and the glamour of her star-studded clientele lies a down-to-earth, determined entrepreneur who built her business through hard work, focus, and discipline. So candidly spoke to HBS students about the challenges of opening her retail boutique 10 years ago. “I didn’t have a partner and I couldn’t find investors,” she recalled, “to start this business, I took on all the risk myself.” A strong believer in the importance of marketing, Mimi substituted creativity for capital wherever she could, “initially, I couldn’t afford to advertise, so I relied on referrals and word-of-mouth. I built my reputation through quality and exceptional customer service.”
Mimi’s practical approach to business became more evident as she described her careful management of the company’s growth. When Neiman Marcus approached her about the possibility of a partnership, Mimi scrutinized the market potential, the consumer base, and the terms of the partnership before accepting. “At first, I didn’t know what a partnership would mean, both in terms of control and responsibilities,” she remarked.
After an initial launch in two stores in the fall of 2002, Mimi So’s collections can now be found in fifteen of Neiman Marcus’ Precious Jewelry Salons.
Her product launch has been both the fastest-growing and most successful in Neiman Marcus’ history.
What’s next for Mimi So? This talented entrepreneur aspires to build a global luxury brand with serious clout, an ambition that Mimi So seems likely to achieve. The Company’s immediate expansion plans include developing international markets in Japan and India, as well as expanding its U.S. retail presence. At the same time, Mimi So keeps her designs fresh by launching two new collections each year and accepting commissions for custom pieces. If that were not enough, Mimi So and her delightful husband are the proud parents of 14 month old Coco-Mei, a daughter named after Mimi’s favorite designer, Coco Chanel. Though Mimi So’s time may be in short-supply, she will no doubt continue to find ample inspiration for her work, to which she credits three sources “people, travel, and food.”