“Launching handbags in the middle of a pandemic has been the saving grace,” says Vanissa Antonious, designer and founder of cult accessory brand Neous. The London-based, Australian of Egyptian heritage, launched the independent designer shoe label in 2017. Browns picked up the first collection and Net-A-Porter the second. Neous quickly found favor with buyers and customers alike for its architectural proportions, seasonless shapes, practical comfort and made in Italy quality craftsmanship. Now, the 36-year-old has added handbags to the mix.
“Footwear has stayed pretty stable throughout the pandemic,” Antonious continues. “Anything we did lose on footwear we have gained on handbags.” That category now spans seven styles with key bags for summer including the sculptural Jupiter and Orbit chain design: “It will be one of our forever classics,” explains the former Harper’s Bazaar Australia, UK and Porter magazine stylist.
“At the beginning I was designing things that I liked, things that were missing in the marketplace,” explains Antonious, of the brand’s evolution. “The pandemic let me spend more time on honing the design of special pieces that the customer wants now. For example, we only did two flats for spring/summer, but they are perfect and are selling out.” Not surprisingly it’s currently practical styles like ballet pumps and slip-ons juxtaposed with special high heels (like her 80mm strappy sandals) that are most in-demand. “Feel good pieces I call them,” she says, noting that the middle heel height category has been slower than pre-pandemic.
Having been stuck in her Stoke Newington apartment for much of the past year Antonious has naturally been thinking a lot about family. Her Egyptian parents – from Cairo and Alexandria – migrated to Australia 39 years ago. It was a move that saw most of their extended families follow suit in due course. “It’s something that I have put a lot of thought into in the last year,” she reflects. “I think they and the Egyptian culture have influenced my personality a great deal. My dad is an accountant and lawyer and my mum a trained engineer, so definitely not creative, but their dedication to wanting the very best in life has definitely filtered down to me. My dad instilled a great sense of determination in me. And an ability to never give up, which is a challenge for some of my factories,” she says with a laugh.
Intuition chiefly guides her creativity: “I’m actually fortunate not coming from a footwear design perspective, because it makes me think differently to the way a lot of designers would. They often tell me ‘no, no, this is not possible technically,’” she says of her four Italian factories. “And I’m like ‘it is!’ We’ve had a lot of wins that way – like Bophy,” she says of her netted mule. “I think fluidity is the core aesthetic because I hate intersecting lines,” she adds.
Presently, it’s the brand’s sustainability footprint that Antonious is tackling head on. “Sustainability, in terms of creating product that is timeless and isn’t disposable, has always been a big part of Neous,” she begins. “But now we’re taking it a lot further, looking into the impacts of leather and what actually is the best leather to use,” she says. “There is a lot of mixed messaging in the industry. At the end of the day, it’s all harmful in some way. So actually getting the facts on what is the least harmful is very difficult. I’m a big believer in natural leather materials over synthetic only because those materials exist already. They are byproducts from other industries, and if they are not used in the manufacturing of products they don’t biodegrade for 50-100 years.”
She’s also obsessed with creating new textures and exploring knitted uppers: “We’ve started to introduce a lot of fabrics – recycled Nylon and knit – whereby all the uppers are knitted by hand so we don’t have waste,” she says. “Then the next step is trying to test apple, mushroom and cactus leathers.” That said, as an independent brand employing a staff of 10, it is challenging to have the resources to investigate these new materials, let alone put them into production. So for now, the core Neous brief remains intact: “It’s about wearability and versatility,” she says. “Good quality heel heights that you can live in.”