Editor’s note: In preparation for International Women’s Day, we’re taking a trip to a few lady-owned studios around NYC to chat with them about their life and their work.
Who said utilitarian canvas bags had to be boring? Instead of having a pile of a million cheap canvas bags (I think we’re all guilty of this) or worse, plastic bags, this duo envisioned something a little different. Having met as Freshman at Brown University and becoming fast friends, Shira Entis, a womenswear designer, and Alex Bell, a lawyer, had a common goal in mind. They sought to create a canvas bag that was not only durable, but fashionable enough to be used outside of running errands. They officially started Fleabags in 2009 with the Original Flea, a sturdy canvas bag with Italian and vegetable leather details, inspired by vintage Americana.
Now, Fleabag has expanded their operations to include a full assortment of canvas and leather goods for all occasions, all made in America. More recently in 2016, Fleabags launched Immodest Cotton, a line of fashion and home products made in India from sustainably sourced cotton materials that uphold the same standards and attention to detail as the original line. Their business philosophy can be boiled down to a simple concept: every item should have a purpose.
We got a chance to visit Shira in their Sunset Park, Brooklyn studio and chat about her life as a maker and how the business is evolving. Read on below!
This Saturday, March 3rd we are hosting a west elm LOCAL Women Makers Market in the lobby of Empire Stores in Brooklyn from 11am-5pm. Ten of the inspiring women that power our New York LOCAL assortment, including Fleabags, will be setting up shop for the day to sell their product. Join us!
Photography by Lindsey Swedick
Please tell us a little about yourselves and your work.
Alex and I met at Brown University our freshman year and were fast friends. I went on to get a Master’s Degree in Fashion Design from The Savannah college of Art & Design, while Alex went to Law School at NYU.
I always dreamed of having my own company. In 2008 Alex and I were doing a lot of weekend flea-marketing, and craved a cool, sturdy USA-made bag that could fit our wares, and we couldn’t find one in the marketplace. So we decided to make one ourselves, we called it the Original Flea, and that’s how we started our business!
Tell us about the evolution from a singular goal (creating a functional flea market canvas bag), to then evolving and creating a full line of leather goods, accessories and now, Immodest Cotton?
Our original aim was to create a toolbag for women that was made in the USA, but our line has expanded to bags, totes and accessories inspired by a simple and timeless aesthetic, purposeful construction and refined details.
We like the contrast between high and low materials – canvas and leather- to create products that work in a variety of settings. As the years have gone by, we’ve realized how important is to have purpose in design- to create something that is unique or is genuinely better-made than other similar products. Quality is key, there is so much waste in this industry, with items that are literally made to be worn for a season then tossed. We want to make products that will be around and well-loved for many many years.
IMMODEST COTTON came about organically from a trip to India in 2015, where we met people we wanted to work with. This included a family that owns a handbag factory and another that makes textiles using hand block-prints. There are just certain limits to what you can produce in the U.S., and we wanted to be able to expand our price-point and design possibilities.
Where do you seek inspiration for each design?
I mostly just try to keep my eyes and ears open; I pay attention to people on the subway, find things at flea markets, etc. I also look at a lot of nature books. Hummingbirds and insects are an amazing source for color inspiration!
Tell us about your studio space.
Our studio is in an old industrial building in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, a few blocks from the water.
It has high ceilings and a lot of natural light, and a large farm table at its’ center. I’ve been trying to be more minimalist by getting rid of things I no longer need, but it’s so hard. I’m a collector by nature!
What does a typical work day look like for you?
I’m usually at the studio with one or two assistants. I try to create a productive but fun/giggle-y atmosphere. I think everyone does better when they are happy and doing work that is challenging but relevant to their interests.
We listen to music and NPR most of the day and drink a lot of coffee. My day is often filled with a bunch of administrative stuff. I’ve learned that as a business owner the admin takes up a majority of your time. If I’m not visiting a factory, then I am likely on the phone with them.
We spend a lot of time designing new products and sewing mock-ups. I used to make miniatures of every design but, sadly, it was taking up too much time. We take all of our product shots in our studio, so I’ve learned to be an amateur photographer as well. The day usually goes by pretty quickly with so much to do.
What, in your experience, have been the biggest challenges in starting and sustaining your own business?
Neither Alex nor I had true business experience before we started our company, so the last 9 years have sort of been like getting a very slow-moving MBA. We tried to do everything ourselves without asking for help (I’ve seen a lot of female entrepreneurs doing the same), and we may have missed some opportunities to bring in advice or experts when we could have benefitted from them.
The financial aspect of starting a business and continuing to grow is something we still struggle with. Neither of us realized how much capital you need to expand a business. You can’t just rest on your laurels and continue making your best sellers, you need to evolve and change and update.
What is it like being a maker in America right now?
There is such a groundswell of support for the movement right now, it’s a very exciting moment and it feels pretty different from when we started. I think it will be while before most people are willing to pay more for American-made goods, but if we continue to educate consumers I think we can definitely get there.
What do you love most about your community in Brooklyn?
There are just so many amazing women artists, makers and entrepeneurs in Brooklyn. It feels like a small but ever-expanding community that really seeks to support one another. I cherish having so many people I can get inspiration and advice from on a daily basis.
Top 5 places you need to visit in Brooklyn?