Mama Made: An Interview with Tressa of Dress Me Up!

by Jessika Hepburn, O Happy Day Handmade

I am really excited to offer this interview with a highly successful Canadian based entrepreneur, Tressa Brotsky, designer and creator of Dress Me Up Organic Accessories. Dress Me Up designs are lovely, modern, completely organic and  handcrafted by Tressa and her local team in my beautiful hometown of Victoria, British Columbia. Dress Me Up products are now being carried by over 70 retailers and counting, including the store I work with here in Halifax, Nurtured.  In addition to being mother to a preschool aged daughter and a new baby girl, Tressa is also growing a thriving and sustainable business.  In this interview she shares some of her business know-how, design inspiration and a peek at the past, present and future of  her business. Be sure to visit next week for a chance to win a giveaway from Dress Me Up!

1. Please share a bit about yourself and your work with OMHG readers:

I live and work in Victoria, British Columbia. I share my life with my two daughters, 3 months and 4 years, and Nathaniel, my husband. We met while working at a record store and bonded over a bootleg release of Belle & Sebastian’s Tigermilk. Prior to our family becoming four, I studied visual arts honours at the University of Victoria, and youth ministry leadership with the United Church of Canada. I’ve lived in the UK and embarked on many travel adventures. My favourite places are the Taize peace community, Naramata Centre, the view from the top of the Eiffel Tower, and San Francisco … well, right now. It’s my 36th birthday this month. I’d love to go to the City Arts Fest in Seattle to celebrate with all my favourite bands.

2. What inspired you to start Dress Me Up and to create handmade organic designs for children?

Full props go out to Ruby, my amazing four year old (four years old – already!!), who was my inspiration and test baby for the initial design and birthing of my products. It was my wise friend Devon, a local photographer with her own home-based business, who truly inspired me to make a business out of my craft. Ruby’s delight combined with Devon’s encouragement and initial contacts brought my work out of our home and into the world.

3.  Your business has a strong focus on all natural materials, what are some of the joys and challenges of offering earth friendly products?

Knowing that each and every single one of my products is made from healthy and safe, beautifully soft materials, is an absolute joy. As North Americans, we’re coming to better understand the impact even our smallest our personal choices have on the entire world.  Conventional cotton growing and production require huge amounts of water, and often use heavy metals and petroleum products in processing. Choosing certified organic cotton makes a positive difference in our homes, and also in the world – from our physical environment, to the health of the farm workers, water usage, and insect and bird life. I think it’s wonderful that my products are part of inspiring and educating parents and families in making positive environmental choices.

Organic and natural materials still cost more than conventional cottons and synthetic materials.  The cost of our organic cotton and lambs wool is combined with the value of our handmade (not factory made) production model, and is reflected in our pricing. Some folks still expect children’s toys to be cheap and almost disposable. Transforming this assumption and encouraging people to be more intentional about the items they choose for their children (and the world) is a dynamic and exciting challenge.

4. Dress Me Up’s designs are simple and modern, what are some of your major design inspirations?

I love visual artists Rachel Whiteread and Sol LeWitt.  I get a kick out of how active my imagination gets when looking at their works, and how their work is about the viewers physical engagement too. I think about this when designing toys. I want to get little imaginations going, and enable them to engage their bodies – their developmental stages and discoveries – with my products. The Rabbit Rattles are a lovely example of this. They are tactile and sensory without being overwhelming (too many toys are far to loud and bold for our little ones), and are open ended – a lovely phrase used to describe toys that are intentionally simple, allowing the child to imaginatively morph it into whatever they desire it to be at any given moment.

Liz Magor is a Canadian visual artist whom I had the privilege of studying with, and her work continues to be a source of inspiration as well – she makes me laugh with her work’s playfulness. I dig her desire to connect the viewer with nature, and her particularly Canadian expressions of nature. It reminds me of what it was like to be a child building forts and fashioning household items from birch bark in my back yard.

5. I love that you are a proud mama-made business! How many mama’s work with Dress Me Up? Do you work from home or in a shared workshop?

We have a papa in the mix now too! My husband, Nathaniel, has recently joined the Dress Me Up team overseeing marketing and accounts (hoorary for handsome, unpaid labour!). Nathaniel and I and Lissa, our cutter and pattern wizard, work from our home based studio aka Dress Me Up Headquarters, and we also have three women working with us from their own homes. Ali is our Teething Bonbon queen and mamas Katie and Mercedes are our stuffers. Gearing up for the upcoming holiday season, two additional craftswomen will be joining us for finishing and hand sewing. (And I should of course include sweet Ruby, our four year old, who proudly helps with Market Day set up and take down.) So – I guess that’s 8½!

6. What are the benefits of having your production team being local women as opposed to outsourcing production overseas?

First and foremost, I know and confidently oversee every aspect of production, and I can make design changes easily as I work in batches of small, manageable numbers. Reaching out to local craftspeople supports my local economy, which is good for all of us. I love the feeling of community that goes into every toy, knowing the story of the hands to created it.

7. As a mother how do you balance the demands of running a successful business with the needs of your family?

This is the hardest question for me right now! I just had a baby, Miss June, just three months ago. Balancing is more like juggling these days. Life and resting with new babe and our 4 year old, as well as staying present to our small business is tricky, and – I won’t lie – down right hard at times. But it is really important to find balance, or everything and everyone loses. I have a very involved and nurturing husband who embraces his role as parent and is the family chef – hallelujah!, and we have Ruby in a beautiful neighbourhood day care. I built a team of competent, self-directed craftswomen and also tap into a small community of small businesses owners for inspiration and feedback. On my computer I have one of Ruby’s drawings that has a heartwarming, cheeseball quote that I love: Moms make children blossom. Next to her drawing is a card from Nathaniel – handmade no less – referencing our favourite British murder mystery, our Saturday night date night show. And I have June, the littlest blessing who, at my breast, gently reminds me that I too need nourishment, and that I need to take the time to receive it.

8. Do you have any advice/suggestions/do’s & don’ts for other mama run handmade businesses?

– Surround yourself with the right people – this doesn’t necessarily mean people who are doing the same thing as you, or in your field. The right people are the ones who offer support, positive feedback, resources and connections. It also means letting go of the ‘wrong’ people. Sometimes that’s the harder step.
– Find the right resources and use them – and look beyond your field.
– Make time to express gratitude.
– Talk on the phone instead of doing everything by email.
– Be gentle on yourself – physically. Being a mother is physically demanding and we often forget about our own needs. Work – even if it’s largely sitting at a computer – is hard on our bodies too.

9. How do you market, promote and spread the buzz about Dress Me Up?

I am so proud to say that I designed and created a product that took care of promoting itself – that’s the Organic Teething Bonbon. I designed it at a time when there was recall after recall of teething products, deeply concerning me and my friends – all of us looking for teething solutions for our little ones. I began selling the Teething Bonbon at my local farmers market and online at Etsy – and bam! – it took off.  There was nothing like it out there – handmade in Canada from North American sourced raw materials, fun, effective for teething pain, and an authentically eco product.

Within 6 months we were selling to retailers in Canada and the USA, and receiving really exciting press. My first two online interviews were with Success Through Play and Celebrity Baby Blog (how’s that for two opposite ends of the spectrum!), and at the same time the Teething Bonbon was picked up by The Little Seed in Los Angeles and featured in Pregnancy & Newborn Magazine and Fit Pregnancy. Now a couple of years on, the Teething Bonbon continues to soar. It’s a combination of a strong product, ongoing positive word of mouth recommendations, having retailers excited to share the Teething Bonbon with their own communities, and our continuing presence on the web.

We subscribe to Seth Godin’s blog and read it faithfully everyday.  His tips and insights into marketing are inspiring and concrete, and always an encouraging way to start our work day. We also follow the work of Canadian Tad Hargrave – I love his tag: Radical Green Marketing – to keep us grounded, and moving. Marketing and promoting is all about action. I think, in many ways, marketing is what keeps us the busiest!

10. Dress Me Up products are sold in over 70 retail stores, what are the benefits of offering wholesale accounts to retailers?

In a word, community is the greatest benefit from working with retailers. Community isn’t usually a word associated with commerce and capital, but the positive power of relationships is essential to a successful small business, and especially an eco-business like Dress Me Up. We work with store owners who have embraced, or are in the process of embracing (which is so exciting), authentically eco-minded products and who know the true value of Canadian made, hand made goods. We get excellent feedback through our retailers, learning about customer’s preferences and excitement. Retailers have their finger on the pulse of what consumers are looking for – and when you’ve got it right, as we do with the Organic Teething Bonbon, your retailers do a fantastic job of promoting your product with their clientele.

11. Are there any new & exciting projects in the works for Dress Me Up in the future?

I’m participating in a number of giveaways this fall, largely on Canadian blogging sites which I’m really excited about, and we’re heading to the One Of A Kind Show and Sale in Vancouver from Dec 9-12th.

The biggest news is the launch of Dress Me Up’s sister store: ModernFair, on Etsy. It’s a new online storefront for my one of a kind items made from vintage wools and cottons and linens – such as the Winter Wabbit, which is my original Rabbit Rattle design made with one of a kind detailing on vintage wool suiting and organic cotton. The feel is similar to my exclusively organic line, Dress Me Up, with a bit more nostalgia thrown in.

Thank you Tressa for a wonderful interview! Find out more Dress Me Up news by heading over to the blog or following teethingbonbon on Twitter.

7 comments

  1. margaret says:

    I love that your rattles leave something to the imagination. I’m continually looking for things that encourage make believe, without all the bells. the toys with all the bells and whistles do everything for the child- they don’t even need to make the “vroom” sound for cars and the batteries move it so they can just sit and watch rather than push it.

    thank you for your information about the organic cotton. I was not aware of all the hidden costs and effects on our world. I am now researching and will be better informed in the future when I purchase things. Thank you.

  2. heather says:

    i love that tressa utilizes local woman-power to produce her products. it inspires me to utilize all the ladies in my life…
    as well, obviously, it makes her business all the more engaged and (hopefully!) ethical.
    i also love that her daughters’ names are ruby and june. wonderful.

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