The show fashion and locavore movements have made it more viable for independent artists and artisans to attempt to make a living selling their work, but starting a business in the crowded retail world is an arduous task for anyone. To get a better idea of the trials of an artisan-cum-entrepreneur, I asked Ariana, owner of the Las Vegas-based leather craft shop, The Odd Portrait, about her experience.
[responses have been edited for clarity and conciseness]
FF: What made you want to get into the handmade and artisan retail world?
TOP: I have always been a crafter, I started out at the young age of two, making my own paper dolls and their clothes. My mother did not believe in giving a child many toys, she [instead] believed they should use their imagination. My friend had a Barbie house and I wanted one so badly, but my mom said no, so I grabbed a cardboard box and made my own.
Ever since then if I wanted something, I would make it. I used to sew beads onto my sweaters to embellish them to make them look like what I wanted but couldn’t afford. I’d buy pieces at Good Will and make them look like I saw in the movies; 10 Things I Hate About You was a favorite when I was younger and provided much of the inspiration for my sweater creations. From my crafty childhood, it was a natural progression into what is now The Odd Portrait. Its first incarnation was a way for me to sell my portraits and Day of the Dead paintings at local events and as a street vendor. Not everyone can buy a $200 painting, so I decided venture into handmade jewelry. I wanted to give people the chance to buy amazing custom products at an affordable price.
I worked retail most my life, from sales associate to manager, large corporations to indie shops. My worst experience involved working at a boutique for an owner who was pretty much Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada. Mannequins would fly across the room in her tantrums, and customers that wouldn’t buy were flipped off behind their backs. Those types of toxic environments go against every fiber of my being and business ethic. The prices and the designers’ ego were so over-inflated that I could not take it anymore and left, proclaiming that I was going to start my own business. I want to give the people who, like me, cannot buy a $500 dollar purse a similar, handmade version for $50-$80.00 while making money doing what I love.
FF: What challenges do you face as a shop owner who sources your products responsibly that traditional retailers do not?
TOP: We pay a higher price for labor and materials, so we can’t compete with places like Forever 21. We buy smaller batches of materials and buy from local sources as much as we can. We don’t mass produce anything; everything is unique, making it difficult to run an online shop, our only means of sales. A lot of work goes into listing each separate item. From composing photo shoots and editing the final photos to updating our website, much of my time is spent doing busy work. In the end, it is worth every minute.
FF: Do you create all the items sold in your shop, or do you also feature other local brands? If so, how to you select designers and products to be included in your shop?
TOP: I’ve made every single item in the shop – they’re my babies. I would also love to have other designers featured in the shop soon. I’d first start by soliciting those in the locals in the art community here in Las Vegas. I know and love many of them and their amazing work. I want to play a part in building my community. I promote a lot of our local talent, “it takes a village” is my mantra in both raising my son and my business.
FF: Do you do any vetting of your designers and leather suppliers to ensure they aren’t “greenwashing,” or pretending to be handmade or locally sourced?
TOP: I’m embarrassed to say that I do not, I work around the clock and haven’t gotten to that yet. I work with reputable companies that I trust, but I have not done the extra leg work and research to fully confirm their business practices. I am just now starting to incorporate interns into the business, so that is something that is on our priority to-do list.
FF: How do you feel about the sentiment that artisan or handcrafted items are only for the wealthy?
TOP: That’s nonsense. There are so many talented artists whose work is competitively priced against that of the factory presses in China. They don’t make nearly as much quantity as you find in mass-produced markets, but they work 20 times harder. They are out there in droves, you just have to do a little digging to find them. We have and continue to write articles and blogs about such people and we our hoping to give them a stronger online presence to reach more people looking for their goods.
FF: Part of what I try to do in writing about ethical and sustainable fashion is encourage shoppers to buy fewer, higher quality items. As a shop owner, how do you reconcile the need for sales and a dedication to quality? In other words, shops like Forever 21 make items that are built to fall apart to encourage young women to buy more often. What sales strategy do you use to encourage sales without relying on artificial obsolescence?
We use both recycled items and scrap leather in our shop; it helps keep our overhead low so we can create high-quality handmade items that are competitively priced. We push our uniqueness and tell a story that shows customers to what we stand for. Everyone is unique in their own way, and they should have the option to wear fashion that reflects that. We are more of I guess you could say an alternative style brand.
FF: What do you hope to accomplish with the Odd Portrait?
TOP: I hope to grow it to the point where I can also carry items made by up-and-coming designers to give them a bigger platform. We’ve learned so much, and it’s taken a very long time to get to this point. I hope to use what I’ve learned to establish a collaborative company with a great spirit and soul that carries handcrafted goods from around the world.
FF: What made you get into leather working? What is your intended aesthetic?
Funny story, I am actual a vegetarian having had been a strict vegan for a long time. I had not touched leather in over 10 years when I took a job at a leather shop. It was a war in my soul between my animal loving side and my artist side— then I fell head over heels with this media. The feel, the texture, and the designs flooded my mind every time I touched this once-forbidden material. I know this might make me a horrible person and a sell-out, but I could not help myself. I felt like Eve eating the forbidden fruit, it was just too amazing and I could not help myself. With that said, I do try to appease my consciences by buying used leather and leather scraps for most my designs, but I will if I see a wonderful print, I will buy a new hide. I am currently considering a pineapple leather-alternative and am constantly researching other alternatives. I’m planning to release a line of burlap that I’m still in the process of perfecting, since it has structural problems that you don’t find with leather. This was not my first choice it just kind of happened, leather the forbidden fruit of the media.