Four years ago, while volunteering at an orphanage in the town of Hohoe in Ghana, Tina Tangalakis (Theater 00) found herself drawn to the Ghanaian textiles she saw for sale on the street sides. She decided to open Della, a clothing line that markets ethical and sustainable fashion. Today, the company provides more than sixty Ghanaians with a source of livelihood, health care and social security benefits, along with weekly literacy courses and money management training. It has partnered with Apple, Urban Outfitters, ModCloth and TOMS to bring its colorful designs to socially responsible consumers.
24700 interviewed Tangalakis about Della and her time at CalArts.
24700: What made you want to start Della?
Tina Tangalakis (TT): Before Della, I worked as a wardrobe stylist in Los Angeles. Working in the fashion and costume industry had been my dream for as long as I could remember, but after getting some hands-on experience, I began to feel like I was lacking a deeper purpose and started to feel uninspired. At this point, I decided to take some time off and volunteer for a month in Ghana. While in Ghana, I fell in love with the textiles and the friendly people I met. I worked closely with a seamstress to design a bag (that I wanted to bring back as a souvenir). As soon as I saw the finished product, the idea hit me: why not produce in Ghana? They needed jobs, the products were beautiful, and I wanted to design on my own terms. It was the perfect fit.
24700: What’s a typical day like at Della?
TT: We have two headquarters: one in Los Angeles and the other in Hohoe, Ghana. In Los Angeles, we have our own artist’s loft in Culver City. It’s a very communal, artistic space that reminds me a lot of my days at CalArts. In Ghana, a typical work day starts at 8 am where we have a large team of seamstresses and batik makers who work on various products. The team in Ghana is run by two US employees who manage production, with our Ghanaian co-founder, who oversees the operations side of the business.
24700: What is it like being a hands-on owner of a business that spans two time zones? What are the challenges and the rewards?
TT: That’s an interesting question. For the first three years of having the business, I used to joke that I didn’t sleep. Thankfully, things have changed, but it still is a challenge. The team in Ghana tends to wake up right when I’m going to bed, so often I need to stay awake long enough to give them proper feedback on their workday. We have a great team of managers in Ghana who are in constant communication with me, so things like the internet and text messaging make communication more efficient.
Running a business in Ghana has many challenges and rewards. One of the biggest obstacles has been sourcing raw materials for production. The most significant problem is that the range of fabrics, findings (Editor’s note: trims, buttons, hooks, snaps, or embellishments), and industrial machines available in the country are limited. However, we have found creative ways to work around these challenges and it has been tremendously exciting working together as a team to problem solve as we expand the line.
So far, the most rewarding experience has been seeing the progress that the Ghana team has made. It is inspiring, because most of the women who work with us started with very little. Paying their rent and for their children’s school fees seemed almost impossible to many of them. Esenam, one of our head seamstresses, is one of Della’s most remarkable women. She is a young single mother who is raising both her daughter and her nephew, whom she adopted after her sister passed away. When she applied for a job at Della she was having a difficult time making ends meet. Over the past three years, Esenam has worked her way up to head seamstress and is now one of the highest paid employees on the team. She mentors other seamstresses and helps with our Money Management & Saving Program. Now she is not only able to support her children, but she also helps support other family members and is proud of the example she sets for others in her community.
24700: What’s next for Della?
TT: We’ve been fortunate enough to partner with some rather large companies in the past few years, and I’m happy to say that the partnerships continue to grow. We had a successful clothing launch with Urban Outfitters this year, and we will continue to work with them in 2014. Della also has a new partnership with VANS for 2014, which I am excited about. Not only does this help our business, but it allows our impact, both in Ghana and the US, to continue to grow.
24700: What advice can you give to CalArts graduates and students who might be inspired to start their own business?
TT: Follow what you love and don’t give up. The important thing about starting a business is finding something you are passionate about and then believing in it enough never to stop. The one thing all successful business owners have in common is that they kept going, even when times got rough. Starting a business has a lot of triumphs and challenges, so you need to find something you believe in enough to keep working at. Also, I find that having a creative mind has helped me come up with unique solutions when faced with a challenge.
24700: Would you share some CalArts memories with us?
TT: CalArts holds a lot of fond memories for me. Personally, the best thing about the school was the community of artists who were always inspiring me to do more and think outside the box. On top of that, one of the best experiences I had was organizing the Halloween Party in 1999. This gave me my first hands-on experience with working on a production and learning what it’s about. The experience was also unique because we didn’t have a lot of faculty working on the party with us, so we had to come up with solutions on our own. It was a great, exhausting, but extremely rewarding experience.
And as for teachers, one of my favorite class memories was sitting in Michael Smith’s History of Architecture class making jokes about “flying buttresses.” Not only did he have a great sense of humor, but I really soaked in all that he was trying to teach.