Career Stories

This Self-Taught Designer Launched a Successful E-Commerce Business—Here’s How She Did It

Handbag designer Tree Fairfax sitting on a beige chair
Tricia "Tree" Fairfax.
| Courtesy of Tree Fairfax

In this series in partnership with Squarespace, we’re highlighting the stories of three successful women of color. They speak honestly about the challenges they’ve faced, how they’ve persevered, and the ways they’re pushing boundaries in their respective industries. Read on for part one, and stay tuned for parts two and three.

When Tricia “Tree” Fairfax first started making accessories, she had no formal training in sewing—or any kind of designing or crafting, for that matter. Fairfax just wanted something cute to wear.

“I was a single mom with two kids and didn’t make a lot of money,” says Fairfax, who worked in medical billing for almost two decades. “I couldn’t afford the stuff I wanted so I just tried to figure out how to make it.” Old beads became jewelry, a pair of shoes would get “reupholstered” with new fabric, and the tops of jeans were transformed into handbags.

Everything changed when Fairfax got married and her husband bought her a sewing machine, which she used to make a small clutch out of leather cut from a jacket she found at Goodwill. “People at work asked me where I got it, and when I told them I made it, they wanted to buy one,” recalls the Roanoke, Virginia-based Fairfax.

In 2008, she sold her first bag for $25 on Etsy and continued to pursue what she named “Tree Fairfax” as a passion project while working full-time. During the following years, she collected more leather, made bags in her garage, maintained her Etsy shop, attended a lot of craft shows at her children’s schools, and did pop-up shops here and there.

In 2018, Fairfax decided she was ready to quit her medical billing job, and officially launched Tree Fairfax as its own website. “There was no joy in my job anymore, and I knew I loved sewing and creating things by hand,” she says.

leather bags lined up on a beige chair
Examples of Tree Fairfax's bucket and tote bags.
| Courtesy of Tree Fairfax

Today, her e-commerce business is booming, with customers willing to wait a month or two to receive one-of-a-kind leather bags, wallets, and belts. (The half moon waist/crossbody bag—her original design and still the most popular—takes about four hours to make from start to finish.) And she’s done it without sacrificing her commitment to sustainability, with a focus on minimizing waste by using imperfect—yet still beautiful—pieces of leather.

Here, Fairfax shares the challenges she faced while building her brand, why she embraces the idea of slow fashion, and what she loves most about being an entrepreneur.

What did you do once people started showing interest in buying your bags?

First, I got more leather, and just started playing around with it. Family and friends would bring me old leather jackets, so I had a stockpile in my closet. I don’t live in a big city where you have access to a lot of materials. I didn’t know where to buy leather or that a hide even existed. I started going to upholstery shops and asking what they did with their scraps. The owners of one shop said they would start saving them for me. That’s how I first got into sustainability and using recycled leather—as a way to save money on materials.

Since then, how else have you been able to eliminate waste?

Leather companies only use a certain part of the hide, whereas I try to use the entire hide if I can. For example, I take small leftover pieces and use them on the side of the bags where the hooks go. On each hide, there are little imperfections like a bug bite or where the animal rubbed up against a wire fence. I don’t cut those imperfections out. I’m cutting back on waste and at the same time it makes for a one-of-a-kind, beautiful bag. I also started making keychains because I had a bucket full of leftover 12-inch straps.

What challenges have you faced as an entrepreneur and how did you overcome them?

In 2014, when I was 37, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was getting into a groove with my business and thinking about leaving my job, but with this huge health issue I knew I needed to keep my health insurance. It was a challenge because it came out of nowhere for me.

As for my business, sales would come in and I was so excited that people were spending their hard-earned money on something I created with my own hands. I wasn’t really thinking about how to keep money coming in, buying supplies, setting aside money to pay taxes, things like that. And I didn’t have anyone to ask questions. I had to figure this thing out as I went.

How has having a website helped you grow your business?

Before I quit my job, I read an article that broke down the difference between Etsy and having your own website. I was scared to move from Etsy because I had a good business going, but it wasn’t a direct site with my name.

screenshot of the Tree Fairfax website
Tree Fairfax's website on Squarespace.
| Courtesy of Tree Fairfax

I saw a lot of places I shopped from used Squarespace, and it seemed user friendly. I was coming out with a new line of tote bags that were at a higher price point and thought, this is the time to get my own site. I had some professional photography done. My sales went through the roof.

Once I had the Squarespace website, I felt like it elevated my business because it was more professional. And with the Squarespace analytics tools, I can see which is my most popular bag and how people are finding my website.

I understand your kids have helped you with the business. What’s one important lesson they’ve taught you?

I always just showed my work on my website, but I never showed myself. My son told me one day that people need to see the human behind it, even though I don’t like being in front of the camera. Once I got comfortable showing myself and telling my story on my website and on Instagram, it changed everything. And my daughter works in marketing, so anytime I post anything she’s telling me I need to use hashtags or this or that.

How do you design with inclusivity in mind?

Once I put the half moon bag out, I got a lot of feedback from people asking if there was a longer strap. I’m not a small person myself; I have broad shoulders and wear a size 14, so it was hard to find a crossbody bag that fit. Now, I offer straps from 24 to 70 inches.

What advice do you have for others who want to start their own business?

One of the biggest things is to believe in yourself. A lot of times you’ll share your ideas with people who don’t understand it or see the vision, but don’t get discouraged. I went through that: I’d be so excited and people would say my bag was “cute” and move on.

I remember going to an upscale store to ask the owner if she was interested in carrying my bags, and she did not believe that I made them. I could have let that make me feel like I wasn’t worthy, but you just have to keep pushing forward. I heard “no” so many times.

Tree Fairfax working on one of her designs
Tree Fairfax working on one of her designs.
| Courtesy of Tree Fairfax

Also, don’t be afraid to create your own path. I did feel pressure to do wholesale because people didn’t think made-to-order was a good idea. But I just trusted myself fully that I could succeed without feeling like I had to overdo it.

Finally, do your research. I looked at a lot of businesses and saw how they promoted themselves, how they ran their website, and the story they were telling. I also love the emails from Squarespace where they talk to other small businesses and I can learn what others are doing to succeed.

What is something you wish you’d known or done differently when you first started out?

I would have used social media a long time ago, but I was scared of it. I would also have learned more about taxes. I take a lot of classes with the Small Business Association, which educates you on different things about running a small business. I also wish I had learned more about grants for small businesses because everything has come out of my pocket.

What do you love most about being an entrepreneur?

My dad had his own house-painting business, and I always admired the freedom he had. He was able to do something he enjoyed and not be on someone else’s time clock. It’s the same thing for me. I get to make my own rules.

What do you do to maintain work-life balance?

I’ve been more aware since the pandemic that I was overworked. A lot of times I would be making bags from 7 AM to 11 PM. It was wearing me out mentally and physically. So I started to take time in the morning to make a chai and sit with no TV, music, nothing. I have my window open and I listen to the birds outside and do my meditation and prayer. It takes me an hour to drink my tea. I also started working from 8 AM to 5 PM, and don’t work on weekends. Another thing that helped was to mark a product as “sold out” on my website to give me more time to create.

What are your business goals for 2022?

I want to continue to grow my business and dig in deeper on my website. I think I can give a little more of my personality and my story on my website, and I want to add a blog and video tutorials. I would also love to get into home goods and travel products like passport holders.

But as long as my business is up and running, I will be thankful and happy. I’m not a big salesperson. I just know that if I make it with love, people will come. I want to keep that same energy and have good people follow along my journey and love what I create.