About five years ago Patti Dunn moved to New Orleans when her boyfriend, whom she met rock climbing, was accepted into Tulane’s Masters of Architecture Program. New Orleans seems like an odd choice for Dunn, an industrial designer whose interests and line of work revolve around more adventurous terrains.
“When we moved to New Orleans, all of our friends were like ‘Why are you moving there? There are no mountains there! You can’t hike; you can’t snowboard,’” says Dunn. But “we just both felt good about it. This city has so much to offer. I try and get out and go paddling and canoeing as much as possible to stay connected to the natural landscape that surrounds us, but I’m so caught up in the liveliness of the city.”
Pulling from her experience designing rugged, functional bags and other accessories for the outdoors industry, Dunn created a line of handmade bags suitable for uniquely New Orleans adventures – biking to a parade and needing a bottle opener, for example. The line, Tchoup Industries, features handmade bags made using materials sourced from Louisiana and around the U.S.
Dunn, a North Carolina native, works as a freelance designer and wanted to create a line that would connect her to her new home. She debuted Tchoup – the name referencing the street on which she lives – at the 2013 Earth Day Festival, and it was very well-received.
“We were just going to make 50 bags and see how it went,” she said. “We sold five backpacks without any marketing.” (Backpacks retail from $150-$500.)
The line centers on backpacks made from durable, waterproof, waxed cotton canvas sourced from New Jersey. There’s a basic Flap Pack design, an easy backpack to throw on your shoulder, which includes a built-in bottle opener. The Roulez bag comes embellished with either genuine alligator leather from Lafayette or a woven panel hand-loomed by New Orleans designer Daron Douglas. Other materials used include rice bags rejected from a manufacturing plant in Crowley, buckles from Lafayette’s Begneaud Metal Manufacturing and labels made in Tennessee. The bags, featuring durable material, comfortably placed padded shoulder straps, smaller compartments for organization and stylish flourishes, combine Dunn’s industrial design knowledge with New Orleans panache.
“I think the look of the bag is based on current fashion and style – there’s this big retro outdoor look. So it was really easy to marry that with the functionality that I was able to put into these bags, as well,” she says. “We try to make our designs easy for people for packing, but also just getting in and out on a regular basis.”
In what might be a more unexpected use of local material, Dunn is working on bag styles featuring nutria fur. Nutria fur, which looks surprisingly luxurious laid out in Dunn’s workspace, has gained traction locally as an “ethical fur” since the prolific rodent wreaks havoc on wetlands.
“I think once fur started getting a really bad rap in the ’90s, people stopped buying it altogether,” she says. “But this fur is very socially and environmentally conscious. You’re doing a good thing by using nutria fur. We’re trying to share that message and kind of help the cause.”
Besides in its web store (TchoupIndustries.com), shoppers can find Tchoup at Friend, Defend New Orleans, SOPO, I.J. Reilly’s Knick Knacks and Curiosities and other stores, plus stores in Lafayette and North Carolina. Dunn also likes to take Tchoup to “pop-up” boutiques, markets and festivals – like the one where the line first debuted – around town.
It can be difficult, though, to satisfy increased demand but remain committed to making everything locally and to source all materials within the U.S. – especially with only one full-time seamstress, Ursa Eyer, on staff.
“One of the challenges of this collection is we wanted to make it ourselves, here in New Orleans. We needed to keep the construction fairly simple, because labor is our biggest cost. We want to pay [the people who sew] a living wage, and we want to attract people to work with us,” Dunn says. “We sold out of everything this past holiday, and as we were getting online orders, we were having to make them and having to hustle to stay on top of them.”
Dunn seems excited by the prospect of expanding. Tchoup just moved into a larger space in the French Quarter; Dunn says her “three-to-five-year plan” is to have a storefront where shoppers can both buy products and see them being made.
“It’s awesome. I’m glad it’s starting to catch on,” she says. “It’s unexpected, and now that we’re growing and people are hearing about us and wanting to support us, we need to … keep up with it.”