As part of our ongoing showcase of local designers and makers, we sat down with Patti Dunn, proprietor and Creative Director of Tchoup Industries for a conversation about fur purses, snoballs, and recycled wool curtains.
When did you make your first bag?
Like ever in life?
I was in high school and a friend of mine and I designed and made bags out of fur that were these little spherical fur purses.
My mom’s a seamstress and always has been. Actually, my dad taught my mom how to sew. My dad used to work for a bag company called Poor Cow. It was a leather bag company in the 70s.
Poor Cow? Are they still around?
No they’re not around anymore.
That’s an amazing name.
That name would actually be incredibly successful right now.
I know…maybe that’s my next concept.
So my dad taught my mom to sew, and my mom sewed us clothes. Then my friend and I wanted to make our own bags cause we were trying to be fiercely independent of trends and be in the forefront of fashion in our high school. We wanted to make bags, these little purse-bags that nobody else would have. So my mom and I sat down and figured them out.
It was purely so that you guys would stand out…
Exactly. We figured out a pattern and we sewed the bags—and I included that bag in my portfolio when I applied to design school. I went to college for industrial design at North Carolina State. I grew up in North Carolina.
Where in North Carolina?
I grew up in Winterville, North Carolina, which is about an hour and a half from the coast, on the eastern side of the state where there’s a lot of farming. I was ready to get out of there by the time I was graduating high school and then when I graduated college, I left the state, got a bunch of jobs, and tried to learn as much as possible.
What sort of jobs were you getting?
My first job was with the Coleman Company doing family camping products. They were looking for a designer that wanted to work with fabric and sewn products. It was a really great opportunity because I was right out of school designing tents and sleeping bags, bags that were then mass-produced and sold all over the country—mostly at big box stores like Target and Wal-Mart, but it was a really good experience.
Then I worked for a couple “original design manufacturers." They’re companies that work with clients and manufacturers and they basically create collections for brands that are then made in China and managed by that company. Through those jobs I learned a lot about manufacturing. I went to China a lot, just saw everything first-hand and was working with great brands. I was living in Colorado for one of these jobs and working with REI and Orvis fly-fishing gear and stuff like that so I gained a lot of good knowledge about the quality that goes into outdoor products—materials and durability.
I guess what’s most known about Tchoup Bags beyond just its unique style and being locally made, is the materials that you’re using.
I always had in the back of my head this dream of starting my own collection and trying out my own brand. It really didn’t come together for me until after the Deep Horizon oil spill. In my personal life, I was trying to figure out ways to not be dependent on oil, like "what in my life can change so I’m less dependent on oil?"
So I started riding my bike more but I was also thinking a lot about the products I was designing for the outdoor industry. I love outdoor bags cause they’re really built to last and carry for any situation but they're all nylon, synthetic. They have coatings on them that are also synthetic oil-based, and I just thought: wouldn’t it be refreshing if there were some all-natural options?
It kinda went hand and hand too with this outdoor retro trend; people looking to vintage bags for style trends. It just kind of all started to really make sense that this could be a locally-made brand, too, because the shapes are simpler and we can get a lot of these natural materials locally. It was really fun to dig in and just see what was still here in our backyard in terms of materials and components. I had some great help sourcing some recycled components too that I didn’t have to buy or collect piece by piece but that were being thrown out by manufacturers and things like that.
What were some of the first folks or who are some of the current folks that you source materials from?
We get our recycled rice bags from Crowley. They’re basically misprinted rice bags that they just have piles of and are trying to get rid of. We get our recycled webbing from an auto manufacturer based out of Tennessee. They have runs of webbing that will be rejected by the auto industry because they have minor flaws or the color’s not quite right. My favorite is our recycled wool curtains, and those came from an architecture office here in town. That’s cool because there’s just so much of it, now we have yards and yards of great wool fabric.
How do you discover—how do you stumble upon someone getting rid of wool curtains?
Well, that’s really word of mouth. Luckily, my husband was working for the architecture office that was getting ride of the curtains.
So when you run out of the wool curtain material, that’s the end of that bag.
Yeah, it’s the end.
So there’s something about the limited supply of reused materials that also forces you to have limited-edition runs.
Right. And I think it’s really cool. It forces more creativity on our part and it tells a more unique story. It’s more special for people buying the bags. We did a survey recently with our current customers, and a big response we received was to incorporate more recycled fabrics. So I’m going to have to get better about seeking them out, figuring out what is there that people are throwing away that would be easy for us to turn into bags.
So when did you launch?
We established the business January 2013. We’d been working on prototypes for a couple months before then. Our first launch of products was at the Bucket Brigade Earth Day Festival April 2013.
What are some of the brands that you really respect?
Well my big inspiration was Melanzana—a fleece apparel company out of Leadville, Colorado. I visited their shop just in passing—cause I lived in Colorado for a little over a year—just in passing when I was in Leadville one time. I was really impressed with the operation they had. It was a small business, they made everything in the back of the shop, they sold everything right up front. But it was a 10-year-old business and they were doing great; everybody loved them and supported them. I thought, "This is really cool and this is the kind of thing I really want to support." That visit really shaped what Tchoup Industries became. We are more and more looking like that business model.
How big is your team?
We have three sewers, a cutter and part-time marketing/PR manager. All in all, five people and myself.
What are your goals in terms of scaling the brand?
It’s an interesting question we are currently facing. We needed to either expand our production capacity or be a little bit more choosy about what we put through our production, and my choice- partly driven by cost - was to scale back a little bit and keep it small. It gives us a lot more flexibility. We don’t have to have strictly standardized products that need to be the same everywhere through all our distribution channels. If we keep it small, we can be more creative and have more one-of-a-kind of bags.
Too often, I think, I definitely deal with this when I’m dealing with my other half, with web development startup stuff, is it’s all about scale and bigger and better and number one, and if you’re not huge then it’s a failure or whatever. And there’s something to be said for I guess what’s called in the startup world as a “lifestyle” company. It does well, people like it, it makes money, everyone’s happy, it doesn’t have to be huge. It can be something that’s manageable and not driving you crazy. Because when you try and scale your company and you get a lot bigger and you start creating layers of hierarchy or structure to the company, at some point the thing that you love doing is going to become what everyone else is doing and you’ve become the manage, the overseer, of everyone else’s duties rather than the person who’s actively creating, and so I guess it comes down to a founder’s, what do they want to be? Is it something you’re trying to build to sell to another brand? Great. To make a lot of money in the future? Or is it something you want to build and you want this to just be what you do?
Exactly. All of those things have been floating around in my head these past few weeks. And I think you definitely vocalized some of the conclusions I came to. It’s my company—what do I want it to be? I know I’m not going to make a million dollars off of this, because I’m not a business person and I think it would be so much work, painful work, that I don’t want to know about, to get it to be at that point. I want this to continue to be something I really love and I really can stand behind, too, from an ethical perspective, so that’s helping me make some of those decisions and driving that. And we’re focusing on the quality of what we’re doing instead of the quantity and not just from a product standpoint but what are we spending our time on and making, and making sure that is giving us the most traction for the business.
What would be advice you’d give to someone younger, maybe someone coming out of high school or coming out of college, who may want to get involved in the industry that you’re in?
I would say try to work for as many companies that are similar to what you hope to do. I was working for really big corporations. I wish I’d worked more with smaller companies just to learn about the struggles of a small company and maybe to glean more about the decisions that are made or how they handle certain customer-service situations or things like that.
I wish I’d worked for a company just like mine before I started this. That would’ve helped a lot.
Right. Maybe even like intern or moonlight.
Yeah, volunteer, in any way possible.
I guess part of it, too, is this is my first business and I really didn’t know how far it would go. I feel like each year is kind of like a test: OK, we’re going to make this many bags and if that goes well, we’ll keep going. But it’s getting to the point where we have people working for us and there’s demand there, so we need to have a little bit more organization and direction and have a clear plan of what we’re doing.
So, now we have some standard questions that we ask anyone we're profiling on our blog.
What should someone add to their bucket list for experiencing New Orleans and the surrounding parishes?
That's a good one. I've been giving a bunch of suggestions out to people lately. It's been on my mind. I feel like you have to visit a park or some kind of natural landscape while you're here. You know the easiest thing is for tourists to sign up for a swamp tour but one of the good ones, on the air boats. Going down to Jean LaFitte Park, going up to the Northshore to Fountainbleau, just getting a glimpse of what the natural landscape looks like around here. It's so magical, and really a lot of it is absent from the city of New Orleans, you know, because we've just inhabited it and civilized it. It's just so unique and such a strong part of the history here.
What does it mean to be a New Orleanian?
If you're a New Orleanian, you're not facing your world and your problems the same way as the rest of the United States. It needs to be a little bit more creative, and a little bit more flexible.
What do you mean by flexible?
New Orleans is such a great city, and there's so much we all love about it, but there's also a lot of things that you have to work around, that you have to learn to flow around. Crazy pot holes and road construction that lasts forever, and systems that just aren't quite working correctly yet. You have to be able to adjust your day around that stuff.
There's a visual in my head when I've thought about that exact sentiment of maneuvering the city. It's making your way through a crowd. There seems to be a skill set we have in being able to get from a to b.
Yeah, case in point: Mardi Gras. I live in the Lower Garden District. I'm in the Bermuda Triangle of Mardi Gras parades. If I leave too late to try to get somewhere, I hit Tchoupitoulas and the floats are already coming down. You gotta know you're way around and out.
What's great about your street or block?
We're the only house on our side of the block, so there's a lot of potential for good growth, and I'm excited about what's gonna be popping up there soon.
Who do you respect as creators of culture or great community members in New Orleans?
That's a good one. There's so much that's new happening in New Orleans, and I think it's so nice how there's this new wave of projects happening and it's like everybody's putting their favorite parts about New Orleans into them, their own part of that story. Like Kathi who is my shopmate, she's making DVRA clutches and pouches. And there's a lot of people making women's handbags, but she takes pictures of fruit that's growing in her own back yard and has fabric printed with it and then makes these wonderfully colorful and lively pouches. There's something that makes it so genuine to New Orleans. She's sharing this very intimate piece of her New Orleans experience and I appreciate all of the new startup companies who are bringing that sense of intimacy to the forefront.
What's your favorite snoball flavor?
Definitely anything with ice cream in it. And I usually either keep it really traditional with cherry or strawberry, or I like the satsuma flavor. With ice cream it's like a dreamsicle.
Who would be your ultimate festival headliner?
I've been paying attention to more of the smaller guys in the music scene, so it'd be really great if some of my smaller local favorites could headline.
The Figs. I love them
We'll make that happen.
What do you do on Mardi Gras Day?
I used to live in the Bywater, and we were right on Clouet street, near where one of the feeds of the St. Anne Costume Parade starts. So that was my Mardi Gras day. I'd wake up at 7am to the sounds of the Skeleton Krewe. I'd hang out on the street, drinking with my neighbors, and make my way through the Quarter, have a po-boy from Verti Marte because I'm really hungry by the time we get there and then end up at the river, the Moonwalk, and then make my way back home.
Lastly, selfishly, what's your favorite Dirty Coast design?
Well, the one I've worn the longest is the tree with the beads. I think that's my first one and I still wear it all the time.
I like that one. It's simple. It's insider, and no one would get it outside of New Orleans
That's how we felt when we named Tchoup Industries. No one's gonna get it. No one knows how to spell it. But if you live in New Orleans, you do. We wanted something that when somebody saw the label, they knew it was local right away.