“Created in 2013 by Elise Durbecq and Gillian Tozer, TRUSS collaborates with small business owners and local artisans in Oaxaca to create custom accessories, including tote bags, clutches, and folios. TRUSS prides itself on being a conscientious support system within the Oaxacan weaving community—something the founders have worked hard to build and maintain over the past three years. TRUSS values the preservation and growth of Oaxaca’s artisanal trade, and believes this endemic skill set has a place in the global luxury market. Supporting the continuity of the artisanal trade is imperative in keeping their communities afloat.” I interviewed Elise and Gillian to ask about how the brand started.
How and why did TRUSS begin?
Elise: We met while we both worked at Opening Ceremony and Gillian and I wanted to work on a creative project together. We wanted to work on something fun and found ourselves in Mexico looking at all of these techniques that are endemic to the area and were being lost and undervalued. It started off as a project of wanting to bring the weave back to the States and doing something with it but ended up in something more collaborative and working together with the artisans. We started trying to find out who made the weaving, where they were made, what they were made from and how we could develop the idea from the original market bag sold in Mexican markets.
Can you explain the weaving technique the artisans use?
Gillian: Basically, what they do is weave in one direction and when the plastic runs out they burn another piece of plastic on it so it’s a continuous piece. On a lot of the bags it’s very hard to see where the weave starts and ends. It’s really a tight collection of artisans that can do this technique so well. Obviously, these bags exist in the marketplace in Oaxaca and within Mexico but we can definitely see who’s made what by the quality of the bags.
The artisans know what to do but did you have to train them so the bags had a certain finish to them?
No, this technique has been around for years. We merely stepped in and collaborated with them. What we have done and what we have changed is introducing new bag shapes and that’s something that we do have to work with them very closely on because they’ve been doing the same thing for so long. To introduce a new shape or technique, to add on something or take out something requires a slight change in their mind-sets. On the one hand, it really is a collaboration in terms of us saying what colours we’d like to work with; this colour, pattern or shape instead of what they’ve been doing previously. But then it’s really important to us to create completely new shapes that have never been done before. That’s how you we have shapes like Le-sac which is a dimensional tote bag, that was a completely new shape and the idea for the small pouches which had never been done before, the cross-body tote had also never been done before. It’s finessing it in a certain way that is new but ultimately this idea of using one piece of plastic and durability and having this very simple shape hasn’t existed.
Have you ever thought about using different types of materials?
Yeah absolutely. There are so many challenges; first of all, there are so many different types of plastics we could be using like bigger plastics, transparent plastics, there’s plastic that’s very flexible and some that’s also very hard. We’re definitely exploring ways to work in that space but what’s really important to us right now is leather and beadwork. Right now, we’re moving into leather details, the challenge with leather is that it’s not one continuous piece and you can’t meld the ends together so we need to figure out the proper way to have woven elements to create a whole bag and whether we want to combine it with the plastic too to keep the DNA of the brand together. On top of that we’re working toward having less totes and more accessories so maybe it’s about having an embellished shoulder strap and what kind of beadwork we can work with. At the moment, we’re looking to work with a group of bead workers in the north of Mexico using a technique called chaquiras. It’s funny because my family’s from South Africa and it’s very similar to a type of beadwork there. It’s interesting how a lot of countries have very similar techniques and traditions. It’s really beautiful.
Do you ever think about going to other countries for different textiles?
Absolutely it would be an absolute dream for me to do something in South Africa. However, working with artisans in the developing world is filled with mind fields of challenges. I think right now we’re just trying to work in Mexico and see what we can do here in terms of having this technique and this tradition we’ve recognised on a global luxury level.
I’m really curious to know about the artisans you work with. Are they men, women, children; who are they?
When we first explored the technique, we thought it was women because in the marketplace there would be women selling the bags but then we realised that they were kind of the centre person; they were like businesswomen themselves. They actually got the bags from men and the bags were really hard to make. They’re incredibly rough and tough and you need to have a lot of force to pull the plastics together. It’s all men and we work with several different groups around Oaxaca within the mountains. We also have a head of production here too who’s like the centre of our world and she brings it all together. What we’ll do is work with several different artisans and they’ll weave the bags. Once we receive the orders then they’ll come to our production office in Oaxaca City and we’ll add the elements like the leather trimmings, closures and bottom studs and then that’s the finished product.
Are any of your bags lined with different fabric?
Yeah at the moment with our current season that was shown during Paris Fashion Week we added an internal pocket in leather. With things like the laptop accessories we line them with micro suede so it feels slicker. It’s something that we’re hesitant to do because we really love the simplicity. We really didn’t want to mess with that and keep it really simple. Every season we’d have someone say “we’d really love a leather handle too or slip inside so my keys don’t get lost”.
What other products would you like to create?
At this point we’re so focused on making sure we create the most unique and original items within this technique. Elise’s background is in architecture so she’s very interested in working with furniture designers. Myself being involved in the art world would love to work with artists. We’d love to find ways and work with the right person and collaborate. Whether that be making a chair with the woven technique or weaving something and have an artist burn it, paint it whatever. We’d love to work in different mediums completely. We were never fashion designers, we never wanted to be accessories designers we originally set out in wanting to do something original and unique. At this point wanting to work in other areas is a big question mark and we’re focused on making sure our technique’s the best it can be.
Would you ever collaborate with fashion brands or designers?
It depends on who they are but yeah absolutely! We’re really open. Elise and I have the same mentality that we did from day one. It’s always going to be like “let’s see what happens”. There are challenges working in the developing world so it’s really difficult to plan out that far ahead.
What kind of challenges have you faced working in Mexico with a different culture?
Elise is Mexican so she spent a lot of time in Oaxaca as a child so she’s really familiar with Mexico and she’s been living here for the last two years. I just moved here about two months ago from New York so for me it’s been a very easy transition because I’ve always had an immediate love for Oaxaca. It hasn’t been a total culture shock and it helps that my business partner is Mexican and can speak Spanish. I think what has been a contrast is having a fashion background in New York knowing how the system works there and it being very different to Mexico’s. We threw away ideas we had about the fashion industry when we got here.
What do you enjoy most about working with the artisans?
Well, speaking for myself but I’m sure Elise would agree with me, I love seeing the new products and seeing how the artisans have adapted this new technique to these new shapes. I get a kick from seeing the change we’ve made with some of the people we’ve worked with and that’s been really important. We always wanted to do something in the non-profit space. We work with a children’s education foundation in Oaxaca. It’s also been really great seeing the woman that we work with in production.
Does seeing all the artisans make you want you make stuff yourself?
I’ve gone from working on a computer all the time to working in a workshop where there’s a million different things to get my hands on. The other day we got our first leather samples back and we were figuring out how to weave leather through the plastic so that’s great. We have to paint things, we have to sketch things so it’s a complete 180 in terms of how I used to work. I’d love to learn to weave but it’s so physically hard and I think my skills are better placed elsewhere.
Gillian answered the majority of the questions as Elise was unable to stay for the rest of the interview. Our interview took place early this year so some answers may be different now.