Purses are her bag
On Tuesday, Denise Tjarks was contemplating her flight to Oahu for the Made in Hawaii Festival.
Made in Hawaii Festival
» Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday
» Place: Blasidell Exhibition Hall and Arena
» Admission: $3; free for children 6 and younger
» Call: 533-1292 or visit www.madeinhawaiifestival.com
» Entertainment: For a schedule see this week's HiLife section; for a list of cooking demonstrations see yesterday's Food section.
iKandy Couture, specializing in graphic T-shirts, tanks and accessories, will be among the hundreds of vendors at Made in Hawaii.
"My flight leaves at 1; I'll probably be sewing until noon," she said. "I'm telling my regular customers to come the first day. I don't think I'll have enough to last the whole weekend."
Such is the demand for Tjarks creations, splashy handbags fashioned from new and vintage fabric. Imagine for a second, your grandmother's muumuus, too loud and overpowering to wear, but just right when cut down to pocketbag size.
Tjarks, a clothing designer who had taken time off to have children, was at home playing with a piece of fabric given to her by an aunt. She ended up making a bag out of it and said, "It got a big response just by my carrying it around."
As she was walking around Kahala Mall, her bag caught the attention of Sharon Price, owner of Shasa Emporium. "They had just opened and she stopped me and said she had to have them in her shop." It was 2002 and Tjarks said, "I had been tossing around the idea of designing full time and I remember thinking, 'I could do this.' "
COURTESY DENISE TJARKS
Denise Tjarks handmade fabric purses are suited to the casual island lifestyle. These designs feature contemporary fabric. Fans stalk Tjarks' Web site to get ahold of her many one-of-a-kind designs. The one at lower left sold immediately after she listed it.
She hasn't stopped sewing since, and had a handful of Oahu accounts before moving to Kauai four years ago. She also makes it a point to participate in the annual Made in Hawaii Festival, which has introduced hundreds of Hawaii cottage businesses.
This year, Tjarks will debut patchwork designs made with remnants of vintage fabric, and an eco line of 60 percent cotton/40 percent bamboo purses. Most handbags run from $40 to $60, with her vintage line at about $55 to $120. Bags are finished with vintage buttons, handles and trims.
The festival offers a way to connect with vast numbers of fans, because beyond sewing, Tjarks runs a high-touch operation. Those who purchase handbags are likely to learn about the provenance of the fabric, and clients feel welcome to call her with questions about caring for the bags. She'll often name styles after friends or handbag addicts she knows.
She started taking photos of women with her handbags and posting them on her Web site, www.denisetjarks.com, under the heading "m.f.e.o.," short for "made for each other." Since then, her customers have begun taking their own pictures and sending them in.
Being able to match a handbag with its owner exacerbates the designer's perfectionist tendencies. She wouldn't want to disappoint anyone.
COURTESY DENISE TJARKS
A muumuu few would be brave enough to wear enjoys multiple new lives when reimagined as handbags.
"I'm kind of a quality-control freak so it took me a long time to trust somebody else with sewing the bags," said Tjarks, who now has one full-time seamstress to help her with production, although the two of them working full time can't keep up with demand. A single, simple style takes about 45 minutes to complete, and Tjarks will typically sew from morning to about 8 or 9 p.m., when she starts dealing with Internet orders.
"I have a waiting list of retailers, but don't want to do a factory thing. It's important to me to keep it local," she said. She won't discount the possibility of one day setting up a workroom/shop on Kauai, though, as long as she can oversee all operations.
Although Tjarks has designed wedding gowns and clothing in the past, she prefers concentrating on purses.
"It's so immediate. I love that I can just think of a new style and finish it in one day, from making the pattern to making the sample."
COURTESY DENISE TJARKS
Denise Tjarks shows some of her many handbags, including a new vintage patchwork design, at top right.
When it comes to the real deal, though, that's where her meticulousness kicks in. Handbags made with vintage fabric have been her best sellers, but to get that far, she puts the fabric through an intense process that includes multiple washing and inspection under light for holes and other defects. Some costly fabrics don't survive the washing.
"If they have any mold in them, they disintegrate," she said. "But the pieces that survive, the fabric is so beautiful and the older fabric lasts longer than fabric I purchased a few years ago.
"People have told me they've washed and washed their vintage bags and they hold up, which is what I want," said Tjarks, who feels it's important for each of her pieces, like individual works of art, to tell a story.
"I don't want it to be a throw-away bag. I want the 50-year-old fabric to be passed on and used another 50 more years."
Denise Tjarks designs can be found on Oahu at Shasa Emporium at Kahala Mall; Mu'umu'u Heaven in Kailua; Alliway at Ward Warehouse; The Island's Best at Ala Moana Center; and Na Mea in the Hawaii State Art Museum; or online at www.denisetjarks.com.