Photos by Steve Smith, VisionFire Studios
Eco-conscious bag designer Tabitha Co has business well in hand
You have to admire her pluck. Breaking into the fashion manufacturing industry in Atlantic Canada from a little studio in her home on the Westside of New Glasgow takes some moxie. However, the timing might just be perfect for Tabitha Co and her signature handbag brand TABITHA+ CO. With greater awareness of the fashion industries growing reputation for being one of the biggest global polluters, more people, even the most fashion conscious are on the hunt for responsibly and ethically produced garments and accessories.
It’s a mutli-billion dollar a year industry. Every season there is the hunt for the latest trend, that perfect workbag or clutch for a night out on the town. Handbags can take up as much or even more space in most women’s closets as their shoe collection. Each one of those bags is part of an endless consumer demand for goods that are updated more often than suggestions to your Netflix account. The call for a more sustainable fashion industry is being heard and responded to, but even products like vegan leather come with an environmental price tag and footprint. Tabitha believes that by creating something new out of materials that are already in stream she is finding her place in the solution and the growing number of small manufacturers that are finding their tribe and getting praise for their fashion forward, mindfully produced designs.
Sustainability, timelessness and eco-awareness are all part of Tabitha’s personal fabric, woven into her life story and now engrained into her leather products that not only carry her name but her philosophy.
“The environment comes into play personally and professionally. Creating mindfully made products that are timeless to ensure clients gain longevity from their investments. From up cycling to sourcing ethical materials that follow my values is very important. I continue to explore this as my company grows and evolves,” says Tabitha.
Creating something beautiful from something that already exists was not a new idea for Tabitha. She laughs but cautiously tells the tale of a time when she was a young girl growing up on the South Shore of Nova Scotia and she got her hands on a much admired blouse belonging to her Mum. “I completely took it apart. I really needed to see how it was made but I felt so guilty about doing this to my Mum’s blouse.” It’s apparent that all has been forgiven. Her Mum Wendy was her first customer after she launched her business in February 2018.
Forays into fashion design, educational and manufacturing have all been part of Tabitha’s journey. She created her own fashion line for a project in college that made the runway during an Atlantic Festival of Fashion. Her studies in design and manufacturing at several academic and trade schools set her on the right trajectory to learn the business from several different angles. She used her talents as a designer at WearWell Garments in Stellarton and when life took her to Halifax she did design work for a small sports wear company.
When Tabitha returned to Pictou County when her children were still very young she channeled her energy for environmental consciousness and became involved with the Green Schools movement that works to enhance environmental sustainability at schools.
Creativity is constantly tapping on Tabitha’s door. Even when she was not actively engaged in design and manufacturing work it was always present. She says that when her kids were little they didn’t know about her work but they knew that their Mum was pretty handy with the sewing machine. “I would often hear, Mum can you make this and the answer was always yes.”
Tabitha will say that her children, Ben and Abby, have always been her greatest inspiration but she also found a confidence and a passion while working with her mentor Paul Marcella, a master craftsman from Boylston, Guysborough County, well known in the trade for his attention to detail and beautiful, enduring products. She spent 10 months with Paul and still maintains a connection and looks for feedback on her work and pursuits for exceptional quality.
Tabitha’s client list continues to grow with her brand awareness. Last fall she was invited to participate in Atlantic Fashion Week. She was one of 32 east coast designers, including Caribou Island’s Carrie Lamb and her dazzling jewelry line Frida, showcasing the very best of the industry and demonstrating the strength and innovation that can place Atlantic fashion arts on the national level.
Less than a year out of the gate since the launch of her line Tabitha says that she felt a huge sense off accomplishment when her creations hit the runway at the fashion showcase.
“I was back stage prepping models with my friend volunteers so I didn’t get to see my creations in the same way that the audience did but I will tell you that I felt a huge sense of accomplishment when I heard my company name being introduced and to see my company logo projected onto the screen.”
From her studio and showroom in New Glasgow Tabitha continues to work on new design ideas, research hand source ecologically sourced materials and refine her skills. She takes pride in her attention to the tiniest of details From tying and burning of tiny fragments of threads to the positioning of buckles and straps so the bags not only look beautiful but they can stand up to the wear and tear of a woman on the go and feel fantastic when you are wearing them.
Her mindfulness extends to the reduction of waste that is often object of criticism in the fashion industry. She finds ways to use the remnants from her pattern cuttings to make key chains or stamp with her company name to brand her products. From there, anything left is gathered and Tabitha sends them a little farther upstream to her friend and artist Kim Danio who up cycles shoes and handbags into whimsical pieces of art. “It’s important to me to be respectful and support other designers along the way throughout this ever-evolving industry,” says Tabitha thinking of her expanding network.
There is a familiar, almost soothing scent from the leather that lingers in the air in Tabitha’s studio. There is a rack that holds layers of hides of different colours and textures, several shelves displaying her products and a framed sign on the wall that says, “I made your bag.” There is modesty to Tabitha as she shares her story and speaks about her talents. Like the leather she works with there is a softness to her exterior but you know that this gentleness gives way to something quite resilient and strong. As is the experience of most entrepreneurs and creative deployments she has taken her knocks. Balancing her aspirations with family life is an on-going challenge and sometimes deflecting the naysayers.
“Starting a company takes courage. It comes with many changes and risk. I have learned that I am a lot stronger than I give myself credit for. It’s important for me to show my two children to find what brings them joy, pursue it passionately and to make mistakes. This is all part of the process. If you work hard, doing something that you love, that in itself is a life success.”
She believes that she is just scratching the surface of the fashion industry and has endless exploration and excitement ahead of her. She doesn’t get caught up on what top fashion houses are producing. Her joy is in creating products with purpose and giving her clients long lasting joy. She’s not sure what will be next in her product evolution. But there is one thing for sure. Tabitha Co-is-on-the-go!