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Designing Women: Bike to work with Audrey Robinson of Dargelos

November 12, 2012

Interview by Elizabeth Heywood, Photography by Amy Lee

While New York’s bike-share program may have been put on hold until next spring, the growing number of cyclists have made CityRacks a common sight throughout the five boroughs. One Brooklyn designer and year-round bike commuter has been tackling ways to create practical accessories for the fashion-conscious urban cyclist, while maintaining sustainable production practices. This week, Damsels in Design sits down with Audrey Robinson of Dargelos to talk about the ups and downs of starting a small business during the recession and the importance of environmental ethics in design.

It’s common to hear designers justify not starting their own business because they either think that they need more professional experience or because the market is not in a good place. You launched Dargelos upon graduating from Parsons in 2012, amidst our current ‘Great Recession.’ What inspired you to start your business, and what prompted you to stake out on your own rather than working for someone else first?

I worked in various design positions for six years before feeling prepared to start my own business in 2007. By then, I was able to distill exactly what was important to me and felt open to potential business ideas. Mine was born out of the frustrating experience of cycling in the city and having to choose between being safe or looking good. Just as I was formulating my ideas, the financial meltdown happened and out of caution I decided to return to school to focus on a business plan and a clear design direction. Had there been another established company to learn from in New York – one that created creating stylish cycling clothing and accessories – I would have definitely tried to work with them rather than going to school, but that was not an option. Upon graduating in 2010, despite the recession, I couldn’t wait any longer and dove in.

During the early days what were some of the greatest challenges you faced as a design entrepreneur and how did you work to overcome them?

When I first started absolutely everything was challenging; from sourcing materials to having custom ones made, learning how to find a factory to work with, figuring out how production works, and doing practically everything by myself. I think there is always a learning curve, and each business is so unique that it’s almost impossible to feel prepared. I went to school because I thought I’d learn such practical matters from experienced professionals, yet information was scarce and mentoring nonexistent.

It was especially difficult to keep my vision intact and trust my instincts. For instance, I wanted to launch with a single item, the Lightning Vest, perfect it, produce it, iron out the kinks, then add another product. But everyone I spoke to insisted that having one item was not enough. So during the first year I was furiously putting all my ideas out there before I felt they were ready. I ended up retracting numerous products because I was overwhelmed and finessing the ones I already had.

Your work centers around sustainable practices within fashion. How have you developed your practices and products to be socially and environmentally responsible?

To begin, the impetus for starting Dargelos was that I had numerous ideas for products, yet, felt no desire to add to the surplus of ‘things’ in our disposable consumer culture.  I eventually decided on inventing products (patents pending) that were unique, versatile and responsibly made. Every product is designed to minimize waste and manufactured in a way to support the local economy and reduce the time, money, and emissions caused by transportation, as well as to meet the people who are working on the products. As a small company, I don’t often have the leverage to get what I want; minimums are often too high for custom-made fabric and my ideal materials often do not exist ready made.

Hemp is the most sustainable fabric because it has low pesticide and water needs, quick growth and is very durable, yet hemp is illegal to grow in the U.S. The only waxed hemp I could find was from England and discontinued, but I was able to buy the last of what they had to make a limited edition TransPorter. It is lined with a 55% Hemp/45% organic cotton muslin and the corners are reinforced with a vegetable tanned leather that matches the handle and the backpack are made of 100% hemp webbing. The other TransPorters and Belt Pouches are made with a waxed cotton canvas from New Jersey, though the material is imported, it is dyed and waxed there. They are sewn in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, just a couple buildings away from the Dargelos studio.

For the Lightning Vest, I had to develop a custom-made reflective material by combining reflective products made in Texas and converted/ sliced in Rhode Island. It is then cut and knotted at our Brooklyn studio and packaged in pouches that are made of U.S. grown cotton, sewn in Kentucky. Any excess material is upcycled into our reflective Tufts.

The Flare Vest is virtually waste-free, as it is cut from a single rectangle. The material was impossible to find in the U.S., settling on an imported one is temporary and the search continues for the perfect fabric. It is cut in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, downstairs from the Dargelos studio, where the finishing is done.

Some have dismissed sustainable and ‘slow fashion’ as merely a fad. How do you respond to this? How important do you think it is for other young designers to consider the ethics behind these movements in their own endeavors?

Taking care of yourself, others, and the planet are not fads to those who care about these things; they’re fads to those who don’t. My focus is on designing products that can transcend the limits of being just aesthetically appealing, by being addictively practical while minimizing any negative impact on people and the environment.

It’s really important for young designers to believe their decisions and actions affect everyone and take responsibility for what they put out in the world, how it gets there and where it will go when it is disposed of. Unfortunately, business is only concerned with numbers and sustainability doesn’t enter the equation – so it’s really about individual responsibility. Everyone should take the time to educate themselves, society won’t do it for you.

Soon after launching Dargelos, you joined the Pratt Design Incubator for Sustainable Innovation. Has working alongside other designers benefited your business and design practices?

Working in the Pratt Incubator encouraged me to stick with it. It is isolating to start a business alone and on top of that, care about sustainability. Working alongside other determined entrepreneurs that are dealing with similar problems and can share their experiences makes you stronger. It makes you feel like you are part of a larger movement.

You design goods for the bike commuting culture in Brooklyn. How do you go about developing products that are both fashionable as well as functional? Do you literally take all of your prototypes for a spin around the block?

Every product has evolved out of my own personal needs as a devoted, year-round bicycle commuter so I’m always the first one to use them. I am a really practical person and also a total aesthete, so I invented products that embody both of these qualities. It’s awesome to be stopped on the street and asked where I’ve gotten my products. I think the most satisfying is when drivers ask me about the Lightning Vest – because I know it’s working!

What advice can you offer women who would also like to start their own design businesses?

It takes a strong vision, thorough preparedness and determination to carry you through, so start small. Don’t be pressured to grow faster than you feel comfortable with and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Take a business class that caters to your industry and find yourself an accountant, business advisor and even a partner if possible. It’s lonely, so if you don’t like working by yourself for hours on end you need a partner.

Damsels in Design fosters a supportive, engaging, and non-competitive environment for professional women. We believe this is the way to secure successful opportunities and to give back to the community. How important is it that women support and assist one another along the way? 

I think sharing resources is very important. Creating an environment of openness and honesty, where women feel comfortable to share what they know or express what they need, could open up opportunities and result in wonderful consequences.

If you could go back in time and offer yourself one piece of advice what would it be?

Find a good accountant!

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