• Journal

Do Your Thing: Tchoup Industries' Patti Dunn

Designing for a local legacy – how the Deep Horizon Oil Spill inspired the popular adventure bag and more.

Photo: Michael Tucker

Designing for a local legacy – how the Deep Horizon Oil Spill inspired the popular adventure bag and more.

Where are you from originally?

I was born in Minneapolis, MN and raised in Eastern North Carolina.

When did you move to New Orleans, and why here?

I moved down in the summer of 2008 from Colorado. My plan was to stay temporarily, but as people do... I really fell in love with New Orleans. I made friends quickly and that combined with a liberal community, humid weather and southern charm made me feel like I'd finally come home.

You've lived and worked all over the world as a designer, correct? Do you still travel often for work?

Ha! Yes, this is somewhat true, and sounds more glamorous than it felt at the time. I've worked as an in-house designer for brands and companies in Wichita, Cincinnati and Denver. Most of that work (designing bags, luggage and other sewn accessories) required travel to other places around the USA for client meetings and to Southeast Asia for manufacturing. I still freelance for some of these companies but thankfully my travel for work has been reduced significantly.

It was a main reason I wanted to start Tchoup Industries. I was jealous of architects who's design legacy had an imprint on their local community. They were rooted and had the advantage of consider aspects such as vernacular design language in their creations. Once I'd landed in New Orleans, I challenged myself to find the vernacular bag design of this area. Local inspiration, resources and suppliers have become much more important to me as a designer.

When did you start Tchoup Industries? And what was your motivation?

Creative musings began in the Fall of 2012, and I filed my paperwork with the state in January of 2013.

Tchoup Industries as a brand started clicking into place after the environmentally catastrophic Deep Horizon Oil Spill in 2010 and its aftermath. I was personally trying to ween myself off of the oil industry (I even hosted a dog shave event to help support the "hair boom" movement for clean up), and thought that I could and should create a bag brand that had the same goal. Everything really started taking shape after that train of thought kicked in.

A big part of it was to find a way to make your corner of the industry better, more sustainable, and more responsible, right? What are the things that differentiate your work with Tchoup from the way the majority of the industry operates? What distinctions are you most proud of?

After designing for brands who care only about sales and the bottom line, I was very inspired by Yvon Chouinard's approach with his original brand Black Diamond and later Patagonia. My design decisions were (and are still) heavily shaped by available local resources and the needs of our community. I try to listen to what people are want out of their gear and respond accordingly. For instance we never dreamed of making a fanny pack, but after so many requests we started making them and they've become a best seller. In that vein, my sales projections for growth are only based on what is realistic from our customer base, and we build everything in small batches to meet demand.

Also, due to our efforts to move away from oil-based materials, if I can't get a material that's made regionally, I hold myself to selections that are up-cycled or all natural.

I love the values that go into your work. How have these developed as Tchoup has grown? Are you continually finding new ways to work towards and develop your mission?

My community partnerships have helped so much in the growth of our mission. We work with Life City who has recently inspired us to incorporate even more recycled materials into our collection (see our recycled banner beach totes). The presence of creative artisans in this area only seems to be growing, so the opportunity for collaborations is infinite. I love partnering with fabric artists in particular. We can help their work gain more exposure by someone physically wearing it around and talking about it, while our brand can stay true to its roots. We've also teamed up with a few other fellow makers who also hold sustainability and social issues in the mission of their company to create a collective retail experience called The GOOD Shop.

Have you seen positive changes in the industry since you started? Do you feel as though we have more responsibly manufactured products available than before?

In the beginning, we had to do a LOT of education to the customer about why our company operates the way it does (and thus why are prices are where they are). I'm finding that the "made locally" and "made sustainably" story is a more widely accepted concept. People are actually seeking it out as an alternative to their traditional shopping habits.

I was actually thinking of throwing in the towel at the end of the Obama Administration. The barometer of environmental consciousness was looking good and there were so many sustainable bag and apparel options available. After November 2016 however, I decided to stick to it and continue strong on the trail I'd already begun blazing.

Are there any ideas that you subscribed to in the beginning that have completely changed at this point?

My first few years were pretty rocky because I had zero business background. I was adamant about remaining a tiny business and pushed against growth opportunities. In the last few years, I've learned a lot and am starting to change my mind about that. Mostly, I see Tchoup Industries as capable of being a reliable employer. Any pushes to new growth are only to support that aspect of the business.

What are your favorite things about living and working in Louisiana?

The birds, the spanish moss, and the prioritization of joie de vivre. And the people – my employees, our customers and the community.

You've got such a great team! Anything to share about them? Or about team building in general?

I agree! No matter what the role, I prefer to work with people who are creative, open to new ideas, have a strong work ethic and and understand the importance of team synergy. I've learned a lot as a manager in the past years, and feel proud to lead in a very feminine way that is transparent and sometimes emotional. I am constantly asking for advice from my team and want them to feel like their ideas matter and their voices are being heard. I share both good and bad business updates, and hope this method instills an understanding in entrepreneurship that will only in turn benefit my employees with their own future endeavors.

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