Long before Matthew “Mateo” Harris was a CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund finalist in 2017, the designer’s signature pearls were already appearing on the necks and ears of Hollywood’s leading ladies. Initially launched as a men’s brand, it only took Rihanna wearing one of his zipper necklaces in 2009 to inspire a change in formula for the Jamaican-born artist. After refocusing to create a women’s line in 2014 and relaunching, MATEO New York has continued to grow. Addition of an assortment of small leather goods and, more recently, scented candles to its offerings, the brand is as growing as its brain. Capturing consumers with graphic design and affordable luxury pricing, there’s a reason the New York-based brand appeals to retailers around the world.
When he’s not working at his Nolita flagship store, Matthew Harris travels the world bringing his quintessential New York brand to the world. Forbes caught up with the designer to learn more about the brand’s creation, inspiration and plans for growth.
Roytel Montero: Tell us about your beginnings as a jewelry designer.
Matthew “Mateo” Harris: Since my childhood in Montego Bay, Jamaica, I have been surrounded by fashion. My mother was a seamstress, so creativity was in my blood. After college I was looking for that burning desire or passion and I really stumbled upon jewelry making and never looked back. I found myself at 47and Street in New York asking questions, asking lots of questions and sometimes watching Youtube videos. I’m a self-taught designer and I’m really proud to say that.
Montero: Describe the process of starting your business. What were the first lessons you learned as you got into the creative business?
Material: I started my first jewelry business in the spring of 2009, where I started a men’s collection. Before the company was even legally established, I would sit in my flat sketches of Brooklyn and create the concept of what I wanted the ethos of the brand to be. It is important to have a DNA and a brand message in order to differentiate your company. Also, I was looking for the empty space in the market to enter. Once I found out that I had legally set up the business with the state and a brand. Many lessons have been learned along the way. I think that’s the beauty of being an entrepreneur. The learning process never ends. You learn to build a team. You learn how to budget and grow sustainably. Mateo is still self-funded to this day. You learn to take strategic risks and make those tough decisions. The list continues.
Montero: Where do you get the most inspiration from?
Material: After the company transitioned into women’s fine jewelry under the new company name, Mateo New York Inc. Inspiration for each collection is drawn from modern art. Each collection is designed with the aesthetics of simplicity and minimalism in mind. I love works by artists like Alexander Calder and Kandinsky. Much of this you can see through my designs.
Montero: How has your experience as a CFDA x Vogue Fashion Fund finalist changed your approach to growing your business?
Material: I don’t believe participating in the CFDA x Vogue fashion fund has changed or changed the way we do business, but it was a great experience and I learned a lot about myself and the tenacity and strength I ‘have. MATEO New York has been and continues to grow very rapidly, so we need to strategically manage the business so that growth is sustainable. We entered new categories such as designer leather goods which we launched at Saks Fifth Avenue and bloomingdales here in the United States, Montaigne market in Paris and Harvey Nicols in Saudi Arabia. We have also launched scented candles (scented candles) sold exclusively in our New York store and online.
Montero: What’s your favorite piece of jewelry right now?
Mateo: Hmmm, that’s always a difficult question because I do so many pieces and I create all the time. It’s crazy. I am currently obsessed with our new Initial collection. In particular the new Grand Initial ring. It’s quite the statement ring, but it’s personal because you can get your personal initial under the gemstone and set diamonds. I personally wear one every day. Also, I love earrings, so I make tons of them and I’m obsessed with so many things.
Montero: In addition to being present in luxury boutiques around the world, you opened a boutique in Soho more than a year ago. How has having a flagship space changed your understanding of who carries your brand? Did anything surprise you?
Material: Oh my god, having my own flagship store has been invaluable. Personally, I learned a lot about my client, the woman who wears MATEO. It has shaped the business so much as well as how I design and what pieces to design and what shapes or gemstones to use or not to use. I’m quite often surprised actually. In my mind, I think the Mateo woman is a real millennial, but I have women over 50 or even 60 who come in and buy 2-3 pieces at a time. It’s amazing and it opened my eyes to who our client is. Ultimately, a woman is looking for a beautiful piece that she can enjoy and wear often. I take pride in personally making great jewelry at affordable luxury prices, so it’s great to sit in the shop and watch people try on the pieces and the jewelry is a part of it.