Mela was founded by serial entrepreneur Neel Elsherif. Neel earned her BFA from Moore College of Art & Design, majoring in Fashion Design and Business/Entrepreneurship.
Her intense attention to details, standards of quality, handson garment-making knowledge, creativity, craftsmanship, and dedication are only a few of the skills that have set her up for success in a competitive business. Neel’s biggest asset is that she understands the industry from all angles. Mentored by Frank Agostino straight out of college, she has experience in the New York market, overseeing some of the largest, high-profile accounts, including but not limited to: Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, Nordstrom, Sam’s Club, Beall’s, Shopbop, Steinmart & Vigoss.
A clothing designer in her own right, Neel created and sold her own collection of custom evening wear. With this broad and diverse resume, she is able to share a spectrum of experience with startups as a mentor for Ballard Spahr’s BASE program. She has additionally shared her industry knowledge working as an adjunct professor, teaching graduate studies at Moore.
To top it off, Neel is the founder and CEO of GuardeX New York, a company which began as an effort to donate much-needed supplies during the pandemic.
Neel was quick to establish herself as a leader and innovator in the industry, utilizing tech-driven fabrics and finding ecofriendly solutions. She has made charitable contributions to multiple outlets including the Bell Organization, Greene Towne Montessori, and Mainchance, among others. As a result, she was featured both in Forbes Magazine and listed in the LA Wire’s prestigious 40 Under 40.
Neel didn’t stop there. In 2022, she founded and launched Mela, a luxury vegan leather brand that thinks about the future of our planet. Mela partners with a prominent Italian company, Mabel Industries, that produces AppleSkin™ from discarded apple waste and provides a sustainable replacement for traditional leather.
She successfully promotes sustainability, vegan living, cruelty-free practices, and fashion for eco-conscious individuals.
Neel’s Egyptian roots and global connections only further complement her wealth of knowledge.
Tanja Beljanski: When did you know designing bags was something you would pursue as a profession?
Neel Elsherif: I have always traveled since I could remember, so bags play a huge role in my life at a young age. Having the perfect bag has always been a priority. In addition, my mom and aunt have a true shoes and bags addiction, and I think they also stilled in me at a very young age the importance of bags. Of course, all that combined with having worked in the fashion industry for over 15 years now, was a natural progression. I would say the true moment when I felt I am ready for this was when I came across the Apple leather for the first time. I immediately started to daydream and the rest is history.
TB: What is the story behind Mela?
NE: It started when I became hyper-aware of the void between vegan brands and luxury brands in the current fashion industry. On the vegan side, you typically see simple, neutral colors, and on the luxury side, you’ll find bold and stunning colors and styles.
This dynamic creates a dilemma for those who are both eco-conscious and fashion-forward.
And it doesn’t feel right to me that all-vegan brands tend to primarily target only the vegan community. We should be providing everyone with the opportunity to look good while doing good. To shop with a brand that’s inviting to everyone and encourages small steps to make a big change in our world today.
When I learned about AppleSkin, the material itself, and the story behind it, I was inspired and motivated to bridge the gap between these two markets, because there had to be a middle ground. This is where Mela was born. Finally, a vegan leather brand that delivers luxurious and stunning fashion that’s empowering and impactful!
TB: What is your design ethos? Please tell us more about the apple leather.
NE: Lively, bold, witty, insightful, proud, charismatic, elegant, bold. Stand by individuality, excitement, belonging. Mela has proceeds of sales going towards fighting climate change.
Apple leather is bio based leather. It is the byproduct of the apple juicing industry. Basically all the leftover apple parts from juicing are gathered, dried up into a powder, this powder is then mixed up with other proprietary ingredients then put in the oven and the outcome is this beautiful apple leather. Think of it as a premix cake box, you got all these yummy ingredients, toss it in the oven & voi la you get cupcakes! Of course the process itself is much more sophisticated than that. It is all made in Italy by our Italian parent company Mabel.
I’ll give you some facts about the apple leather making process: it all begins in South Tyrol, Italy, with the cultivation of apples destined for the food industry. These apples are used to make juices, jams, and other food products. If the waste isn’t used, it’s destroyed or ends up in landfills. Apple waste is estimated to be about 30,000 tons yearly, which is insane! Did you know that apple solids are ideal for up-cycling? That’s exactly what we do. Waste from the food chain is then recovered, and given a new life in the form of apple powder. This powder is then used to create an innovative plant-based material. The result? Durable, sustainable, cruelty-free, vegan leather. AppleSkin.
TB: Who is your client; the person you address with your designs?
NE: The target audience for Melas World would likely be individuals who prioritize both ethical and aesthetic considerations when it comes to purchasing luxury fashion items. We want to focus on an audience who likes to take risks with bold color choices, fashion forward and doesn’t just focus on trends. We believe that age isn’t a factor when it comes to our bags, and is made for everyone from a cool grandmother down to her vivacious granddaughter.
EMPOWERING and IMPACTFUL.
TB: How did you get to develop your latest collection? What are your inspirations?
NE: The theme of this collection is Vita a colori (Life in color). I was very inspired by exotic colorful birds and animals, and how the aspect of color is key for their survival in nature. How some animals use colors to hide, some use color to impress others. At the end of the day I wanted the collection to be colorful, happy and a celebration of life. Often Vegan brands do not offer such bright colors. In this collection we developed all our apple leather colors exclusively after months of testing. In addition, texture is key to our brand and our collection. We are offering in this collection a quilted purse called Mimi made from Apple leather, recycled plastic bottles inside the filling and recycled metals.
TB: What sets Mela apart from other bags brands?
NE: The brand at its core is super committed to sustainability and investing in continuously developing innovative materials, finding & sourcing the best professionals in the industry to work with. We care deeply about the quality of our product inside out more than other already existing heritage brands. When it comes to our production practices, we are extremely involved and hands on. From an aesthetic standpoint, we truly stand out amongst other vegan brands as we offer trendy/ fashion forward colors/silhouettes, while other vegan brands traditionally offer muted/neutral colors.
In terms of brand messaging and tonality, we are very inclusive and approachable. Our brand community is primarily based on small efforts, it is O.K. if you are not vegan, it is O.K if you style our bag with some vintage fur coat. No judgment. This is a safe space for our community to come together, and even if they leave with one small new positive habit, we have succeeded in conveying our message and what we sought out to accomplish.
TB:What is the signature style of your brand?
NE: Mature clean lines, sleek silhouettes, and minimalist aesthetic. The brand’s signature style includes the use of high-quality vegan leather, natural dyes, and recycled materials, which all contribute to the sustainability and ethical production of their product.
TB: How do you like to wear Mela bags?
NE: Personally, I love wearing the Celim crossbody daily. It is the perfect size for a phone, sunglasses, wallet & all receipts that I will never use. I definitely wear the Mona to nice dinners when I want to show off a little bit and be like hey! We make bags from apples! I typically wear Mona with just the small gold chain without the crossbody strap.
A vegan leather brand that delivers
luxurious and stunning
TB: What does luxury mean for your brand today?
NE: Excellent question! When I brief all our different suppliers (believe it or not, there are at least 11 different components that go into one finished bag!), I always say that we need to think outside the box when it comes to developing our raw material. I don’t think that a block of gold defines luxury anymore. I truly believe it is much more luxurious, for example, to take bullet shells and repurpose them into cool looking hardware shapes. The thought, creativity, commitment and passion that goes into developing something is so meaningful and in my opinion is true luxury. As a brand, made up of creatives, artisans, professionals, we have the resources and knowledge to create something so unique for our customers. So it is quite a privilege to have the opportunity to continue to develop and create.
TB: What are the next generation of luxury shoppers looking for?
NE: I believe something extraordinary that evokes a feeling and that is more about the experience itself rather than a product sitting on a shelf to fulfill a functionality need.
TB: What is a trend that you like right now?
NE: I absolutely love the shoulder purses circa 90’s, the 90’s hold a special place in my heart. This trend makes me feel nostalgic.
TB: What are the key markets for your brand?
NE: Europe, North America, Middle East and Asia (specifically Japan & Korea).
TB: And your next steps?
NE: We are currently working on the additional patented bio based leathers (I can’t give away too much details at the moment), but it will certainly reflect and assure to our customers the level of commitment we have as a brand to sustainability..
* This story has been published in the June 2023 issue of L'Officiel Arabia. Out now.