Spoken words aren’t the only thing that connect people – written words can do the same thing too. As eery as it may sound, you can relate to someone without being in their presence. When Anto and I first exchanged emails, there was something there and I knew our notes via email would surpass double, even triple digits. And I was right – two years after we “met,” Anto and I still send each out messages weekly and we’re planning a get together this Christmas. I had this same type of feeling when Zenaida, owner of el Hustle (one of my sponsors), and I “met.” I could tell in a couple of paragraphs that she and I beat to the same drum, and after interviewing her, that became even more apparent. From her answers, you can tell that she has a deep passion for what she does – she sources all her products for her handbags meticulously and with a purpose. I’m happy to share her story with you today, and I hope you enjoy her as much as I have.

My name is Zenaida and I am the designer of the accessory line el Hustle.

As a child, a large Chinese camphor trunk placed inside my room by my parents held little relics of my family history. This trunk and its contents, as it turns out, influenced my life to be what it is today.

Handmade baby dresses, booties, hats and capes made by the women in my family to prepare for my arrival were kept inside of this trunk, as was the velour footie I wore home from the hospital after my birth. Fabrics from Africa. A painting smock from Kindergarten. All there, kept untouched under brass clasp lock.

As the years passed, my mother and grandmother Celeste continued adding to it and when they could, they’d put aside a little money to buy a set of bath towels, kitchen towels and the like – things I would need as a young woman in my own home starting out. When that time came and I was of age, I was given the key to the chest. In it, along with baby items and the few things they purchased, were dozens of crocheted and hand sewn pieces. Hundreds and hundreds of hours worth made by their patient hands. Pinned lovingly to each piece she made is a handwritten note from my grandmother, whom I miss terribly. Instructions, little messages and personal blessings left as a tender lifeline from her to me. Through the course of my life, my mother and grandmother had worked to amass what is the most overwhelmingly powerful archive of love. Set out of sight until I was old enough to give pause to its significance. And like many who have been lucky to experience the feeling passed from something that is made with care, they taught me to place value on humility, slow reward and posterity.

Jump some time forward, the idea of el Hustle came to me during a difficult time when I had returned to San Francisco after living in Mexico. I got a job in a cold, windowless office amongst very unhappy people and as circumstances would have it, remained there for quite some time. It was in large part due to this very constricting environment that I decided to shed light on my passions. To bring color back into my life, I dedicated my free time to creating bright and joyful pieces that contrasted the monochrome which surrounded me. It was with this intention that I was afforded a great deal of hope. The hustle (or el hustle, if you will) is all about using what one can to work towards better. And that is what I have since committed myself to doing.

I have a pretty straightforward approach to the patterns and materials I use when making my bags: interesting textiles with leather trim and accents. I create my own patterns and sometimes find silhouettes to duplicate at second hand shops. When I have the chance to travel, I like to collect textiles to bring back to the studio. I prefer this method to sourcing online. Sewing for me is very insular and I enjoy stretching out so to speak before going to task at the sewing machine.

Preparing these materials requires by far the most energy.  Each fabric is unique and commands its own process – some are even handled and sewn wearing gloves. Once the fabric and leather are chosen, cut and prepared, I’ll start a run or small batch. For my line, each piece is made by a combination of hand and machine stitching. There is no substitute for either and each has its own character that conveys an additional degree of texture evident in the end result.  Because my designs are anchored by the use of leather, I take great care in the selecting of hides which compliment not only my bags but also my knitwear and jewelry.

Craftsmanship paired with unexpected and traditional textiles is, to me, the strength of el Hustle. For example, the cloth I use for one of my popular designs is a rag used by mechanics to wipe their greasy hands or to mop a floor. A seemingly worthless material made of scrap fiber. However, paired with great hardware and thoughtfully appointed leather it, in spite of itself, shines and is transformed. The aspect of high/low is very interesting to me. This contrast is why haute fashion has been so heavily informed by street style.  It is how el Hustle came about in my own life.

When I was very little, I wanted to be an archeologist. I thought it was the coolest thing ever that by digging, one could find evidence of civilizations past.  Later anthropology proved more fitting for my interests as I could learn from people living in present time. My family is from Angola and I enjoyed the enormous assortment of stories, fabrics and photographs of life in Africa before they immigrated to America. I found them to be vastly more interesting than my immediate environment. Stories shared of the various tribes that would visit my grandmother’s general store, the customs, the fashions… it was all so beautiful to me. I found it all to be fantastic.

As for the future, I hope to raise my own little tribe and be able to expose them to this fascinating and varied world. I’d also like to work more closely with weavers and artisans whose techniques and customs I admire, to continue to fill my life trunk with meaningful handiwork from those who value and celebrate their elders… and in turn pass this on to my customers.

At the moment, I am reading Amy Butler Greenfield’s “A Perfect Red.” A chronicle of the world’s fascination with the historically political and emotionally charged hue. A color so significant to Renaissance Europe and all the way through to the time of Colonial Imperialism that when the Spanish conquistadors returned to Europe with the Aztec cochineal red, it was an absolute game changer. With its unparalleled potency, this dye made of a dried female insect became Spain’s most well guarded secret and a source of tremendous fortune; a monopoly over the European textile market that was enjoyed for over 300 years.  This literary thriller in the history of color is right up my alley.

My family. I don’t get to enjoy the company of my father, mother and brothers enough. Jimmy Nelson, the photographer behind “Before they Pass Away,” an ethnographic record of the “fast disappearing last true tribesman of this world,” would also be warmly received at my dining table anytime.

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