Designer, entrepreneur, mother: Natalie Dusome is a woman that wears a lot of stylish hats. Her accessories brand Poppy & Peonies was launched in 2016 and her fashionable and functional handbags have garnered her a huge following and well-deserved brand recognition since.
I had the opportunity to speak with Dusome one evening in Toronto, where she appeared in a whirlwind of warmth and positive energy. I asked her about starting a business, growing up in a small town, and why finding your old designs from school is actually a good thing.
Natasha Grodzinski: When did you first discover a passion for designing?
Natalie Dusome: Honestly, I’ve always loved fashion, since I was a little girl. I come from Penetanguishine, which is this tiny town, there’s 700 people. I was always so different than everyone else. The other kids int the town weren’t into fashion at all, and I can remember begging my mom at seriously, eight years old, to buy fashion magazines! What kid does that? It was just this fantasy world. I would open up the magazines and it would take me somewhere else. Of course, I love where I’m from and I’m so grateful for where I’m from because it has kept me very grounded and humble, and I had a great upbringing. One of my grandmothers loved to sew, the other one loved to draw and my dad is a carpenter. With all of these different influences my life, I was led to fashion design.
NG: That’s a very creative environment to grow up in, and it’s you putting your own love into it.
ND: My grandmother would always be making us clothes for our Barbies and I would sit there and cut the fabric with her. I didn’t realize at the time, you know I was four years old, what an impact that would have on me. Even my dad, he would design all of these things: furniture, kitchenware, he even made his own barbecue. He would come up with his own idea and then go into the garage and would bring it to life. I think that being in that environment groomed me for what I want to do.
NG: It’s really nice to hear about a creative home like that where you feel like you’re able to grow and express yourself.
ND: Yes! And what was really awesome is my mom works at a hospital and my father’s a carpenter so they did not know any kids who were into fashion, but they didn’t care. They said, “If this is what you want and this is your dream, we’re going to fully support you.” I find that’s rare.
NG: I know you went to Ryerson for fashion design and then went the corporate route. What was that transition like, to go from small town to big city?
ND: I took a minor in marketing when I was in school. I was always interested in the business side of fashion. I was always fascinated by it. We had students in our class who were so creative that they never wanted to make anything that someone could actually wear. I was interested in something wearable but with an edge. For me, working for companies like Abercrombie or Fossil was so cool because I was able to see, okay, this is what people actually like to wear. This is what people are buying. In fashion design, you can make such crazy, out-there designs, but at the end of the day people want simple with a twist. They want wearable or functional but with a little something different. The experience I had in that commercial world really helped me towards what I do today.
NG: It seems like a perfect marriage of interests to start your own business: the creative side with the marketing side.
ND: Yes, because our bags are trendy and affordable but they also have the functionality. That’s something different we have for the product.
NG: I actually wanted to ask about this: as a businesswoman and a mom, I imagine function came into your brain when you were conceptualizing the brand.
ND: That’s really where it came from. Before, I was living in New York and it was always fashion first for me. I was a huge fashionista. I would run around New York in heels until I had blisters!
NG: I know about that!
ND: And you do it. You’re like, “I don’t care, this is fashion and I look good.” When you become a mom, it’s like, oh God, I can’t be running around with heels and this baby. You need to still find ways to express yourself and your fashion, but do it in a wearable way that has functionality for your new life. That’s really where it came from; I became a monad realized my old style wasn’t working with this new part in my life. Looking around I realized a lot of people were just like me and needed the same things.
NG: It’s akin to how I was a little happy when sneakers became cool again. I’m gonna save my arches.
ND: Yes, exactly! And the thing is when you’re out of school and getting into your career it’s the most important thing. But you realize there are ways to look good and still have function and comfort.
NG: When you did decide to start your own brand, was the accessories the first place you went to? Or did you play around with other ideas?
ND: I’ve always done handbag design. It’s a bit funny, I created this line of handbags when I was 16 years old. I approached a local boutique to carry my bags and they must have felt sorry for me because they did carry them. They were these wire, beaded bags and I look back and just howl because they were so funny. When I did my collection at Ryerson, it was very denim, wearable, which got me my job at Abercrombie but I also designed these handbags, which were pretty nice considering I was young and in school. I’ve just always been passionate about handbags and accessories.
NG: Do you ever pull out one of those ones from school?
ND: Oh my god, I howl! You know how mom’s always store your stuff from school? My mum said to me, “Nat, I need to clean out some of this stuff, please help me.” And we were rolling on the floor laughing about the stuff I had made at Ryerson. My dad was always so supportive and I had these metal plates he engraved ‘Dusome,’ my last name on so I could make little labels. We had this little press so I could make the labels. It was so funny.
NG: I used to write creatively a lot in high school and some I read back, I think, ehhhhhhh.
ND: Exactly, but it’s cool to see how far I’ve come. I found some old handbag sketches from school and think, wow. It’s the progression.
NG: When you made that decision, was it terrifying?
ND: It was terrifying. At the time I had been working for Aldo for five years. I was their head designer. I was travelling to London, Paris, China, Italy, it was a dream. From the time I was little girl, I would see these editors, designers and socialites, these high-powered women and I would dream about being one of them. I worked so hard and became one of those designers at a reputable, amazing company. Not only did I reach my dream, but I loved my boss and the work I did. So, to leave my dream job to start my own company scared the shit out of me. It really did. But I knew in the long run, for the sake of my family and for me always wanting to start my own company, it was now or never.
NG: You have always wanted to start your own business then?
ND: Yes, and it’s funny, back home a lot of us are parents now so we had this high school party where we got sitters and acted like we were in high school. I found my old yearbook picture and it asked, what are you goals and whatnot. Under “What’s your goal?” it read, “To build a million-dollar global brand.” And that was in Grade 9. Laughs. But I did it! I mean, we’re not quite at that level but we’re well on our way.
NG: The brand really is blowing up right now.
ND: It’s been amazing. We’ve had so much support. It’s unbelievable. The influencers, the press and everything we’ve had has been unreal.
NG: When you see one of your bags in the street…
ND: I love it. People must think I’m nuts because I’m staring at them. Even in our town, a small community, everyone is so supportive. I’ll be having a crummy day, I’ll go to the grocery store and see five women wearing my bag and I think, how can I have a bad day?
NG: That must feel so good.
ND: It’s really cool. Not all of the customers who buy bags will recognize me, of course, so once someone was in front of me in the coffee line and I said, “Oh, I really love your bag.” She said, “It’s Poppy and Peonies, it’s a local brand,” and I don’t want to embarrass them so I play it off. Sometimes I say it and sometimes I don’t.
NG: It’s that validation for all the hard work.
ND: It’s so rewarding, especially at places you don’t expect it. I’ll be at Pearson or in other cities and I’ll see it. It’s so nice to make a product that people like and excites them.
NG: For any other young designers thinking about starting their brand, do you have any advice for them?
ND: I think loving what you do and being passionate are the most important things. Sometimes things get so tough that you want to give up and the passion is all that keeps you going. If you don’t have that, it would be easy to let something go. It takes determination, perseverance and a positive attitude to get you through those difficult times. You need to love it so much that you would do it for free, you would stay up until four a.m. doing it, you would do it on vacation. Trust me, there are days where it gets so tough. If you really love it, you’ll succeed at it.
Interview has been condensed for print.