Magazine Feature / People

DU alumna turns handbags into art

Alums holding handbags

DU alumna Traci Tisserat and roommate Shawna Sambrano started a business called "TraSh Bagz," which turns discarded handbags into haute couture.

It started with a name, but it’s become a business.

About 18 months ago University of Denver alumna Traci Tisserat (BA ’05) and friend and roommate Shawna Sambrano came up with the idea to start a business and call it “TraSh Bagz.”

That was the easy part. The hard part was coming up with a business to match.

Being artistic helped. So did being socially conscious and active. The germ of an idea grew into a business taking old, discarded handbags and using a variety of techniques and media to turn faded bags into works of art. It’s haute couture with a green twist, trash to treasures, handbags to handiwork.

The creations are Cinderella stories in themselves — old, discarded bags collected from vintage clothing shops and closets across the region turned into glamorous pieces decked in sparkles and feathers and hot pinks and zebra stripes. The artists dabble in a multitude of media and mix their own dyes to create custom colors.

“All of them are one of a kind,” says Tisserat, displaying a host of bags piled up in the swank Chrysalis Boutique in the New Streets of SouthGlenn in Centennial, south of Denver. “You’re never going to see someone with the same bag. You get one of our bags, you know it’s something special, and you’ve done something good for the environment by recycling a bag.”

The work is certainly a labor of love at this point, as they both keep day jobs and serve on a variety of charity boards. Tisserat, 26, and Sambrano, 32, both toil as much as 20 hours a week, sometimes more, on the complexities of designing, creating and marketing their creations, which sell for about $40 to $200 each in boutiques, mobile “trunk shows,” private “purse parties” and online. The pair says they can do bridesmaids bags to compliment weddings and even custom design pieces.

While their operation is small, the pair is tireless, even crafting sophisticated marketing outreach using emerging social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, in addition to a Web site. Nothing, it seems, is too much to take on. But they don’t stop there. the pair partners with area charities, donating 10 percent of the profits back into the community.

“It’s almost like a second job,” Tisserat jokes.

Then Sambrano jumps in, “Some weeks my fingers are totally numb from pushing the needles through these thick fabrics.”

The two laugh. The hours of working together in close quarters on tight deadlines has brought them to that point where, Tisserat notes, “We finish each others’ sentences a lot.”

So far, the effort is paying off, bit by bit. Celebrating one year in business, they’ve seen orders come in from as far away as Hawaii. The two hope to make the company their full-time vocation soon. Looking ahead, deals are in the works to get TraSh Bagz in more stores in Denver, with an eye toward cities across the country.

But it all goes back to that one night when two friends dreamed of starting a business. As the labels on the bags note, “Trash Bagz is a unique handbag company established over a cheap bottle of wine by an artist and designer who have an extreme passion for fashion and individuality.”

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