A few weeks ago, we featured socially conscious designer, Marissa Perry Saints of Dsenyo handbags. We contacted her and were fortunate enough to set up an interview. She is an amazing person working towards a very important cause. We hope that this interview can inspire not only aspiring designers and artists, but everyone who would like to make a social impact.
1. What inspired you to start your handbag line Dsenyo?
I lived in Malawi, a small country in Central Africa, in 2006 with my husband Jon. While living there I volunteered with the schools doing mural projects, coached a girls’ soccer team and worked on my fine arts painting. About once a week, I would take myself on little “artist dates” to the fabric markets in town for creative inspiration. I immediately fell in love with the vibrant colors and designs! Whatever I was drawn to in the moment became part of my growing African textile collection. As a painter, I had no idea at the time what would become of these fabrics.
As I developed relationships in the community through my volunteer work, I was struck by the level of poverty at which most people lived. Even living in the “city”, most of my soccer girls lived in mud brick homes with thatched roofs, no running water or electricity. They came to practice barefoot, wearing skirts, since they didn’t have shorts or shoes. Friends my own age young men and women in their early to mid twenties, lived with their parents and worked the small family farm. 80% of the population are subsistence farmers, trying to grow enough food to feed the family for an entire year. When asked why they don’t go out to look for a job, the answer was simple...there are NO jobs. Even someone fortunate enough to get a high school education can’t find work. The idea was pretty clear to me, my Malawian friends needed jobs and they needed to be trained with an employable skill. It’s the classic proverbial “Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day, or teach a man to fish, and he will eat for a lifetime.”
2. Did you go to school for design or are you a self-taught designer?
My degree is in International Studies from the University of Arizona, where I focused on economic development. I’m a jack of all trades type of gal. I have worked as a fine arts painter for several years and have a natural eye for design. I learned to sew as a kid and have always been good with my hands.
Over the past few years, I have taught myself how to design handbags and accessories by hijacking my step-mom’s 1960’s sewing machine (permanently on loan to me) and just going at it! I sketched designs, rented books from the public library, dissected handbags to study how they were constructed, studied other designers by going to stores and sketching their designs, etc. I’m still learning...it never ends!
I tend to dive into things with a lot of energy, a willingness to learn along the way and accept that the end result might not be exactly what I had in mind from the beginning. Some of the best art and the best designs happen by “accident”.
3. Where do you draw your inspirations from? What sparks your inspiration?
My inspiration comes primarily from my travels and the relationships I have built with incredible women and artisans in Malawi. Here at home, I draw my inspiration from the seasons, morning walks with my dog and people around me. I always keep a sketchbook and digital camera with me to capture interesting shapes and designs I come across in daily life. You can see some of those inspirations that I’ve shared on my blog. Most recently, another thing that sparks my creativity is thriftiness. I do my best not to throw anything away in my studio. I love digging through my boxes of scrap fabrics, repurposing a burlap rice bag, and incorporating other recycled materials into new designs.
4. What was the defining moment when you realized you wanted to weave your design ideas into a career?
In December 2007, I had been designing handbags for about two months, when I took a little retreat with my family up to Steamboat Springs, Colorado. It’s a special place, my father grew up skiing with his father in Steamboat and likewise my sisters and I grew up skiing with our dad up there. I took some time to journal and make a list of ambitious Life Goals (inspired by a message from Pastor Mark Batterson of National Church).
I realized that my biggest goal was to find a way to merge what I’ve always viewed as varied and scattered interests (art, international development, and business). Then, another goal that appeared on the list was to help Tamala Banda, my best friend in Malawi, find a stable job to be able to provide for herself and her daughter. At the time, Tamala, 25 years old, had just lost her mother to AIDS (her father had died of the disease several years before) and was a single mom of a two year old trying to make it on her own.
It clicked. Why don’t I hire Tamala and other women to make the bags and export them here for sale! Not a novel idea by any means, but a perfect combination of art, design, business and economic opportunity for marginalized people in a part of the world that is near and dear to my heart. How wonderful to be part of a story with purpose larger than myself.
5. What would you like to share about Dsenyo’s philosophies and initiatives?
Dsenyo is a social venture with two core missions:
First and foremost, Dsenyo was created to provide stable economic opportunity for women and artisans in Africa. Secondly, Dsenyo is committed to using sustainable fibers and creating minimal impact on the environment. We offer our customers an “old for new” recycling program to prevent our bags from ending up in landfills. Third, Dsenyo is committed to offering fashionable, high quality accessories featuring unique African textiles. I put a lot of creative effort into designing bags that have interesting and attractive forms but are equally functional.
6. What are some of the obstacles you have faced with Dsenyo? How did you overcome them?
One of the biggest obstacles that we are still working on, is simply getting production in Malawi off the ground. Currently, we are training women in Malawi to make the bags, and in the meantime are having them made here in USA.
It’s a chicken and egg scenario for me running the business. Do we start with the training in Malawi and go tens of thousands of dollars in debt without knowing whether or not the product will sell? Or do we start selling a US-made product, while telling the story of where we ultimately want to be, and raise money to reinvest in training and do market testing at the same time?
We aren’t funded by any big grants, V.C. or angel money. Operating off of personal savings means that we need to bootstrap to keep the business afloat. Ideally, I would spend all of my time working with the women and artisans in Malawi, but at the moment it’s equally important for me to spend time on sales and marketing, building demand here first. Knowing what type of product will sell is what will make the jobs we create in Malawi stable. If I start creating jobs and make the company go bankrupt after only one year, I’m actually doing our friends in Malawi a disservice by getting their hopes up and not fulfilling my promise.
So, the obstacle at hand, is getting high quality production up and running in a country that doesn’t have a developed export system or Fair Trade community. Our solution is a hybrid model. Make and sell bags in the U.S. using African textiles, to fund the training and production start-up in Malawi. Slowly introduce one product at a time made in Malawi and transition to an entirely made in Malawi model after a couple years.
7. What one advice would you give to aspiring artists & designers trying to make it on their own?
Follow your heart and your dreams. Life is too short not to do what you love. Also, pay attention to your natural talents, those are gifts that you have been given and you have a responsibility to share them with the world. Since it can be difficult to sustain yourself economically while you are pursuing your dream, I recommend finding a job that you can do part-time or freelance to help you get started. I used to do a lot of freelance graphic design. It was creative, flexible, and gave me an income to pay the bills. I think it’s really healthy to pursue dreams that are bigger than yourself and that may seem almost impossible. By pursuing them one baby step at a time, taking risks, and asking for help along the way, it’s an amazing practice in faith. The synchronicity that will start to happen, working in your favor, will astonish you.
8. What’s on the horizon for Dsenyo?
Oh! There are exciting things on the horizon for Dsenyo. We are starting to partner with Non-profit affiliates here in the U.S. and Europe. They can sell our bags on their website or via link we provide, and 30% of sales come directly back to their organization. We are featuring hand-dyed batiks from Tanzania in our Winter Collection which will be available, Nov. 1st, just in time for the holidays! Sign up on our newsletter to be the first to know when they are available. We are speaking with an artisan’s cooperative about hand-painted textiles for our Spring/Summer 2010 collection. We are also developing many new designs including jewelry which repurposes our remnant pieces saving them from the landfill. And of course, our first Malawian-made bags should be coming in for Fall/Winter 2010!
9. What was a question you wish we would’ve addressed that I didn’t ask?”
How can I (the reader) get involved with Dsenyo and be part of the story?
There are many ways to get involved supporting Dsenyo and our goals!
1. You can always buy a bag knowing that the money spent is being reinvested into training and developing production with women and artisans in Malawi. Additionally, Dsenyo donates 3% of all revenue to community development projects like wells for access to clean water and school scholarships. (http://dsenyo.etsy.com).
2. You can host a Trunk Show at your home or business (email me for details firstname.lastname@example.org).
3. You can be an online affiliate! Dsenyo will give you a link to our online store that you can pass along to friends via email or post on your blog/website. The link is traceable, and you will be paid 15% of any sales generated from that link. You can also choose to donate that 15% back to community projects in Malawi that we support.
4. You can recommend a non-profit as an online affiliate. We will track sales generated through their link and donate 30% back to that organization. It’s a great way for non-profits to allow their supporters to raise funds while shopping.