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Greta Rybus

Greta Rybus is a photojournalist and photo editor living in Portland. She started her blog, “Who I Met," as a way to begin juicy conversations with interesting people she meets. The blog has migrated with her from Montana, Europe, and, finally, to her new and dearly-loved home in Maine. You can see more of her work at www.gretarybus.com

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Who I Met with Greta Rybus
Posted: July 9, 2013

NATASHA DURHAM- bag designer

The internet has been blamed for so much: for ruining small businesses, for disconnecting us from one another, for overpopulating our minds and minimizing our attention. But for Natasha, and a little town in Maine called Norway, it has brought the opportunity to thrive.

Natasha started making her bags several years ago, and quickly began selling them online to people and vendors around the world. She chose picturesque Norway, with a tiny and relatively unglamorous Maine Street, to become the retail and production epicenter of her handbag business. Perhaps, because of the internet, a good product now means more than it’s location. Beauty can be sent, created, and found anywhere you can imagine.

 TELL ME ABOUT YOUR JOB?

Primarily, I’m a problem solver. I solve design problems. And I really enjoy puzzles. That’s how it all started. I’ve always enjoyed puzzles, I was obsessed with Sudoku for a while. And design is a puzzle. Especially some of the designs I do that are multi-functional. I have bags that transform into a backpack. And I find that puzzle just keeps on giving. I’m continually looking for a better way for a bag to turn into a backpack. It fascinates people, they love that they can pick up a backpack and just pull on strap and it’s a backpack.

 HOW DID YOU BEGIN MAKING BAGS?

Well, six or seven years ago, I sold my two businesses. My two fine-dining restaurants in Portland’s Old Port. And that afforded me a year and a half of play time. I often think everyone should have that; everyone should have that every ten years. A year to just really be on a sabbatical. I took that year to just really to look within, bring it down to baseline of what I enjoy doing. I wasn’t even thinking of opening a business. And I hadn’t sewn anything in 25 years. I think I had an old sewing machine. I started sewing little fabric bags, and my sister in California thought they were fabulous, ordered 12 and sold them all to her friends. Another friend told me about Etsy, so I put one on Etsy and I sold it in 30 minutes. I was hooked. I thought, “Oh, I can make things and sell them. That’s really fun!” I just wanted to do something that would entail continual problem solving. Being able to manipulate a three-dimensional object on an ongoing basis.  Some of my designs are on prototype number 40. I keep improving and changing.

 TELL ME ABOUT YOUR BUSINESS’S GROWTH.

I made bags and sold them for three years by myself. I was shipping bags all over the world- to Australia, Japan- and I was making them all myself. And at one point, I was 18 weeks behind in production. That’s when I started hiring stitchers and bringing them through an internship program to teach them to stitch. I started building my team. I now have about ten people. Putting the team together happened organically.  The first person I hired had a dozen years experience sewing bags. I just put an ad on Craigslist. I hired much more for personality than ability because you can tell when you meet someone if they have the ability to focus. If you have the ability to focus, you can learn anything.

 TELL ME ABOUT HOW YOU CAME TO NORWAY.

Very recently. I had decided to build on my property for production space for the company. I was halfway through the loan process. Then, I heard about this space in Norway. My husband found it, and I thought “Absolutely not. Why would anyone want to do retail when I have two websites that are keeping me busy eighteen hours a day?” I refused to even look at it. I woke up the next morning and I said, “I hope it’s not too late. Of course! It’s a brilliant idea!” And so we rushed over here and looked in the window, and it felt really right. And I took both available retail spaces in downtown Norway. We do all the design and finish work here, but the actual stitching happens in the sewer’s own personal studios. For me, the whole other part of the business is my team and how we all work together and support each other. I feel like I really support them, and I know every minute of everyday that I could not do this without them. I couldn’t do this without their focus and attention to detail. They were like that when I hired them, I didn’t train them to be that way. It’s an integrity.

 IN THIS AGE, PEOPLE OFTEN DON’T THINK OF CRAFT AS A VIABLE CAREER. WHAT IS IT LIKE TO THRIVE ON A BUSINESS THAT IS BASED ON ARTISTRY AND CRAFT?

What first pops into my head is that there is always a place for beautiful things. I was thinking the other day about what motivates people. What do people really want? People love beauty. It’s why people take that second job. People want beauty in their life. Beauty might be represented by that cottage on the lake. Or a cashmere blanket. Or an amazing bottle of champagne. There are certain beautiful things that we covet. And those things cannot be made by a factory. Eventually, maybe, they can be. But they have to be started by an artist, somebody who doesn’t care about time. That’s how craft starts. I’m running a business here, so I do what makes sense for the business. I do what allows me to create a product, that can be sold, that creates dollars that can go back into the business, which can generate more ability to do more creative things. What motivates me towards growth is that it allows me to design in a bigger format. It allows me better leathers, better rivet machines. I never think small. Craft doesn’t have to be small. If I’m not growing, I’ve lost interest.

 HOW DO YOU FIND YOUR AESTHETIC?

Oh, I was born with it. I’m materials-driven. Just as I was a chef for 18 years, I would look at the ingredients and they would tell me exactly what needed to happen. And if I didn’t listen, I would make a muddy, over-worked meal. And so I pick up a leather and I really listen to what it’s supposed to be doing. Every material has a specific message. I’m also fierce when it comes to my aesthetic. I’m abhorrent of deign that means nothing. My biggest pet peeve is a buckle with a magnet behind it. To me, that is the worst! I don’t like function that is not truly functional. The form has to evolve from the function. My designs are very simple. People tell me they’ve never seen anything like it. It’s because I had never made a handbag before. If you start out at zero, you’ll come up with something completely different. If you clear your mind of all preconceptions, you’ll come out with something completely different.

 WHAT IS IMPORTANT TO YOU?

It comes to my mind instantly. That all the people around me find their blissful place. That all the people around me know their importance.

 WHAT IS IT THAT YOU WANT IN YOUR LIFE?

Well, I’ve always thought I’ve wanted more time. But if I really wanted more free time, I would have created it by now. I just turned fifty a couple days ago. I have yet to create free time. I’m beginning to realize that this new venture, it’s not so much free time that I need, but just to continue to grow and be challenged.

WHAT IS A LESSON YOU HAVE LEARNED IN YOUR LIFE, OR ARE LEARNING?

Appreciation. I’m always re-learning the lesson of appreciation. My husband of 10 years threw me a surprise birthday party. Which he very well knows, that any surprises of any kind are jarring to me. But the lesson I learned was, it’s not about me. My lesson is to always get out of my head and see what people are giving me. All the people in my life are so supportive.

 WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE MOMENT OF AN AVERAGE DAY?

The first moment, the morning. Waking up. All the time, the possibility. Anything you want to do, you can. As the minutes tick by, it’s like, “Oh no! This day is ending!”

 

To see Natasha’s full line: www.roughandtumbledesign.com

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