Some women lust after handbags by Coach, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, or Chanel.
But if you’re a geek, you’re probably saving your pennies so you can acquire an original Mari Cole.
Mari’s first endeavors into geek fashion design were inspired by her late, beloved brother Ray and his requests for custom pop culture-themed Halloween costumes. A student of San Francisco’s Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, she gained experience working for major retailers before deciding she’d rather do her own thing.
She launched an Etsy shop featuring intricate and playful geeky handbags and has since branched out into partnering with manufacturers, as well as offering other products, including leggings and pins. In a playful nod to her name, she titled the business Sent From Mars.
Drawing inspiration from fandoms like Star Wars, Harry Potter, Back to the Future, and Super Mario Bros., as well as a love of glitter and sparkle, Mari creates extraordinary high-end statement pieces that offer the fun, nostalgic wish fulfillment geeks crave.
If you’ve been looking for that special accessory that will take your geek style to the next level, your search is over.
Your accessories and apparel business, Sent From Mars, specializes in custom and limited-edition pop culture-themed handbags, as well as enamel pins, leggings, and stickers. Where do you draw inspiration for your designs?
The majority of my inspiration comes from movies, shows and video games. Especially anything with nostalgia that brings about a good memory or feeling. And sometimes it comes from a resourceful point of view, looking at my supplies and thinking of what I can make with what’s in front of me.
Your creations are imaginative, playful, elaborate, and textured. Can you tell me a little bit about the process that goes into designing a bag?
I have made a LOT of bags now, so my process has gotten pretty streamlined. I have a basic shape I work within and I start each design with a little quick sketch which I transfer to a life-size version where I can see what is actually possible. Then I like to take a look at different fabrics and trims that I can add. I love mixing textures and a variety of fabrics to make unique pieces.
You describe yourself as a “designer, maker, illustrator.” How does the illustrator role apply to what you do?
I would say I am actually an illustrator first since I’ve been drawing since I was a kid. I use that skill in every bag to create the designs and patterns. This year, I’ve added leggings, pins and printed bags, and it’s been really fun to finally do more illustration work and turn them into actual products.
Would it be accurate to say your sewing machine is one of the most valuable tools of your trade?
Definitely, I’d be lost without it!
It’s plain to see you have a love of glitter and sparkle. Where does this come from?
Great question! Honestly, sparkly things just make me happy. They are just fun to look at and I’ve always loved them!
I love the name Sent From Mars. Is it a play on your name? How did you come up with that?
It is! When I started my shop, I knew I didn’t want to have my actual name on my products so the “Mars” in Sent From Mars is a little nod to it but I like that it really sounds like Mars the planet.
What’s your geek origin story? Why did you decide to focus on the geek side of fashion?
This one wasn’t so obvious to me and I can only tell when I look back at how things came about. And it really started from making Halloween costumes for my younger brother, Ray. We always watched movies together, and would talk about projects we’d like to create from them. And Halloween was always our favorite time of year. He wanted movie quality costumes and that’s where I came in.
The first one I really put my all into was a Joker costume from The Dark Knight. Then a Rufio costume which I turned into a tutorial on the website Instructables. Those costumes and that tutorial are what led me into making by first “geeky” bag inspired by Han Solo. And what’s funny is, I didn’t know that “geek” was a thing. I was just making something I liked from a movie I loved. (Ray) passed away in 2016 from a brain tumor but he’s still with me every day, inspiring everything I make.
What specifically appeals to you about creating handbags?
I wear a bag every day, and I know I’m not the only one so I like that I can design something fun that gets a lot of use.
What are some of your favorite products that you’ve created so far?
That’s tough since they are all special to me but I love the quirky ones, like my Spunky inspired bag (from Rocko’s Modern Life) and the two Back to the Future-inspired bags.
I read that you studied at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. Tell me more about your fashion background.
Yep! I went to FIDM in San Francisco straight out of high school. While I was there, I felt like I really honed in on what I wanted to do as a career, design.
You got your start in the industry working for a couple of major retailers. What did you learn from that experience?
I live two hours out of San Francisco so I was lucky to be close to design work which isn’t always easy to find if you’re looking for a 9 to 5 job. Those experiences taught me a lot but the big thing I took away was that I wanted to design things for myself and make things I was really truly passionate about.
Why did you decide to strike out on your own?
There really isn’t anything as fulfilling as doing work you’re proud of and passionate about. That really drove me to later start my shop. I saw a lot of people running stores on Etsy and just thought if they could do it, why not me?
Sent From Mars began as an Etsy shop and you’ve since branched out to partner with manufacturers. Tell me about the evolution of the business.
I started my Etsy shop only selling handmade pieces. I loved what I was able to create but it wasn’t scalable, there are only so many bags I can make on my own in a given month. It had been a dream of mine for several years to get products manufactured, even before I actually started my shop.
Through social media I’ve been able to connect with a lot of likeminded people and shop owners and was fortunate to have gotten a referral to my first manufacturer that way. I’ve only manufactured a few pieces so far and am still figuring this part out but I’m glad to be on the right path.
What’s been most challenging about running your own business?
For me it has been consistency and planning ahead. When you design for fun you can create as you please but to make it a business you really need clear goals and to look forward at what you’re trying to achieve.
What do you enjoy most about it?
I love the actual design part. Sitting down and planning out new products, getting inspired and creating.
Since your bags are custom-made and limited edition, they’re priced as any good investment piece would be. How would you describe your customer demographic?
When I design pieces, I really start out by making them for myself, so I would say my customer is someone who cares about the details and wants a quality piece.
You’ve made some amazing custom commissions and your bags have been featured at special events and on red carpets. What have been some of the most memorable Sent From Mars product appearances?
Well my most memorable was actually my own when I designed myself a custom Marty McFly dress for the Geekie Awards in 2015. I made a hoverboard clutch and DeLorean earrings to match and it was such a fun outfit to wear!
You made some costumes for ThinkGeek mascot Timmy that were worn by the little monkey at San Diego Comic-Con. Tell me more about that.
I’ve been a fan of ThinkGeek for years after discovering them one Christmas and getting the absolute best stocking stuffers for my family. I saw that they were recruiting designers to make Timmy costumes and just thought it looked fun, so I applied and was able to make two costumes for him, a Bowser and a Hellboy, two of my favorites.
Many of your products are inspired by Star Wars. What’s your earliest memory of George Lucas’ franchise?
Definitely my brother buying a limited edition set of the original trilogy on VHS at Blockbuster. I remember they came in gold sleeves and that’s the first time I can remember really watching them.
What do you love about the galaxy far, far away?
I really love the characters and the imagery has always inspired me. I also always love a good hero/villain story and this is one of the best!
You also create a lot of Harry Potter-inspired designs. You seem to have a fixation with Hedwig and the Niffler from “Fantastic Beasts.” Do you have a soft spot for magical creatures?
Oh, most definitely! My favorite characters always seem to be creatures, probably since in real life I’m a huge animal lover.
How were you introduced to J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world?
I saw the movies when they first came out in theaters and loved them. I’ve always loved magic and the story captivated me.
What’s your Hogwarts house?
Gryffindor! First by choice and then by Pottermore.
What are some of your other personal fandoms?
Anything Super Mario, specifically Yoshi. Back to the Future and also The 10th Kingdom.
You’ve said that with each of your designs you like to try something new or challenge yourself when it comes to honing your skills. Why is that important to you?
I’m motivated by a challenge. I find that to be the most rewarding.
You’re mom to an adorable little girl. She seems to have inspired a fair amount of personal projects. Can you tell me about some of those?
One was for her actual announcement. I wanted to share the news in a way that related to my shop so I used her ultrasound photo to make a custom bag. It still sits by my desk and was a great way to capture that moment. Her first Halloween costume was also really fun to make. I made her a pink Yoshi complete with a stuffed tail. And right now I’m working on her first birthday outfit which will be a fun custom Yoshi print onesie!
Geeky bags of all kinds seem to be really in right now. Why do you think consumers have latched onto this trend?
I would say part of the attraction is that a bag is a really fun way to wear something you’re into, and can be the only piece you include in your outfit which makes it really easy to wear and a product you get a lot of use out of.
What are your future plans or dreams for Sent From Mars?
I’d like to offer a full line of clothing and accessories in the future and am working towards releasing collections rather than just one design at a time.
What’s on your to-make bucket list?
Loads of personal projects that I don’t usually have time for, such as custom Halloween decorations for my house! I’ve always wanted to go all out decorating it in a Super Mario castle theme!
What you do you personally look for in a handbag?
It’s been years since I’ve bought a handbag but when I make them I look for inspiration in something that makes me happy, usually something that makes me laugh or has a good memory tied to it.