Women in the World: Tilburg

By Joanna Francis This month in "Women of the World", I wanted to learn more about what it takes to have a business which works collaboratively with women in developing countries to create and sell beautiful and ethically made products.

Recently I bought a gorgeous bag for my mum (that's her modelling it above!) and was fascinated by the story and ethics behind the label. Leanne Mutsaers is the woman behind Tilburg, a boutique fashion accessories purveyor based in Melbourne, and today she shares her story with us.

Can you tell us a little bit about the history and philosophy of Tilburg?

Tilburg’s story is woven with a rich tapestry of family history and years of memorable travel, which has inspired and unraveled this journey of passion to present beautifully designed pieces to consumers with a social and eco conscience.

Bags & accessories in the collection are individually handcrafted using talent and skill from artisans from around the globe and in Australia and feature natural materials such as hand woven hemp and organic cotton.

It’s all about moving away from mass production & appreciating well made products.

I had been an Art & Design teacher for a few years before I quit full time work – I was tired of teaching design and just wanted to do it myself! I knew it would be centered around handbags as I could never find one I liked and hated the ‘bling’ look. When I lived in London for a few years, I used to keep a book of future business ideas. This was one of them. Making the transition though has been endless hard work, sleepless nights and a lot of sacrifice and money. I have a lot of family members running their own business, so inevitably it was in my blood too. I didn’t want to be one of those people in 20 years saying “If only I had….” So I did.

What drew you to wanting to work with women artists in developing countries and how did you come to be working with these particular groups of women?

One particular trip to Thailand enabled me to have a light bulb moment – that’s where I met one of my current business partners. I came across her shop and products and fell in love with the artisan qualities and natural fibres still being used. That got me very excited and I made a decision there and then that I wanted to work as ethically and sustainably as possible – this was the direction I wanted to take with my business. Then I had to figure out how to get her onboard with me. This business relationship did not happen overnight, it took 2 years and many flights back and forth to develop trust, friendship and a business plan together. She utilises rural groups for hand woven fabrics, and employs local women to make the bags and work in her shops. They are all paid fairly and all of the women I have met at the shop just love their jobs!

 How does the collaborative process work?

The collaborative process works in a few ways. My partner in Thailand creates the bags from start to finish. I have a hand in colours and styles that may work in Australia. We talk on skype often if I can’t get there and we are always talking about new designs, colours, fabrics and production issues. One of the biggest issues we face is that a thing like hand weaving is an art form that is being lost. Many of the young hilltribe people do not want to keep up the art and move to the cities. We are already thinking about what other options we have for fabrics and fibres.

I’m also currently working on 2 other collaborations with Australian artists, and we are feeling our way through that process. A meeting of minds, ideas and talent!

How does being involved improve the lives of the women who are working on these projects?

Being involved and taking an active interest allows the livelihoods of women in developing countries to quite simply earn a living. This may be through maintaining artisan skills in small villages that rely on this as their sole livelihood or working in a shop and learning English. Many of these women also get to make the bags in their own homes, which enable them to look after their family.

Tilburg also donates to charities from the communities I work from – helping women and children.

What are some of the challenges you have faced and lessons you've learned?

My biggest challenge is finding consumers with a conscience about what they are buying. I have watched many a customer pick up PVC bags thinking they were leather, buy a cheaper mass produced item over items made by an Australian business that are slightly dearer. I’d love to see consumers a bit more savvy about what they are buying.  If you find something you love, spread the word! The other challenge is internet exposure and advertising. How do you compete with the big guns?!

Another hurdle has been learning how to deal with cultural differences. I work out of Indonesia and Thailand – both very different in the way they conduct business. At times completely frustrating, but the more I learn, the more patient I get. You just have to roll with the way they do things and work your business around that. Developing trust with business partners is a huge investment of travel and time. You just can’t do it over an email. The best relationships are formed in person.

Where can we find out more/ buy products/ assist?

My products are available online at www.tilburg.com.au

I only do small runs so if you see something you like, grab it! I am also stocking in small boutiques. You will not find Tilburg in a shopping centre. As I said earlier – if you find something you love become part of the tribe and spread the word. That’s the only way businesses such as Tilburg, with a different philosophy can make its mark and keep doing great things.

Joanna Francis spends most of her time hanging out with her one year old son. But she also works for a children’s foundation and has recently started her own little business making baby quilts. It goes without saying that her house is a mess. In the past, Joanna has worked as an aid worker in several developing countries, and is passionate about the rights of women and children. You can visit her and her blog at www.miettehandmade.com