SUPPLIER SPOTLIGHT: A One Woman Show with Neva Opet
words by Jenny Wonderling, design, layout and editing by Bea Rue
Classically designed handcrafted utilitarian leather goods with an emphasis on quality: that's what you can expect from Neva Opet. Each and every piece is painstakingly designed, hand cut, stitched, packed and shipped by the brand's very multifaceted owner Rachel Riedinger out of her Atlanta, GA studio. She had her heart in fashion long before hitting her stride in leather working, and taught herself the skills necessary to not only make the exact bags she envisioned, but start a company from scratch. We can't get enough of her style, clearly influenced by men's goods with a refined feminine edge. (Like boyfriend jeans, except you don't need heels to play dress up.) Think subdued colors and shapes with a minimal and timeless aesthetic that can be carried anywhere with any outfit. Plus each leather bag is designed to grow in character with age and wear. She challenges everyone to "Beat it up and wear it forever!" We're game.
And that name? It's an inventive combination of family and history - Rachael’s great- grandmother Neva and the ancient Egyptian Opet Festival, an event of regeneration for the King and the gods, also a nod to Rachael's love of art history. (If she weren't making bags she would have become an Egyptologist.)
An inspiring young craftswoman and small business owner, we were excited to catch up with Rachael for this exclusive interview to learn more about her process, inspiration, and thoughts on success. Jenny has the latest...
JENNY: On your site you say you were “Guided by a creative force at a young age.” What was your greatest creative inspiration then? Now?
RACHAEL: When I started sewing my own clothes at 14, I was heavily inspired by late ‘70s punk. I grew up in the suburbs and felt compelled to distance myself from all things typical. I gravitated towards that decade's music and style. It inspired me to learn to sew and create things I could not easily find in stores. Now, I am living in a city full of artists, small business owners, makers, and creative professionals, and seeing what others are doing is constantly inspiring me. Again, as an adult, I struggled to find something just right, this time a bag, I decided to make my own: a nod to men's goods with a refined feminine edge.
JENNY: What are some examples or experiences that have charged you?
RACHAEL: I studied art history in college and growing up my mom and uncle always painted. I used to watch her doodle all the time and make self-portraits, or paint family members. I'd thumb through her sketchbooks, exposing me to the creative world at a young age. As a child I drew a lot and liked to sew, which is where I got my hands-on experience. I enjoy the process of manipulating existing items to create something new.
JENNY: How do you feel about growing a small business in 2016? Do you have any employees yet? Do you manufacture everything in house?
RACHAEL: I think this is a great time to be a maker and small business owner! I'm quite fond of the shift in consumerism- people are more interested in where their products are made and by whom. I love that people are actively seeking out American made products!
I am the sole person behind my brand. Managing a small business is hard, but that's part of the fun. I love getting to have a say in all aspects of my company and being able to improve things whenever I want. I make each and every product from start to finish in my small studio in East Atlanta. Being so hands on brings me so much satisfaction both creatively and professionally.
JENNY: I admire how you are building things on your own! I imagine there are some big hurdles to tackle. What is your major challenge?
RACHAEL: The biggest challenge in growing my business is expanding without the assistance of loans or investors. If I want fancy new tools or materials, I have to wait for sales to roll in to finance everything.
JENNY: Personally I am frustrated with the fact that our system makes it very difficult for growing small businesses to borrow money at a low, manageable percentage rate unless they already have a track record and great financial picture to begin with-- something I'd love to advocate for at some point! Many business owners I've spoken with who don't want investors and partners find this challenging. As hard as they are willing to work and as viable and wonderful their product and business are they end up having to borrow from credit cards at too-high percentages, or otherwise waste money when they could be reinvesting that back into their brand.
Do you have a mentor to help you through this? Have you sought out support from any women's business associations or small business organizations, and have they been helpful?
RACHAEL: I do not have a mentor but I am a part of a local Boss Lady group which is all local business owners and makers. We meet up and talk about the different business hurdles that we are experiencing, social media, sales, working with employees over a "couple" glasses of wine. It's a great support system!
JENNY: So you're making each and every product. At what point do you think you will need to bring on support with the manufacturing?
RACHAEL: I don't think I ever want to use a manufacturer for producing my products, but I would love to outsource cutting leather! That way I have more time to sew and create.
JENNY: You're about to celebrate your two year anniversary of full-time dedication to Neva Opet. Congratulations! How do you define success?
RACHAEL: Thank you! At this point, I would feel completely successful growing my business to the point of employing a few local makers to assist in the production process as well as gaining new and consistent wholesale accounts in small independently owned boutiques across the country. I'm not looking to outsource manufacturing or be picked up by large retail chains, so I'm happy to remain a small business.
JENNY: I so appreciate that answer! I could not manage all that Nectar is anymore without my incredible team, nor would I want to. I went it alone for most of Nectar's first 5 years, but this was before we had an online store and social media to keep up with! The Nectarettes have really helped grow everything in a big way, so it's become a shared vision and co-creation, something that I feel is also a beautiful reflection and definition of success for me.
Even with the immense support from my team, it's always a challenge to find the balance between my family, creative time and plunges into nature. Oh yeah, and that sleep thing! It's not easy for most small business owners to achieve a balance when you have to wear so many hats and are too often unstaffed without working capital. Do you have any challenges in finding this balance, especially when you are making each and every item by hand?
RACHAEL: Trying to balance everything can be difficult. I've found that most people work to live, and that sounds really depressing if you are not doing something you truly love. You spend at least 40 hours a week at work. Finding my balance meant starting a career with something I felt passionate about, so that those 40 hours were really for myself. I wanted work to be fun, not a burden. As the cliche goes--if you love what you do, you'll never work a day of your life!
JENNY: Have you visited other cultures where the art of leather working is more common, like Morocco or Turkey? Or were there other influences?
RACHAEL: I have not been fortunate enough to visit any countries with a strong traditional practice of leather working. I taught myself everything I know about leatherwork and applied that to my sewing background. It was a lot of trial and error in the beginning, but I found more satisfaction working with leather rather than fabric.
JENNY: It's amazing that you're completely self taught! Were there any other sewers in your family? How'd you get your hands on your first sewing machine?
RACHAEL: There are no other sewers in my family--I picked it up when I was younger because I couldn't find clothes that I liked. I wanted to make things that I didn't already see out there, so I started by deconstructing thrift store clothes and altering them into something I wanted to wear. My mom gave me my first new sewing machine. It was a basic home machine that only worked with fabric. Now I use an industrial machine that can sew leather- completely different. It was a pretty big investment but as you can tell, it was worth it!
JENNY: How would you say living in an urban setting influences your aesthetic?
RACHAEL: Living in the city of Atlanta has been so inspiring! I love being surrounded by so many artists, small businesses, makers, and creative professionals. I love seeing the work others do in various fields and across many mediums. It really keeps me going, helping to push me creatively.
JENNY: That's so important. Do you see any major design shifts coming up in your work, or will you keep the line pretty classically on path? How often do you introduce a new look?
RACHAEL: I always try to push myself in new directions, but also do my best to avoid designs that seem too trendy. The overall aesthetic of the line emphasizes subdued colors and shapes with a minimal and modern yet classic approach. I like to produce pieces that can be carried anywhere!
I keep the brand fresh for my shoppers seasonally, whether it's through a new style or look book. This summer I launched a small collection of light pink and eggplant bags that got a great response. Right now I'm working on some additional color options and bag styles. I just made a prototype for a soft tote bag with a zipper that would be a great carry-on for plane rides.
JENNY: Do you dream of bags?
RACHAEL: I don’t dream of bags, but I have had some of my best ideas in the shower!
JENNY: Aahh the magical powers of water! Any last word on the cattle industry in the US or any experience you want to share related to leather?
RACHAEL: I occasionally get a few requests for “vegan leather” or vinyl. For several reasons I won’t work with the stuff. Many people aren't aware of the process for creating faux leather and the harmful effects it has on the environment. It's also difficult to recycle, doesn't wear well, and won't biodegrade. I think we must also consider a product's lifecycle. Leather lasts a lifetime, reducing our need to buy a new bag every few months. But this should of course be a personal choice for everyone, so I'm not preaching over here!