You know what they say: One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. That’s the idea behind Jetsam, a fashion startup that uses discarded or unwanted fabrics, castoff clothing and vintage textiles to make wallets. The eco-friendly production model carries all the way down to the recycled gift box packaging.
The creative mind behind Jetsam is Laura Skelton, a Columbia University graduate who comes from a background in sustainable architecture. Starting as a teenager, Skelton roamed thrift stores and costume departments to see what vintage items could be revived, modernized and made into something new. That eventually led to the idea for Jetsam, her line of sharply designed wallets, which retail for about $40 each. After success selling the wallets on Etsy in 2007 and an incredible fundraising campaign on Kickstarter, the visibility and exposure of Jetsam products has skyrocketed. Jetsam wallets are now in almost 100 stores across seven countries and have even found a spot at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
In the past Jetsam meant “unwanted material thrown overboard to lighten a ship’s load” -- but now, Skelton is making the unwanted desirable again by taking historic, masculine textiles and re-configuring them for the future.
You’ve been making products from vintage accessories since your teens. What about this process still gives you such joy?
It’s a little hard to explain but it’s like I have this drive to create things with my hands. Even when I take a break from making products for Jetsam I ended up making these elaborate costumes and crazy installations just for fun. Part of what I really love about Jetsam is the challenge of tackling something with constraints. There’s only certain size pieces you can get out of an old necktie or an old jacket, so making them all work together can become a bit of a challenge. It’s sort of like putting a puzzle together. I get joy from it because it’s a combination of the satisfaction I get from making things but it’s also the intellectual satisfaction of solving these design puzzles.
You’ve built your presence through different online forums like Etsy and Kickstarter. How else are you planning to grow your business?
It was this crazy whirlwind thing at the beginning. I quit my job, started this artistic and creative company and moved to New Orleans and worked three jobs to make this all possible. I think I made over 3,000 wallets personally during this time. Then I built up this following through Etsy and also a series of craft fairs in different cities. I began this Kickstarter thing this past fall because as a broke artist you can’t come up with the capital needed to make that leap from being a one person shop to a mass production. So I turned to Kickstarter thinking I would just raise a little bit of funding to help get me started from friends and family. Then what happened was somehow the Reddit community got behind my idea It was this explosion of support for Jetsam from all over the world -- something like 34 countries where people were excited about these wallets. On Reddit people are very honest, so it was nice to talk with people who liked my work but also to hear their criticisms and direct feedback on what new designs they wanted to see and how I could improve.
Your project blew by that initial fundraising goal of $4,000 -- you ended up raising $26,000 on Kickstarter. What kind of freedom has that extra money given you?
I was able to ramp things up much more quickly. It’s a scary thing taking that leap to mass production and it gave me so much confidence having that support out there for what I was doing. On top of getting things on the fast track and getting in a secure position, when you’re manufacturing on this scale one of the big problems is cash flow. In order for me to produce this line on a large scale, I have to come up with enough capital to buy all these materials and keep with the labor for potentially months before I can see that cash back from the actual sale. Without that money I would have had to make a small batch, get my money back, then a medium batch, get my money back and then a large batch to get my money back. But that $26,000 upfront meant that I could make a huge batch as my first batch. I can’t see how any of that would have happened without the support of Kickstarter and the Reddit community.
Do you think you’ll continue in the “time-honored style of male iconic figures” or branch out to other styles for different products as your brand grows?
I’m working on a new collection right now actually, but I feel like that heritage menswear thing is just something that’s really speaking to me at the moment. Masculine style is really exciting right now and I’m sure as the line grows and matures that I will explore other things, but I think we’ll keep going with this sort of timeless debonaire feel. If you look at photos of men from 50 years ago they dressed incredibly well and they looked dapper in a masculine way. I think that’s something that got lost in the 90’s and early 2000’s, that’s kind of starting to come back now. I find that exciting especially because someone could be dressed in a modern style but you can pull out something like a wallet or an accessory that represents the elegance of a different era.
Do you see the green and sustainable clothing model catching on with other products and companies? What do you feel the advantages are?
I’ve got this mindset when I’m designing something that there are certain function requirements you have to meet. It has to work and it has to work well. The sustainable eco-friendly design is just one of those things that in the modern era we live is a basic component of the design for me. It is eco-friendly design but I try to have that be almost incidental because I think that in the age we live in all good designs should be sustainable. If you have a choice between making something with leftover or excess material versus making it with new material that’s good for the environment, it feels like basic common sense to take advantage of these wasted products. What’s exciting to me is how sustainability is being incorporated into mainstream design so that hopefully in five or 10 years, most of what you buy will be designed with sustainability in mind versus it being just a niche thing.
What's your advice to other entrepreneurs out there?
The main piece of advice I would give is a parallel thing. One is to keep going and not get discouraged the first time something doesn’t work out and you have to go back to the drawing board, or if you design something you think is great and it’s not recieved well. The flip side of that is to really listen to the feedback that you give about your work, and use that to really strive to make your product as awesome as possible. I think there’s a tendency to dismiss critics as “haters” when really it’s sometimes the haters that can give you some of the most valuable insight into what you’re doing and how to make it better. I think when you’re striving for excellence in your business it’s important to have a sense of pride and confidence in what you’re doing but also a real openness to taking that feedback and improving all the time.
Name: Laura Skelton
Location: San Diego