Quitter to Winner

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

INTERVIEW: Athan Vennell bags waiting tables to make killer bags

Fashion designer/crafter extraordinaire, Athan Vennell, bagged waiting tables and retail gigs to, well, make killer bags (among many other things). Athan's only regret? "Why didn't I make the leap sooner?!"

You finally made the plunge to work for yourself. What made you decide to give it a go?

It had been a long time coming. I reached my breaking point in the restaurant/retail world. Who cares what people want or where they want to sit anymore. I wanted to know what I could do for people creatively, not socially.

Did you take a while to prep for the transition?

I had been doing freelance design work in addition to a restaurant or retail job. I was doing, and still do, home projects, bridal dresses, clothing and accessories for some people, and that lead me to doing craft shows. The craft shows really helped me understand just how large of an audience wanted to buy my stuff. I think that was the major catalyst for me to know that there was a space out there for me to do what I wanted. It did sort of become a, “I just can’t do this anymore” situation at the restaurant. I do love restaurant work, but it takes up so much time and energy that at the end of my days I would be too spent to do anything else.

I tried once before to break out on my own, but I was always aiming too big and trying to do too much, like design a collection and put it out. Now I’ve learned to work with just a few designs that you can produce easily enough. Start SMALL and work your way to BIG. I had too many stars in my eyes. Once I paired everything down to what I knew worked and knew I could do, it all just started falling into place. Like the line of bags I make from recycled pants. I wanted to go big right away but made myself just start with two different size tote bags. They were a hit so I slowly added new designs as I went along. Now I have seven different bags in the line with ideas for a few more hopefully to come this year. This process also helped me figure out what the customer was looking for and what I was actually capable of producing.

Was funding an issue when you went out on your own?

Money is always the issue, whether you have it or not. It’s scary putting everything you have into your ideas and hope that you get a response. Even with money executing the idea can be overwhelming. We blame money, but I think it’s all about confidence. I’ve discovered that the money happens all on it’s own. I sometimes freak out and wonder where the next bit will come from, and then it happens. It sounds cliché, but asking the universe for what you want helps. Whether you are spiritual or not, it’s about actively asking and stating what it is that you need or want and making it heard, even if it’s just you listening. Sometimes you’re the only one that needs to hear it. Looking back, the jump was seamless. It made me wonder ‘why not sooner?’ I was just being chicken about the whole thing. I knew I was very good at what I did, and knew that there would be work out there for me. It was just daunting realizing how much work I needed to have in order to do it well, and eat at the same time. I was over thinking things. Sometimes it’s just a matter of throwing caution to the wind and taking the plunge.

What else are you doing for work?

Anything that anyone needs stitched. I haven’t closed myself off to new ideas. That’s how I keep things interesting. I just finished creating costumes for Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl for Old Deerfield Productions. That was a wonderful project. I was given total creative freedom. It was so nice to be trusted and needed in that way. Thank you Linda McInerney for that!

In addition to my line of bags made from recycled pants, I do the alterations for Pearl Bridal in Holyoke’s Open Square buildings. I also have a line of leather wallets and cuffs that are made from scrap leather from garment production, and a line of t-shirts that involve turning them into cardigans and stenciling. Then there are the window treatments and basic clothing alterations.

I’ve also worked with people to create design prototypes for new products. If things go well with one project in particular, I may continue as the designer. It hasn’t been launched yet so I can’t say much more about it, but that’s what makes it exciting.

People think that working for yourself allows you so much "free time." That's not the case for me at all! How is it for you?

Free time has taken on a whole new meaning now that I am on my own. No more ‘calling in’ that’s for sure. When things come up they have to be taken care of, which can throw a wrench in the well-planned schedule. I found that it’s harder to make social plans, but I do enjoy the freedom of not doing as much one day and a lot the next. None of my time is really free anymore though.

Are any of your friends considering quitting their gigs to go out on their own? What advice do you have for them?

I do have friends who are more interested in making the plunge. I think some have, partially due to me. I would tell them to be calm, believe in who you are and dig deep. There is so much more support out there, including from your friends, that you wouldn’t expect. People are very willing to help those who are trying to do it on their own. Living in the Valley helps that scenario, too. There are so many more people here that are trying to do it for themselves.

I’d also say make a schedule and stick to it. You need to create your own boss/employee relationship with yourself. It’s a bit schizo, but it helps. Start small, know yourself, know your product/skills that you want to put out there and believe in them. No one else will if you don’t. No one else will know you are there if you don’t tell them.

If you’re an artist waiting tables, say you’re an artist not a waiter when someone asks you what you do. Waiting tables is just the means to an end. It’s not who you are. You need to tell people who you are and put it out there. I was a hot head Leo fashion designer in NYC when I started. I would often wonder why I wasn’t getting this gig or that job. In the end it was because I hadn’t started telling people that I was available, or could do something they needed. It’s up to you to talk about you.

Finally, if you could do it over again, what would you do differently?

I would simply have done it sooner. I think everything else would stay the same.

Visit www.athanvennell.com and www.athanvennell.etsy.com to see more of Athan's work.

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