Elevate Your Travel Style

Elevate Your Travel Style

April 27th, 2018  |  Published in Artists, Business

Michelle Twite is the founder and creator of the leather goods company, NOKÉO, based in Austin, Texas. In 2017, she launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to produce a very special ‘Journey Bag’ using traditional hand woven and hand dyed textiles from Laos. 

By Michelle Twite

I started designing the Journey Bag almost a year before launching it on Kickstarter. I began with sketches, which turned into paper prototypes, then three leather prototypes I constructed myself. I sent these on to a manufacturer to be perfected and produced. It was about a 5-month process from prototype to final sample. For the featured textiles on the front pocket of the bags, I worked with Lao weavers in Luang Prabang and Houaphan Province who hand loomed the custom designed textiles for me. It was such a challenging and rewarding part of the process.

My late great-grandmother was a master weaver in Laos. She taught other women in her hometown of Pakse how to weave their own clothes and textiles. My mom once asked my great-grandma to make her replicas of various Lao sinh (skirts) worn by popular celebrities. My mom said everything she made was more beautiful than the original. My great-grandmother’s example motivates me to continue the legacy of empowering women to achieve their full potential, utilizing the skills they have developed. She is the true inspiration for Nokéo.

Before the Journey Bag Kickstarter Campaign, I was making all of the bags myself. Each collection was handcrafted in small batches, but most of my past business was working with private clients to design custom bags to suit their needs. At one time, I had a 6-month waitlist! As Nokéo continued to grow, I knew I needed help. Knowing it was time to scale, I turned to Kickstarter to help “kick start” the manufacturing process for Nokéo. I love that Kickstarter is a community of innovators, pioneers, artists, and trailblazers. That’s why I chose it as a perfect venue for the Journey Bag launch. Each bag that I design has a story and the Journey Bag, inspired by my parents’ journey as refugees, is no different.

I am grateful to have such talented friends and family members, who filmed b-roll footage for the video, did the photography shoots and helped to get the word out. I made the final graphics and my awesome husband helped me put the Kickstarter page together. It was a great team effort and I couldn’t be more proud of the result. We were 71% funded in just 24-hours after launch. In less than a week, we were 100% funded! The campaign lasted 30 days (180% to goal) and because it was a success, I was able to bring the Journey Bags to life. The finished bags arrived at my studio on March 2018 and we shipped them out to the original 126 backers soon after. We have been receiving awesome reviews about them.

I am thrilled to announce that the Journey Bags are now for sale on our website (https://nokeo.co/), along with colorful handmade bags featuring the handwoven Lao fabric and one of my favorite leather accessories, our Spec Clips (https://nokeo.co/products/spec-clip). I also still take orders for customizations of my bags. The wait time for those is typically 8-10 weeks. Coming soon to the website are decorative pillowcases made from handwoven Lao textiles. Also, without giving everything away, I’m currently working on a new bag design inspired by an everyday item in the Laotian household. Stay tuned!

Nokéo is growing and we are now partnering with a leather workshop in Mexico comprised of three families who have generations of leather-work experience. We love the passion that they have for leather-craft and are grateful to have them on our team. We also work with Laotian weavers who made the colorful textiles on the Journey Bag. I have a passion for helping sustain cultural techniques and I gravitate towards beautiful traditional hand work. I want to have full-time artisans in Laos who collaborate with Nokéo to create new products and designs and eventually have similar setups in other countries around the world. My vision for Nokéo is to become a lifestyle company where we not only make our own accessories, but clothing and home goods as well. Keeping in line with our mission, which is to empower women by creating economic opportunities through fashion — celebrating traditional artistry through modern form. I believe that fashion has the power to connect people; especially when there is a purpose behind each product.

My family has been so supportive of my passions and chosen career as a fashion designer. Contrary to some stereotypes, they never once told me that I needed to become a doctor or lawyer. I think at a young age, my parents knew I was going to do something creative. My sisters live in Austin and are the absolute best support system. They are keen to help any time I ask and for any reason. With the Kickstarter project, they helped with everything from the photoshoot, to editing the copy, to helping me ship out all of the Journey Bags. I’m so lucky to have them. After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin, I knew I had two paths: 1) go work for a fashion company for several years and promote their vision instead of my own, or 2) take a leap of faith and use my own talents and past internship experiences and set out on my own to pursue my own vision and brand. I chose the latter. I gravitated to leather accessories because I felt that it was the best way to start a new fashion company on my own. I didn’t have to worry about different sizes because accessories are inclusive and one size fits all. I taught myself everything I needed to know about leather and how to work with it. I’m still constantly learning as I go. I credit my university education for the knowledge and hands-on experiences that helped propelled me into starting my own business and my husband, Matt, for believing in my talents and encouraging me to pursue my passions.

I learned from hands-on experience through internships while in college. I wanted to take advantage of learning the different aspects of a fashion brand while I was still in school, to help me decide what area of fashion I wanted to pursue a career in. I had internships where I did layout graphic design for a local magazine, a fashion marketing internship for a now multi-million dollar company. My favorite internship was with an Austin social enterprise that employed recently resettled refugee women, by teaching them how to sew. I was a design and production intern for them and loved getting to know the women. I got to create and design new products for them every day. A few of my designs were sold to some of their wholesale accounts. All in all, through the experiences, I learned enough code to customize my own websites, how to manage all of the marketing and social media for my company, how to construct things technically so that I can intelligently speak to my manufacturers.

All of these experiences not only gave me the building blocks to start Nokéo on the right footing, but they also helped with creating and driving a successful Kickstarter campaign. There have definitely been missteps, but they have all been huge learning experiences. I plan to take everything I have learned from this Kickstarter project and continue to change and grow. The Kickstarter project was a success, not only because we exceeded our goal, but because I now have established relationships with some great people that will help propel Nokéo. The possibilities for the future of Nokéo are endless and I’m excited to see what is to come!