Most times, craft is an evolution – of style, of process, of finding where exactly your ideas fit. Today we introduce you to Leigh-Anne Dean who has evolved her style, honed her skill and fine tuned her business plans over the past twenty years. She is the designer and creator of appliquéd and screen printed accessories such as pencil pouches, purses, totes.
Read on to learn more about Leigh-Anne and how she got to where she is today.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I have lived most of my life in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. I had always been interested in drawing and creative projects and that shaped a lot of my identity as I grew up. In high school when I began to consider creative career options it seemed like I had two choices: advertising or graphic design. Being a fashion designer was my dream, but it seemed too unattainable. After trying a year at Ryerson in Toronto, I transferred to the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design where I chose to pursue textiles, not graphic arts. With access to the studio and time to explore the medium I really began to see craft as more than a hobby. I made some first attempts at product design while at school. I printed underwear to give as gifts, took a wearable art workshop & designed some quilts about nightmares for my studio project, Discomforters. I started a small business, Lock Up Your Sons Productions, with 2 wonderful friends selling purses made of fun fur, vinyl and toy handcuffs. In 1998, I graduated, rented a small studio space and began my first solo business, Winter Design for Body & Bed.
In 2001, I moved to Montreal and took a break from my business to start a family with my husband, Matt. I put most of my creative energy into personal projects. Curtains for our apartment, reupholstering old furniture and making my own wedding dress. I worked for several production businesses as a screen printer and seamstress and I learned a lot about making and planning products. We returned to Dartmouth in 2012, and after a long break from making my own work, it felt like the right time to start up a new creative venture of my own. I set up a new workspace & I have been steadily building my collection of handmade accessories as Leigh-Anne Dean.
Your illustrations are so fun, with a mix of lightheartedness with a dash of naughtiness tossed in. Where do you find your inspiration?
My work right now is inspired my friendship, love & mischief, often with a twist of dark humor. I like to watch how children play and how adults interact. A lot of my designs come from people and events I observe in life and then my imagination pushes them just a little bit further to create characters and patterns. I like making new shapes with close up details of objects, using silhouettes or by making crowds of things. I have also been a magazine addict for most of my life. I love the creativity and ridiculous element of editorial fashion. Sometimes my drawings come from a great photograph that inspires me.
You have been perfecting your craft for twenty years. What evolution have you seen in your work?
When I was studying textiles at NSCAD, I really thought I wanted to design and produce bedding and home accessories. I tried making screen printed quilts and pillows and they were really quite awful. Screen printing and drawing were definitely my favourite media, but I was trying too hard to make my artwork fit on the wrong type of products. After selling weekly at the Brewery Market in Halifax in the late 1990s, I discovered that bags and fashion accessories were a better fit. I took a break from my creative business when I moved to Montreal, and gained some professional experience in printing, production and designing at a time when technology and process were changing very quickly. I also started a family and having my boys changed how I created as well as what I had time and space to do. When we moved back to Dartmouth, I felt really ready to start selling my work again. I have gained confidence in my production and design abilities, I have fine-tuned my sewing skills, and I have so many more tools to get my products to the right customers.
What about the evolution of selling your work? Online selling has become such a large part of getting your product out to a global audience, yet you also are very active in the local craft market scene. Is there a difference in how you navigate the sales process between these two very different styles of venue?
It has just been over that past couple of years that I have started selling and promoting my work online. Having an Etsy shop makes it possible for me to be open for business every day to customers that would never see my work at a local show. It gives me a professional storefront to showcase what I make, and gives people a chance to learn more about my process and each item that they might not take time to find out otherwise. When I prepare a listing, I have to really think about the details of each piece and how to make it possible to find it in a search when I won’t be there to explain it myself.
Craft markets are still important to me not just for sales, but for connecting with customers and other vendors. Personal and spontaneous conversations give a real sense of what people respond to and what they are looking for. I love the craft show experience! Even if I am not a vendor, I still attend all of the shows as a shopper to see what people are making, talk with them about their projects and buy handmade from other businesses. Doing shows almost always leads to new online followers and conversely, people will check online to find out about my next sales event in town.
You are approaching your first year anniversary of your etsy shop. What was the single steepest learning curve for you when it came to selling online? Do you sell on other online venues?
When I started my first business, the internet was not available as a tool to sell or promote my work, so trying to connect with customers online does not come naturally to me. Learning to explain, describe, photograph and brand my products so people will understand my business and trust me enough to make a purchase is a huge job all on its own. When I first created my Etsy shop, I never expected anyone would visit it or buy anything. I felt like I needed a place to direct people to view my products as a portfolio mare than a shop. I am still learning to embrace it as a tool to make sales. Aside from getting requests through my Facebook page for specific items that people have seen at shows or in stores, Etsy is currently the only place to buy my products online.
Between being involved in the Maritime Makers and the NSDCC what do you feel are the benefits of working as a team over going it completely alone?
I work from home in my basement studio and there are days when I don’t see or talk to anyone besides my kids. It is very easy to get stuck on an accounting question, a creative road block, a problem with a customer, etc. Having team members to call on for advice is so valuable. Having a network of people to share and collaborate with has really pushed me to take my work seriously and have the confidence to keep going with my business.
Do you have any sound advice to share with new crafters?
Visit lots of shows, stores and online shops to see what is out there and what people are buying. Take advantage of free resources and workshops available in your community and online to help you start your business. Don’t be afraid to ask for help with a problem. Asking another crafter or posting a question online will often get you some helpful advice, get you out of a rut and help you move forward more quickly.
Thank you so much, Leigh-Anne for sharing your story and thoughts with us today.
Check out Leigh-Ann Dean Designs on etsy.