Starting your own business is no simple task. And when you’re a twenty-something fresh out of college in the midst of a recession, the odds are inevitably stacked against you. Contrary to the advice of her friends and parents, Connecticut native Julia Okun chose to bypass the typical post-graduate cubicle life to start her own business. Named Rennes-le-Chateau for a town in the south of France, Okun crafts her own leather goods in her Beacon Hill apartment, and sells them online through internet platform Etsy. A graduate of Boston’s own School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Okun studied tempura painting before taking on the challenge of working with leather.
“My mom and aunt taught me how to sew,” Okun tells us. “But mostly simply things, like a skirt. I did a lot of research before starting. I didn’t learn how to do this in museum school! Since a regular sewing machine isn’t strong enough to handle leather, I bought an industrial strength machine, which is really big. Kind of like a big machine within a large table.”
While many women have the desire to make their own handbags, few recognize the amount of time and serious construction that goes into working with a textile as heavy as leather. After extensive research and practice, Okun can now fully construct a handbag in half a day. If she’s at the top of her game, she can churn out 2 or 3. While it clearly takes a natural artistic ability to work with such textiles, possessing a truly entrepreneurial spirit can be an added obstacle. Rennes-le-Chateau’s livelihood as a business is a testament to the internet’s influence on shopping. Launched in 2005, Etsy, the most widely recognized website specifically created for artists like Okun to sell their work, has given craftspeople a chance to sell their goods without having to turn over most of the profit to retail stores. “It makes it really easy for anyone who has a camera and computer access,” Okun says.
Etsy’s competition with internet mega-site Ebay has stirred significant controversy in recent years. Because both websites give the seller responsibility for their own items, the sites are frequently associated with each other. However, Etsy is entirely geared towards the sale and promotion of hand-made goods, rather than mass-produced products. Also influential in its success is Etsy’s role as an online meeting place for artists. They can get to know each other while forming a support system, and can even request custom orders. Okun admits she obsessively visits sites of other artists she’s met through Etsy.
While some dislike the association of handmade crafts and social media, their fusion is vital to the many skilled artisans out there who simply want to survive by creating products they love.
A frequent contributor to the Directory of Boston, Megan Johnson is originally from Connecticut, but has lived in Boston since age 18. She writes for MenuPages Boston, Butterfly Diary, Reinventing Beauty Magazine, and SweetTalk on the Spot. You can visit her personal website at www.meganjohnson.tumblr.com.