Maker Profile: Margaret Hennessey, Handbag Designer
Hi Margaret! Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m Margaret! I started my business back in 2015, and launched my first line of all leather handbags under the label Margaret Hennessey this past summer. I settled in Durham, NC in 2010, and have loved being part of the creative community here.
What is your background (i.e. education, previous jobs, experiences that led you to create)?
I have taken a wandering, scenic route to where I am now. I went to St. John’s College, which has a unique program in which all students read the “great books” of Western civilization. Sometimes I just say I majored in philosophy, which isn’t quite true but is easier to explain! After graduating, I worked as a cook in a fancy restaurant kitchen for a year. Then I got a ride out to Santa Fe, NM and worked at a museum exhibit design firm as a project manager. Then I moved out to an avocado ranch in California with my then-boyfriend, and we lived in a camping tent for five months while trying to build a yurt. That was...hard! When we had run out of money and our tent had fallen apart, we drove across the country to Durham and slept in a friend’s dining room for a month. I got a job as an art teacher, then went back to school to get my teaching certification in secondary math. I taught high school math for a couple years, spent about five minutes in a PhD program studying pure mathematics before realizing I had miscalculated (pun intended!), then dropped out and worked as a project manager for an education research project. I still have one foot in that world. The one constant throughout all of these adventures has been my desire to work autonomously and make things with my hands. I was doing education research full time when I started my business in 2015, and I would get up in the dark to work on designs before work, then stay up late to finish them. I’m still a fan of spreadsheets and logistical thinking, so I enjoy the challenge of being strategic about how to build my business while also getting to be hands-on in the actual construction of the bags.
When did you start working with leather and how did that transform into creating bags?
My earlier designs from 2015 were hand painted canvas bags with leather bottoms. I didn’t know much about how to manipulate leather at that point, but the designs were simple enough that I could start to figure it out. I’ve spent the last two years scrutinizing every bag I see, watching many instructional videos on YouTube, and spending hours and hours experimenting. I love the engineering challenge of bags...they’re sculptural, but also need to bear weight and accommodate volume. There are so many solutions to the basic challenge of “How can I carry my stuff around?”, and some of them are quite beautiful.
When did you begin your business, Margaret Hennessey?
I originally founded my brand as Hennessey Handmade in 2015, then, after learning a lot about what not to do, relaunched in summer 2017 as Margaret Hennessey. It has been a little scary using my one and only name as the name of my brand, but it feels right to me. It truly is an expression of myself, and I’m excited to see what it will turn into.
How do you source your materials and what goes into the creation of one of your designs?
There’s so much waste in the conventional fashion supply chain. When it comes to making something out of an animal, that waste is particularly egregious to me. I source my leather from a distributor that sells overstock from reputable American tanneries. Right now I’m working in Horween leather, which comes from a Chicago-based tannery that is over 100 years old and uses traditional techniques. Because I buy overstock, the supply is unreliable. That means that my bags are all limited edition; once I run out of that particular leather, it’s usually gone for good. But since I’m working in such small quantities and want to make pieces in limited runs anyway, I see this as an asset. Customers know they are helping to cut waste from the supply chain, and also that they have something that very few other people have.
Your designs are beautiful, while still being functional. Did you have a customer in mind when you are creating?
Thank you! The customer is me. I obsess over the functionality of each bag, while making sure that the design remains refined. I carry around all the prototypes I make and think about how they work in different circumstances, with different kinds of clothes, and with different things inside the bag. I don’t want a bag with 10 pockets. I want a bag with maybe two very thoughtfully placed pockets that look beautiful. I want a look to be elevated by one of my bags, so people with a discerning eye will notice that they’re seeing something special.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
Because of my background in math, I’m interested in the most elegant and beautiful solutions to design problems, and I’m always pushing myself toward refinement. I find inspiration for that everywhere—in clothing design, in architecture, in paintings. But even though I’m looking for refinement and a certain minimalism, I also want my pieces to be sensuous and organic. The leather should smell and feel good, and the lines should evoke something you could find in nature.
From the perspective of starting a creative business without a roadmap, I draw inspiration from my dad every day. He is an incredibly talented photographer who has worked in the photography book publishing industry for 35 years. His job is to ensure that an original photograph is faithfully reproduced in the totally different medium of book printing. He taught himself how to do this very subtle work in a darkroom (it’s called making “separations”) and when he foresaw that he was going to go out of business if he didn’t switch to digital methods, he taught himself how to do the same work on a computer, right as the technology was first being developed. He’s one of the best in the world at what he does, and I always like to check the back of photography books for his name. He encourages me to stick with my work and not get hung up on setbacks, because I think he sees himself in me.
How do you connect with your supporters and community?
I can be a bit of a shrinking violet on Instagram, but I’m getting better. I’m an introvert who prefers one-on-one interaction over proclaiming my ideas to a large group of people, so I really need to be disciplined about posting on social media or else I won’t do it. I’m starting to see the payoff in having a consistent and honest online presence though, because people are getting to know me better and therefore feel invested in the success of my business. My earliest sales were to friends and family (my sister has rightly claimed the title of the Chief Margaret Hennessey Brand Ambassador, since she owns more of my pieces than anyone!), and the growth has really been an organic result of those personal connections. Now I am starting to sell bags through my website to people I don’t know, and it’s such a thrill! I take it as a sign that I’m getting better at sharing a genuine story about myself and my work, and that resonates with people.
What are some brands/makers that you are excited about that we should know of?
I am in love with the work of Renee Gaudet, who makes incredible architectural and minimal jewelry out of brass and silver, and I feel lucky to call her a friend. I covet a pair of handmade Sevilla Smith shoes, and love her social media presence because it feels so genuine, instead of being this hyper-polished aspirational feed that leaves you feeling kind of bad about yourself. I’m still working on finding my voice on social media, so seeing her example has been so helpful. Another dear friend in Durham, Michelle of Vanderwalker Design, is an amazingly talented potter whose work is so precise and imaginative.
Why do you think it’s important to shop small and support local makers?
People who start a handmade business aren’t doing it for the money; they’re doing it because they can’t not do it! By shopping small and investing in pieces that are made by skilled makers, you’re supporting someone’s dream, as cheesy as that sounds. I think that objects have power, and that having a few selected things made with love and intention in your home and wardrobe can make you feel connected to others. I really support the idea of buying a few well-made things that are beautiful and taking good care of them.
What makes you passionate about the work that you do?
I have always loved making things for other people. Ever since I was a kid, I was always more interested in the process of making than actually keeping the finished product, and I have always delighted in the joy other people feel when they receive something handmade. Despite that history, I never expected the kind and supportive responses I’ve gotten from people who have received my bags. That kind of feedback helps to keep me motivated when I feel like I’m not getting traction. Also, I love coming up with new designs, so I enjoy the rhythm of seasonal collections. I’m also planning on doing some custom work once I’m a bit further along, so that will help keep me challenged and inspired creatively.
What are some of the setbacks or challenges you faced when starting your brand?
Starting your own business is really lonely sometimes. People are so supportive and encouraging, but in the end it’s me who has to keep showing up in my workshop every day, me who has to decide how to prioritize my time, and me who has to keep at it even when things are discouraging. So that has been hard. Also, the marketing/branding side of things has been a real challenge, because I had no experience with it and it took me a long time to get how important it was. When I started, I literally thought that I would just make a website, people would see how great the bags were, and the orders would start pouring in. Looking back, I realize how naive I was!
At The Glossary, we believe in women working together and helping one another. Why do you think it is important for women to support each other?
Because we still live in a patriarchy. There is still so much misogyny, including internalized misogyny, that keeps women from expressing their fullest selves. Every time we help each other and champion each other’s work, we are taking a step toward dismantling centuries of oppression. Raising each other up and celebrating others’ talents isn’t antithetical to being successful. This isn’t a zero-sum game.
What creative women do you find inspiring?
In the fashion world, I think Rachel Comey is amazing, for her seemingly endless creativity and her commitment to featuring models of all ages and genders in her shoots. She is the epitome of cool to me. Liz Pape from Elizabeth Suzann is an inspiration when it comes to turning a small handmade business into a major ethical fashion brand that still adheres to her original mission of creating timeless pieces, for all women, in a sustainable way. Finally, Katie Ford is a textile artist based in upstate New York whom I met through a friend. I have been consistently inspired by how her work has evolved, and how disciplined she has been in seeking out residencies and collaborations that push her evolution further. She also started this little business called Gleamer in which she takes vintage garments and applies her own textile compositions to them. In general, I find myself in contact with a lot of women who are striking out on their own and turning their passions into their work, and I’m so inspired by that.
What tools or resources have been most helpful for you in creating your business?
I have been working with Sarah and Erica at Tandem Collaborative for the past year or so, and they have been endlessly helpful. They’ve been amazing at helping me think about the big picture and where I want to take my business, then identifying concrete steps I need to take to realize those ideas. I also go to a yoga studio about three times a week, and that has been an anchor for me. My teachers are amazing. If yoga isn’t your jam, I think the key is to find a community outside of work that is supportive, welcoming, and holds you accountable to taking care of yourself.
What are some of your favorite places in Durham?
I love hiking and swimming at Eno River State Park, which is an amazing park close to my house. The Durham Farmers Market is incredible, and I love seeing friends there who are vendors and customers. Pizzeria Toro has the best pizza I’ve ever had, and I like to stop by across the street at Criterion for a Manhattan made by my favorite bartender. A few doors down is Vert & Vogue, a boutique with amazing curation. The Carrack is an awesome art gallery and event space that showcases up and coming artists and has a social justice mission.