Robin Fitzsimon, the founder of Fitzy, a brand dedicated to modern leather goods, opened her business by simply creating a new item every day for a year. The 365 project first turned into an Etsy shop, then it became Fitzsimon’s full-time job. Sharing a studio in Toronto with paper artist Ali Harrison, Fitzsimon makes modern leather backpacks, bow ties, cord keepers, and more. Her new green and gray leather items will appear in Etsy: Made in Canada show at the MaRS building on September 23.
Sveta: Robin, your 365 project sounds really inspiring. Tell me how it helped you to start your business.
Robin: It was kind of crazy, but also really good. I made something every day for a year, and I posted it online by midnight. I did drawing, painting, sculpture… I started doing jewellery and working with leather. And then I started doing leather jewellery. Because I was posting every day, I had friends and family following. So they knew if I didn’t get it done on time.
I had a lot of people saying, Oh, your stuff is really great! You should start selling it. I never thought that I would own my business. I haven’t been to a business class or something like that. But with Etsy, it’s so easy to start your own shop, and I was like, Why not? I opened my Etsy shop in 2013. And then I sell my pieces online, I sell to stores mostly in North America but some overseas as well. It just kind of snowballed, and then it became a full-time.
S: Were you still at school at that time?
R: No, I had finished school. I went to OCAD, and I have a BFA in Sculpture and Installation. I was looking for a way that’ll bring some spontaneity back to my art work ‘cause when you are making art for school, it always has to be very well thought out. It takes a long time. So I missed doing stuff like quickly and not overthinking things. That is what the 365 project was for me. I only had until midnight and couldn’t overthink – I just had to get it done and not worry about it too much. And sometimes I made the stuff that was not really great, but sometimes it was really great.
S: What is the hardest and what is the best thing in running your own brand?
R: The hardest part is just making sure you have enough money to pay your bills and buy materials. You make more money in different times of the year. You have to account for that. That’s may be the one thing that you don’t love. The best thing is…I don’t even know. I love being in charge and making my own schedule. It’s just me, so I can decide how I wanna do it. Being able to work with your hands every day and make your own things is really amazing. It’s really cool to be like, I made that from start to finish. It’s a real sense of pride in doing that. It’s also really fun to be surrounded by creative people.
S: What was the first item you sold and how did you feel about it?
R: The first piece I sold was a green leather bracelet. It was in that moment when my business finally felt real.
S: Do you always make your pieces by yourself?
R: I make everything myself in the studio except for the screen printed pieces. I have a printer that does the screen printing for me.
S: Where do you get your materials from?
R: Lots of different places. All our hardware is a manufacture of the States, and all of our leather is from local suppliers.
S: What is the main element of your style?
R: I always try to use really nice hardware, and especially in my purses I like to use copper rivets, so they add an interesting colour to the piece that you don’t see everywhere.
S: And what makes the rest of your pieces unique?
R: I think it’s the aesthetic. I try to go for something very clean and minimal. Everything is there for a reason. I don’t want any extra pips and bows and things like that. A lot of my pieces are stuff that you’ve never seen before.
S: Do you organize your pieces in collections?
R: I’m just trying to design items that people will really love and that will last for a really long time. So I try to do less but better. I don’t want to come up with a new piece all the time – I want to make sure that everything I’m making is done very specifically. Like I’m trying design a bag in a way that makes sense for what the bag needs to be.
Though, I’m starting to do kind of seasonal colours. The dark green leather and the grey leather are both brand new for fall [points at freshly-made backpack and bag hanging on the wall of her studio]. And for the first time you’ll be able to get them at the show. It’s been fun to work with the colour rather than do just black and brown, which are nice classic leather colours, but people seem to really like the colour.
S: How would your describe your customers?
R: Usually, urban women 25 to 35 who really appreciate handmade. Generally, creative types looking for something cool but also want to spend their money on something they really need.
S: I know you’ve participated in One of a Kind and Makeology craft shows. Is it your first time at Etsy: Made in Canada?
R: I always do Etsy: Made in Canada show. It’s so good. I wasn’t actually there last year, but I had my sister running the booth, and it went very well.
S: What do you like most about shows like that?
R: It’s only one day, and all the customers are so good. Everyone is really excited ‘cause everybody likes that scene. It’s like our perfect target market. It’s kind of going to a summer camp. You get to see all of your maker-friends. You only see each other at the shows because everyone is working. Usually craft shows that’s when the community comes together.
S: Are there any designers/makers who inspire you?
R: I wouldn’t say I have one favourite designer. It’s always nice to look to other makers to get an advice and inspiration. Like Arounna Khounnoraj from bookhou. She’s been my mentor. She’s so generous with her help. She came up to me during One of a Kind show. She’s very successful in a Toronto scene, and she gave me all that amazing advices.
S: How did you used those advices?
R: I used to hand sew before I made bags, when I just made little accessories. And she was just like, Why don’t you have a leather sewing machine? You could make stuff so much bigger because hand sewing takes so long. And then I did, and it was a game changer. It was so much better, I started making bags. It’s great to be able to make stuff so much faster than before.
S: What else besides new leather colours should the attendants expect from you?
R: We’ll also have the brand new large backpacks and Toronto T-shirts. It’s like a spin on the ways people say “Toronto”. So you know, if you are from Toronto, you don’t say the second “T”.
S: Any special plans for the near future?
R: I’m trying to do more teaching. I teach leather workshops too. I’ll be doing one at the show. I have an online workshop through Skillshare. I want to do it more often.
S: What is your favourite Fitzy item right now?
R: It’s a mini backpack, the little kind of triangle one. That is new from spring. I try to ride my bike as much as I can in the summer, but regular purses don’t work very well when you riding your bike, so I wanted a cute little backpack that worked well as a purse, but that was hands-free. Right now it’s my favourite, but it will probably change in a few months.