With the recent rise in popularity of bohemian garb and more focus being given to traditionally-made clothing from cultures that span the globe, the fashion and handmade landscape has forever changed — a trend which, for Haitian designer Sophia Demirtas of Fanm Mòn Designs, is worth celebrating.
What started as a jewelry line on Etsy a few years ago has now bloomed into a successful brand offering everything from footwear and handbags, to dresses and jumpsuits. These pieces celebrate both Sophia’s Haitian roots and traditional clothing from cultures across the globe, most recently taking the form of Vyshyvankas from the Ukraine. Rather than catering to the masses, Fanm Mòn’s colorful handmade items pay homage and bring joy to its wearers — who are as unique as the pieces — and today, Sophia is sharing more about giving up control and doing more with less. –Sabrina
Portrait Photo by Kerem Demirtas
Why did you decide to start your own business, versus work for someone else?
I certainly did not plan [on] having my own business in my younger years. I grew up knowing an education was the best option. After receiving my BA, I worked as a social worker for a few years in a homeless shelter for the mentally-ill in NYC while I continued with my masters degree studies. As soon as I graduated, I got a job at another non-profit organization as a unit director. I was 23 years old.
My age was an issue to those I supervised, particularly the older women who had been in the job forever, hoping they would acquire my position. There I was, at 23 years old, dealing with women who were old enough to be my mother who I thought acted immaturely. It was a stress I did not feel I needed in my prime years of life, so I started to think of a way out…
Luckily, it was around this time that I started dating the man who would later become my husband, and his suggestion to start my own business changed my life — and ultimately both of our lives.
Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work? How did you discover what it was, and how did you know it was what you wanted to do?
Having spent most of my life in NYC where I lived a very active life, I was always with people who foresaw my journey [into fashion] way before I ever could. I never believed the message because I thought, “well, they know I modeled in high school and that I love fashion, so their comments/suggestions maybe due to that.” I never envisioned what they saw back then. I wasn’t ready, I guess.
My own creativity came to life when I found the artist who changed my life, Anita Quansah London. Her pieces did not just speak to me, they found a home within my soul and became the source of nutrition that nourished the artistic seed that had been in me all my life.
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
I have been given a lot of great advice, but the one I will share is not really advice, it’s more-so a message that I only recently was ready to hear from Elizabeth Streek, a life coach and dear friend of mine (and an older, wiser and loving woman): In my struggle to juggle life, being a mom, wife, a new move to a new country, a new home… Elizabeth told me clearly and directly that I had too much on my plate. She felt that I had too many things under my umbrella at once as far as the business was concerned. I initially had jewelry, bohemian clothes, African clothes, home decor among other things. Her being sincerely honest was such an eye-opener for me. It really allowed me to re-evaluate all the products I offered, products that were so dear to me and ones I wanted to share with the world. I had to hold onto some and put others away, until I am better able to undertake them. It was so hard to do, but I am thankful for having made the decision. Out of the decision to shift my focus and put all my energy in a primary product, my Vyshyvanka line was created. I retired the home decor section for now, while I nurture the growth of the clothes, jewelry and footwear.
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
TIME! After I had my first child, time became more valuable to me — and the days often seem to be less than 24 hours, haha.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
To never stretch myself thin. It is so difficult to not want to do it all, especially when ideas are pouring out of your head, but I’ve learned that it’s best to be realistic. Yes, know I can do it all, but prioritizing is vital. At the beginning, I was making every single product myself and it was extremely difficult. Now that I work with a small team, I still have that same energy, so, I have to constantly tell myself, to not overdo it.
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences that you learned from or that helped you improve your business or the way you work?
I am not sure if it was a moment of failure, but leaving Etsy was a hard experience, but one I knew that I had to embrace if ever I wanted to be successful.
If you were magically given three more hours per day, what would you do with them?
All would be for my husband and two boys. Do not get me wrong, we spend a lot of time together as a family, but with a growing business, the business has become our third child. Being online makes it nearly impossible to not always have the business with us. We find ourselves always willing and ready to be made available to our lovely customers. Answering emails, or to have live chats with our customers while out to dinner, or at the play park, has become the norm for us. We love and appreciate our customers, but with three added hours, I would leave the phone behind!
What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?
Being in total control… When you are a one-person show, you are in total control, but when you start to grow and work with others you realize you are not in control — even if all the decisions come from you. This is actually something I think about a lot… I was very comfortable doing everything on my own, but it is not realistic in order to grow. In every entrepreneur’s journey, I think they will be forced with this decision as they grow… do you remain in your comfort zone and be in charge of everything? Or grow and have partial control? I sacrificed the total control I had over my business the minute I decided it was time to move up the ladder. So be it working with experienced sales people, management, production, I had to let them have some form of control to help the brand rise.
Can you name your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your business experiences?
The jewelry is not only well received, but loved. The vyshyvankas also — people are in love with how beautifully made they are, and most importantly, their outstanding quality. The feedback from the buyers in regards to how they feel wearing each piece always puts a smile on my face.
What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?
I follow my intuition, trust my instinct, and believe in all the decisions I make/made, good or bad. I never had the chance to read any business books.
Has failing at something or quitting ever led to success for you? Walk us through that.
My husband would love to answer this one, haha. In my book, I have never failed at anything. Some people equate failing in business to either not making profit or losing money, but I look at this from a different standpoint. Have I lost money? Sure, but whatever I learn that benefits me in the present or future is not a failure. Some learning journeys come at a high financial cost, but I choose to look beyond money. A lot of what seemed like a failure in the past is actually benefiting me today in a matured state of mind.
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
1 Are you willing to give it your all from start to finish?
2 Are you willing to hold on, no matter what, and never give up?
3 Build a strong (or even stronger) sense of self.
What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious?
The management of it all. I am 100% active in all aspects of the brand.