Malina Catoiu is the brains behind Ralu Fine Art, a brand that was never a surprise because she always had a love and passion for art since her younger years.
Creative, formidable and a complete boss when it comes to chasing her dreams, Malina is a force to be reckoned with. We spent some time getting inspired by her and here’s what she had to say…
Tell us the journey that lead you to launching your brand, Ralu Fine Art…
The name of this shop comes from my first name Raluca. Until I left my country of origin (Romania) only my family called me Ralu so it is bringing history and present together.
Let’s imagine we toss a coin, on one side is the truth and the other side is the dare.
The truth about me: since childhood I had a passion for music and the field of art. I still have three big passions: playing my piano to enchant my friends and family, photography brought to light to the delight of your eyes and travelling. Contrary to my artist soul, I have chosen a career in banking for more than 25 years. In 2012 I bought my first DSLR camera mainly due to my curiosity and passion for photography. Since then I make art through my lenses as I am longing for beauty. I love to capture moments that become memories in a form of foggy mornings, crispy autumn, falling leaves, season changes, nature beauty, street impressions.
The dare part: I believe in trusting my gut as it is always right. I believe in making my dreams a reality and consistently pursue my life dreams. Since I was 24 y.o. I wanted to have my own company. When the first bank I worked for went to bankruptcy I wanted to create my own company with intermediary role import and export of merchandise. At that time I was working a lot with retail and wholesale clients and such transactions. Other offers came from banking system and I decided at that time to pursue with my banking career. But you see all this time it was something that played in my head to create my own business. In 2018 I felt is the time for me to play with my ideas and make my dreams become reality. I’ve always admired my grandma who almost all her life loved to create clothes and designed new models. I looked at her many years how many beautiful things came out of her creative mind and hands: exquisite wedding dresses, luxury costumes, classy dresses, purses, blouses and so on. I wanted to bring the history and present together and inspired by my grandma work to continue with my own story in my own style. It took me several months to brainstorm together with my husband and launch my shop in June 2019. However only from October 2019 I started to be fully engaged and take it in my hands as full time activity.
What is Ralu FineArt about? The shop idea was born from the desire to bring our planet beauty home and make our inner world inspiring in my own way and style.
During my trips I realized how beautiful our planet is and also how fragile and in great danger. So I decided that through my brand to commit to raising awareness about the endangered species and deforestation. A percentage of the sales will go as donations to different organizations to contribute to planting trees, save endangered species and other actions trying to make our world better. All my projects are shared on my blog.
You live your life following your gut, how did that served you during 2020?
During all my life I learnt that following my gut is the best thing to do when I have a big decision to make or if I’m in two minds. Call it gut or instinct, but is that moment you have that subtle sense of knowing what to do. And you cannot explain it, is not logic, is not reason, is not feeling. It involves all my senses.
I learnt to listen to my inner voice when is talking to me and improve my ability to tune with my intuition and shut down the noise around. The most important decision that I took during the last years was to shift from my full time job in banking who didn’t make me happy at that time to completely hands on my own business in a complete different industry. All I did was to align my mind with my heart and resonate with my gut and bring back the person I was in the past in my life. That brought back the passion and a big inner force.
Following my gut it meant to focus more on what made me happy and stay out of toxic situations. You know many people overvalue what they are NOT and undervalue what they really are. Following my gut made me to embrace completely my own values, my talents and my strength and once I connected that with my mind and my heart I was fully aligned with what I wanted to do. Creativity started to flow, ideas came out from nowhere. And my passion met my courage to make my dream a reality. When no one believed in me I kept going trusting my gut.
How it served me in 2020? Well, leading with my gut and following the data. I measured constantly my progress and benchmarked it to the day zero. I re-defined what success means for me and my business for this year. Before the pandemic I focused more on Europe audience being based in Luxembourg. Once pandemic came in waves gradually capturing country by country I sensed that I have to shift my marketing campaigns to other markets like US and Canada.
I’ve put down the need for things to happen fast and learnt to wait for the right moment. I believe success comes based on all those small steps done in a consistent manner. Definitely 2020 was a difficult year for all of us and how my gut helped me was to be intentional with everything I do, protect my energy, trust myself, setting realistic goals, invest in my knowledge and ramp up my resilience.
How do you want people to feel when they buy from your store?
I believe any creator, any designer leaves a part of his soul in his creations. There is so much beauty around us in the world and the shop idea was born from the desire to bring our planet beauty in our homes and make our inner world inspiring.
When designing my products I transform the beauty found into our world into unique products for the home décor for example such as blankets, throw pillows, duvet covers, shower curtains, wall art. Is like walking into a home and imagine each room how it would look like when bringing a piece of our beautiful world into our inner space.
My goal is to inspire those who see my work, make them to see new places, discover the beauty of this world and also to want to preserve it. And through my products I got a chance to make my customers feel inspired and bring this beauty and positive energy into their lives.
An example: one client of mine who bought a shower curtain told me that he was moving from the countryside into the town and he was searching those home décor accessories to bring the nature into his home to remind him of his previous place. He was happy to find my shower curtain that pulls greenery and water and rocks into a single print and he was exactly looking for such a thing. They have added ivy garland around the top, woven around the shower hooks and river bathmats to make a perfect fit into their bathroom décor.
Another example is one of my blankets ‘Empty Streets’ an urban pattern with neutral soft colors that can be nicely combined with different interior styles such as classic, traditional, modern or industrial. I’ve chosen to talk about this blanket as I find that it fits so much with the times we are living right now: the pandemic, full and partial lockdown. It makes me think of what Mehmet Murat Ildan said once: ‘Silence is the beauty of the empty streets; laughter is the beauty of the crowded streets! There is beauty both in emptiness and in fullness; there is beauty both in absence and in presence!’
I personally miss travelling and each time I take out the blanket and snuggle around the fire I remember about this incredible medieval and surreal place called Colmar in France. Plus I love to see how old and new comes beautifully together refreshing a modern antique piece of furniture with ‘Empty Streets’ blanket. A room does not need to look brand new or from the same period or era. You can bring old and new together and mix beautifully the styles.
When comes about fashion accessories and I refer here to my scarves collection, I prefer a mix of classic and modern; for me a scarf is special, a timeless accessory, a symbol of femininity and sophistication. I believe that when we feel beautiful the whole world around us changes.
The scarves’ collection is made based on nature and urban patterns, each season bringing an opportunity for inspiration with a fresh perspective. The colors for the Fall are yellow gold, brown bronze and copper. ‘L’été indien’ and ‘Autumn Leaves’ scarves have all colors from the autumn palette to create a rich, warm and earthy feel to it. For the Winter I bring an invigorating and passionate red color with the ‘Whisper of Passion’ scarf replicated from my original photo and designed with the thoughts to celebrate the classic symbol of love and beauty. Nothing says romance louder than red roses. The color is gorgeous and the silk feel amazing. I see the Spring in emerald green and purple to create an exotic, vibrant and incredibly chic look with ‘Garden’s Wonders’ scarf.
I believe in the timeless beauty of nature puts in a different perspective my own designs. Beauty stays in the details and for a touch of flair, I play with color variations and sometimes a dull gray can turn into a surprising yellow gold. Imagination and freedom of creation are my best friends.
When designing my models I transform the beauty found in our world into wearable art and I imagine the woman wearing my scarves to be full of life, have a rich, vivid and warm look. I imagine that woman to wear the world beauty wrapped around her face or shoulders, have that eye-catching look and feel the vibrations of the earth. Buying my products you will enjoy beautiful landscapes, incredible sunsets, fabulous architecture as well details of a flower, a bee or a butterfly. It is not a simple silk scarf but a lifestyle.
The best thing about my products is their vibration and their effect.
How often do you launch new products and what’s the process behind that?
I’d say 2, max 3 times a year. My business turns around a hybrid model which is a mix of made on order and stock in the house and all products are created in limited editions.
Allow me to take as an example my last collection of scarves. I replicate my scarves designs from my original photos by translating the essence of nature and urban impressions into the delightful fashion accessory gifts. Each pattern starts its life as a copy of the original photo that I refine and transform it through the magic of the digital tools to produce a first mock up. First steps in this process are for the design. I select the themes and the range of colors. I put a lot of thought and consideration when creating the drafts and the topics are set on seasons, artistic nature inspired, urban and street style. I use my own photos to create patterns and it takes up to several weeks to work on an initial draft; selecting the perfect one is not always easy.
The inspiration of my urban patterns comes from my travels from the Cycladic layout, the medieval era, Venetian mansions, Neoclassical and modern architecture. While my inspiration of her summer models comes from the seaside showcasing deep blue sea waters, beach features and sea shells.
Once I have the digital patterns done I think of the type of material that best fits to the pattern and model. I prefer to work with natural silk however you may find some items in modal textile too.
For each scarf there is a lot of care and attention given from the start of the design to the finish in production, quality checks are performed along all the process. Creative imagination and designs, skillful hands and craft-work, all these complex processes have to be in harmony to create these wonderful products.
You see in my view, silk scarves are special to me; it is like having a long term relationships with them; they are intemporal, endless accessories and nevertheless special gifts for Christmas or New Year’s Eve.
For the House of Coco readers I’d say if you do not know where to buy a silk scarf, I suggest you to familiarize yourself with small but amazing collection of silk scarves presented in my online store! You will not be disappointed!
Talk us through an average day in your life…
My day starts around 7.30 am from my bed when I connect to the social media and all the platforms I activate on, checking the activity, the feed, taking the pulse of the things, engage with the audience and start wiring up the morning posts. Around 9.30 am I decide to jump into shower, have breakfast put some music and think how I define my day.
Contrary to my life in big corporations, my day as entrepreneur has no fixed schedule during a day and my favorite place to work is cocooning on my sofa with my laptop around. However everything goes according to a plan that I create for each week, each month and each season for my marketing campaigns, for market research, fashion trends, competition, new products design and launches and so on.
Once per day I listen to a podcast of inspirational people from all over the world. Twice per week I learn new things and start to experiment, test to see what I can apply or twist for my own business. I avoid the TV and the noise, it takes from my focus; watching Netflix from time to time to clear up my mind.
Sometimes I wake up during the night because I dreamt about something and an idea came into my mind and I note it down to not forget it. Sometimes I jump into work at 10 pm because in that very precise moment my dose of creativity was released or I jump into a webinar with US or Canada. I let my creativity and my gut to guide me no matter of time of the day or night. In between all these I create my blogs stories, joke with my husband and share with him my ideas, make calls, send emails, packing products and schedule shipping for the orders, wire up my posts on social media along the day, get out and have a short walk in my garden or on the fields to feel connected with the nature, feel the peace and harmony.
Since launching the brand, is there anything you would do differently?
Absolutely! Finding my niche faster, a smaller and more defined niche to start with, building up my audience before launching the shop. While my business is still relatively broadly focused with home décor, lifestyle and fashion accessory products, more than 1000 products in the shop, I am happy where I am today.
The journey took longer to match my products with different segments of the market, seasons and geographical regions. Marketing is the heart for generating the leads for my business and I am still adjusting the way I run my marketing campaigns, I learn everyday new things.
The biggest mistake at the beginning was to hit everyone with my posts and emails. One of the things I learnt the hard way was that is not important the number of followers on the social media but the quality of the audience and their engagement for my posts and products. Having the right audience is one of the keys for success. I am not a market expert but I had to learn what it works and what not in the hard way.
Do one thing at the time! I had and still have many projects running in parallel and it takes time until they take off and reach maturity. It takes time to spin the wheel and figure out what it works; that of course creates additional costs.
As a solopreneur everything ends up on your shoulders and it takes longer to build a business and scale it up. The key is to find something that works for your business and your products and your audience and then to stick with it. Each day to remember what is important to do: things that push forward your business or things that keep you busy.
To date, what has been your proudest moment?
Oh I think there have been several moments along the way equally in importance that made me feel proud. First thing was acquiring my first client and see my creations being appreciated by someone that came to my website and said: ‘WOW, I want to have it. ‘ ..and me saying: Yes I’m in business! If I can do it once I can do it thousands of times.
Seeing that I make a difference in my customer’s life when I get an email from a customer who wants to tell me how much she loves my products or reading their reviews. That means the world to me.
Hitting my first anniversary in business was a big milestone to celebrate.
My products sold in 10 countries all over the world during the first year was another milestone to make me proud and celebrate.
It takes a lot of courage, passion and skills to build a business from scratch, and I think anyone who does this should be proud of their accomplishments along the way. Success in my view comes in small steps. And is important to stop from time to time and look from where you came from. Mistakes are inevitable and they are part of the journey. What is important is to learn from them and make it better next time.
Create something from nothing and trusting myself when others didn’t, getting my brand where it is today, getting positive results out of an idea that one year ago was nothing makes one of the proudest moments of my life.
What did 2020 teach you that no other year has?
That in every crisis there is an opportunity. I launched my scarves collection end November 2019 when I started to work on my business full time. Few months after the pandemic came so I had to re-shape and redirect my marketing campaigns to different countries according to how the people responded to my products. The pandemic hit different countries gradually and people reacted differently. Also I took the decision to launch new products and new scarves in the middle of the pandemic. Someone can say that launching new products in the middle of the pandemic is simply crazy. But I took the risk. There is never a better time for an e-commerce business than now when people change their shopping behaviors getting more online.
I remember a client of mine from Canada was alone in the middle of pandemic and she was feeling like getting crazy. She started to screen the products from my shop and dropped me a message how looking at my products, which patterns are rooted into nature and urban style, made her day better. She ordered one product and then came back and ordered other two products. The fact that through my products I made her feel better, it meant the world to me.
2020 helped me to connect with people all over the world, understand their feelings, their needs, and above all stay positive. People no matter of their location, need to surround themselves with beautiful things especially during these times plus they cannot travel as they did before and through my products I bring a piece of the world into their homes.
This year taught me that by being consistent in my actions I will be able to move the needle step by step. Along this year I shipped my products in 10 countries all over the world: United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Ireland, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, France and Singapore. It is really a pleasure to know that my creations reached and continue to inspire people from so many parts of the world.
Our readers love to travel, what destination is at the top of your bucket list?
Gosh, I love to travel and my list is full of amazing places I want to go and see once this craziness is over. I have 4 places on top of my list: Ireland for the beautiful sunsets, landscapes, seascapes, countryside, music and culture. I visited Dublin before but now the countryside and seaside of this beautiful country are in my focus Canada is on top of my list as well together with Capri Italy and Cyclades Greece. All depends on the season. It will be difficult to choose but together with my husband we will flip the coin and go.
What’s the best advice you have ever received?
Believe in my heart, believe in myself because my voice is important and my dreams matter. My grandma used to tell me: believe in yourself and you will be unstoppable. Never give up! Don’t listen to anyone but to your heart and yourself only. Don’t stop, make baby steps. Believe in yourself no matter what happens along your way.
Another lady who’s words inspired me and I fully embrace her words is Hillary Clinton:
‘Always aim high, work hard, and care deeply about what you believe in. And, when you stumble, keep faith. And, when you’re knocked down, get right back up and never listen to anyone who says you can’t or shouldn’t go on.’
It became my motto. I refuse to listen to anyone who tells me I cannot. With the risk to repeat myself I say that many people overvalue what they are NOT and undervalue what they really are. So I say to the House of Coco readers to: never accept to be bullied into silence, never allow to be manipulated and to be made a victim; to define and re-define yourself continuously as you feel you need. Embrace your value, your talents and your strengths. Put in harmony your heart and mind. Act in harmony with your true self and your heart. Accept who you are completely, make the changes as YOU consider necessary and not because you need to fit in a place or because someone else wants you to be different. Always …always ….believe in yourself. Life is short, make it worth.
Where can we find out more…
www.ralufineart.com @ralufineart on IG, @ralufineart on FB