In 2015, two teenage girls each painted on a pair of shoes for a project in their high school art class. They received high praise for their work from both of their teachers and peers, and when someone asked them how much they were selling the customized pairs of shoes for, an idea sparked. What started off as a school project quickly turned into an apparel brand that featured the girls’ original artwork and designs inspired by a simple yet adventurous lifestyle merged with positivity and pop culture. Maria Mastrella and Leanna Vu are the artists and co-founders of the brand VaultNinetySeven.
Shortly after, the two created an account on Etsy, an e-commerce website for vintage and handmade products. They listed their art project shoes as well as some of their other artwork for sale. They continued to customize shoes, painting cartoon images of their favorite bands on them, hoping that other fans would stumble across their page and buy their products. The excitement from their first few sales motivated them to branch off from customized shoes to pocket t-shirts, which has now expanded to sweatshirts, tote bags, and enamel pins. Now, as university students in their early twenties, Maria and Leanna have grown with their business. With over 900 followers on Instagram, the two entrepreneurs have secured a place for VaultNinetySeven in the world of small business. In the summer of 2019, they moved on from Etsy and launched their own website that now reaches a larger international market.
I recently had the opportunity to chat with Maria and Leanna about VaultNinetySeven. They discussed their goals for the brand, how they produce their products, and what it’s like to be a small business in such a competitive market, as well as their opinions on supporting other small businesses.
Lisa: I can see from your website and Instagram page that you sell a variety of products with cute minimalistic designs on them. Do you create these images/designs yourself? And what are your inspirations for them?
Maria: I create all of the designs myself minus the enamel pins! My inspirations for most of these designs are merged with my favorite art style, which is line and contour drawings, and the social world around me. I find (that) especially when I’m traveling, I get a lot of design ideas; I really like the road-trip, spontaneous lifestyle so I feel like this has an influence on the designs I create, as well as the images we post on our Instagram.
Leanna: My designs never get approved to go this far, lol. But we’re inspired by what we see everyday — on social media, life, traveling. We want to create products that are somehow connected to us, our values and our story.
Lisa: You market yourselves on being “hand-made,” so how do you make your products? What materials/tools do you use to create them?
Maria and Leanna: We create everything at home. We both have our own equipment — 3D cutter, and T-Shirt press — and buy the apparel products (tote bags, t-shirts, sweaters) wholesale.
We start off by taking each design, whether drawn by hand or in Adobe Illustrator, and convert it into a silhouette in the 3D cutter software. Depending on the color and fabric of the product, the associated vinyl is chosen. The vinyl gets placed into the 3D cutter where the shape of the design is cut out. After that, we print the design onto the garment so it’s fresh off the press. The last step is packaging the product and adding remaining personalized touches before we ship it out!
Using eco-friendly products is something we’ve talked about for a while now. Fast fashion is something we’re trying to stay away from and we know that we are unfortunately contributing to it. But in all honesty, we just don’t have the budget right now to be purchasing eco-friendly products — they’re usually triple the price of a standard product. We really hope one day we can move towards this model and become eco-friendly! In order to get to this stage, we need to grow, and that’s why we need the support from our community and friends!
Lisa: I’m sure your current success has given you the confidence and imagination to dream about bigger things you both want for VaultNinetySeven. What are your short-term and long-term goals for your business?
Leanna: In the past, we’ve done collaborations with Canadian influencers, however, the return wasn’t the best. But we’d love to improve on this and open our doors to more collaborations with other Toronto artists in the future! But right now, I think our short term goals revolve around getting our mission down and branding right.
Maria: I found this to be the hardest part we struggled with because our brand seemed too broad, and had too many themes going on. But over the past few months, we agreed to focus on minimal designs and socially conscious ideas because this is what we value most in our current lives!
Leanna: In the long-term, I think we’d love to continue working on Vault and potentially turn this into a full-time job. Sometimes we get asked if we have a brick-and-mortar store so that would be cool to open up as well.
Maria: Honestly, that would be the dream — I’m a big believer that anything is possible, and that hard work, dedication, and gratitude work wonders. Right now, I’m grateful we even had the opportunity and resources to create this brand in the first place.
Leanna: I’m very optimistic about where this brand can go and as long as we continue to work hard and remain dedicated, anything is possible!
Lisa: Is it challenging being a small business, specifically a clothing/apparel brand, with so many big corporate competitors like Urban Outfitters, for example, who also sell apparel with similar minimalistic designs? What sets you apart from them?
Leanna: It is SO DAMN DIFFICULT, lol. Sometimes it makes me question if we really have a chance in this saturated market. But at the end of the day, I remind myself that I’m doing what I love.
Maria: It’s important for us to have fun with what we’re doing and to not take it too seriously all the time. The reason we started VaultNinetySeven in the first place was to have fun and do what we love as a hobby — creating visual art and designs.
Leanna: One thing that definitely sets us apart from large industry competitors is the fact that our products are handmade. Our customers have the option to customize their products even further, adding a unique and personalized factor that larger brands often wouldn’t offer.
Lisa: Do you two personally (or as a business team) support any other small/local businesses?
Leanna: We’ve vendored before at a few public artisan markets where we’ve met other local small businesses so yes, we support them 100 percent. We’re really grateful to be part of such a small, supportive community where we all support each other’s work, whether that be following each other on social media, commenting on posts, giving shoutouts, or simply visiting their booths and chatting.
I personally love buying items from local small businesses! I’ve gotten a few jewelry pieces from local businesses, and it’s just more meaningful when you know that you’re supporting someone who has invested their time, energy and passion into crafting something for you, versus purchasing something that is mass-produced. It makes the product much more unique and I’m all for it!
Maria: We love getting to know the story behind people’s brands and seeing all the unique products they create. I think small businesses are all unique in their own way and it’s because most of the products are handmade or produced in small batches. It’s so much more exciting to buy something from a local business compared to a mass produced item. It’s nice knowing you’re supporting a local creator and encouraging them to keep doing what they’re doing!
I love visual art so I usually purchase all my paintings or art pieces for my bedroom at artisan markets or local Toronto street markets. I’m also a big coffee lover so I’m currently trying all the different local coffee shops around Toronto, and it’s going really well so far, lol!
Lisa: What do you think about the exponential growth in the small brand/business industry? Do you have any advice for people thinking about joining this trade?
Maria: Because we live in a time where the Internet and technology are at our fingertips, we see that more people are willing to take big risks! I find a lot of people from our generation are more driven by experiences and self-sustainability, and the typical 9–5 job is not desired as much as it was before. Hence, a lot of young adults are trying to start e-commerce businesses themselves. There are much more resources nowadays and e-commerce platforms to start a small business; I think it’s definitely worth a shot if you’re willing to dedicate a lot of time and patience. Leanna and I have definitely had our ups and downs with VaultNinetySeven and questioned if we should continue selling our artwork online, but then we get presented with opportunities that reassure us to keep going. At the end of the day, if you don’t try, you’ll never know the possibilities!
Photo via VaultNinetySeven
I remember when Maria and Leanna started their business back in high school. As a former classmate of theirs, it has been very exciting to see all of the progress they made since day one. I admire them for the amount of time, hard work, and dedication they’ve put into sustaining their business, all the while being full-time university students.
I highly encourage readers to support small/independent and local businesses, like VaultNinetySeven. In doing so, you are acknowledging the huge risk they are taking which can be very overwhelming and “so damn difficult” as Leanna put it. You encourage the business to continue to do what they are passionate about and it is definitely comforting to know that that freshly brewed cup of coffee you’re drinking or those beaded earrings you’re wearing were made by someone who truly values the work that they do.
“Supporting local businesses allows for a more meaningful shopper experience and fosters a sense of community. I know that with us, it’s always nice seeing our regular customers at markets and hearing their appreciation for our work. We love socializing and meeting new people, learning about their stories, and bonding over our similar experiences.” – Maria Mastrella & Leanna Vu
Maria Mastrella and Leanna Vu are VaultNinetySeven. The quality and care that goes into creating each design and crafting every product is a true reflection of the creative, passionate, and dedicated people they are.
“When you take away all the big corporations, small businesses are what makes each city unique. They’re comprised of people who want to create and share their passion with others. The only way to sustain art and expression is if we support them — whether it be through social media, purchasing their products, or through word-of-mouth, it really shows that you care about the work and the brand’s message/mission.” – Maria Mastrella & Leanna Vu
Head over to our Instagram for details on the Her Campus at York U x VaultNinetySeven giveaway!
Use the code “HERCAMPUS15” for 15 percent off your purchase from VaultNinetySeven.com
(offer valid until December 25th, 2019).