Sustainable Handbags: A Designer to Love

When I first stumbled onto the accessory brand Soli & Sun, I was immediately taken with its artistry. I had never seen anything quite like these bold, cheerful handbags, fashioned from unique hand-woven fabrics. They are quite literally the prettiest styles I have ever seen. However, it was the social motivation behind them that truly captured my heart. If you are looking for sustainable handbags, Soli & Sun has an inspiring story to share!

Its founder, independent designer Clare Hynes, fashions each bag with eco-friendly materials. More importantly, she uses her brand to uplift female artisans in the Philippine city of Tacloban. If Tacloban sounds vaguely familiar, there’s a heartbreaking reason for that. In 2013, Typhoon Yolanda ripped through the port city, causing widespread destruction and killing more than 6,000 people. While it has recovered significantly, Tacloban still struggles with poverty.

Clare Hynes and Philippine ArtisansClare Hynes & some of the talented artisans she works with

Hynes lived in the Philippines in 2017 and witnessed that huge disparity between the rich and the poor. It drove her to learn more about the concept of social responsibility. Specifically, Hynes noticed businesses partnering with with underprivileged communities to provide sustainable livelihoods. As a jewelry maker, she wondered if she could do something similar… Then, she made it happen!

Through Soli & Sun, Hynes can offer her Philippine partners a significant, supplemental income. They blend Hynes’ techniques with their traditional methods to craft components of Soli & Sun’s sustainable handbags and accessories right from their homes. Consequently, they can make a living without leaving their families, which many women feel forced to do. I found Hynes’ process so fascinating, I reached out and asked if I could share her work on the blog. She has great insight for creative business owners and those looking to shop more consciously!

Soli & Sun - Sustainable Handbags

The Meghan Bag (cream – c/o Soli & Sun) | Dress | Wedges

Sustainable Handbags: The Soli & Sun Story

We live in an era where fast fashion tends to dominate the landscape. However, you have consciously chosen a different, very hands-on approach. Can you explain why you elect to do much of the work yourself? Why is handcrafting important to you? 

Clare: I’ve always liked to make things since I was young. I just love creating. I used to draw a lot too, and I love the feeling you get after you’ve made something or created something new. Even if I didn’t have this business, I would still create. I suppose it’s a way of mindfulness for me. I started making jewelry pieces using beads over 10 years ago. At the time, this was a way to de-stress after my 9-5 job. Then I started to dream about making a business out of my jewelry making. I’ve been dreaming this dream for a long time now!

Let’s talk about the beginnings of Soli & Sun… Where did the idea come from? 

Clare: The “beginnings” of Soli & Sun have been about seven years in the making! I’m not sure I was conscious of taking the leap into entrepreneurship, as I started off with jewelry making and then expanded into sustainable handbags when I moved to the Philippines. It has been a very slow process. When I moved to America last year, I decided I wanted to re-launch and that’s when the name Soli & Sun was born.

The word Soli comes from the name of the traditional signature weave we use called Solihiya. This weave represents a sun pattern, so adding the word sun just made sense to me! I want to bring joy and light to your wardrobe with my designs, so I think this name represents the idea well too.

soli & sunsustainable handbags - soli & sunThe “Alice” Bag (orange) | The “Angie” Earrings | Skirt | Asymmetric White Top

The Philippines are obviously central to Soli & Sun. Did your observations there change you?

Clare: Oh, absolutely! The first trip I took to Tacloban impacted me immensely. A small group of us stayed in a convent up in the hills. Our host was Sister Helen, who was one of the most lovely, generous women I’ve ever met. One evening, we had a conversation about Typhoon Yolanda. It was one of the most powerful tropical cyclones ever recorded.

Because of the convent’s hillside location, it became a place of safety. Sister Helen shared her first hand experience dealing with the utter devastation that surrounded them, describing how she survived two weeks of literally no sleep as she attended the dead and dying in their town. When you have a conservation like that with someone it can’t help but affect you, and inspire you to want to do something to help that community.

So, through a platform called GKonomics, I was partnered with a small community of young women from a village called Palanog just outside Tacloban. GKonomics introduced me to Tacloban native Danika, who acted as translator and now manages the women. She’s like my “middle man” and now a very good friend. On that first visit to Palanog, I sat with with the ladies, teaching them my crafting techniques, we started to make a plan about how we could continue to work together. Four years later, we are still working together.

The Alice Bag

Dreaming is easy, doing is tough. How would you describe your early moments as a creative business owner?

Clare: It’s difficult and it still is difficult. I think in the early days I thought I had to pretend to be bigger than what I was and I thought that I had to be ‘discovered’ to make it big. But what I believe now, is that the key is really consistency, patience and resilience. You have to have passion in what you’re doing so that you can keep going and showing up and being consistent! I know some people may get “discovered” and become an overnight success but I think it’s very rare.

Do you have any advice for aspiring female entrepreneurs?

Clare: My advice would be to invest in yourself with training. I’ve done some amazing courses and have learnt a huge amount over the years. I think getting a coach or mentor is worth it too. Also, try not to compare yourself to others (which I know is easier said than done!).

Before Soli & Sun, you were involved in fashion editorial work, graphic design and art direction. How have you leveraged those skills to help build your brand and promote it digitally?

Clare: I found having a background in graphic design has helped me with creating content for my Instagram, website and Pinterest. I’ve had to up my skills for photography, so that was quite a challenge at first. I also feel like there’s always more to learn. Even knowing how to pose for pictures takes practice! The main challenge I’ve found is that there is just so much work to do to create content! I’m trying to get better at time blocking and create lots of images at one time, and also making sure I repurpose my images for different channels to get the most out of my content.

sustainable handbags and ethical accessories ethical accessories and sustainable handbags

You are quite the world traveler–working in Ireland, China, Australia, the Philippines, and the U.S. How have these global perspectives shaped your aesthetic and approach to business/sustainability?

Clare: I think living in these different countries has definitely opened my eyes to the wider world. It gives you an appreciation for different cultures and keeps you from being afraid of working with people in different countries and cultures. We lived in China for five years, and the local markets there were like a treasure trove for findings and beautiful beads. During that time, my brand aesthetic was influenced a lot by the beads I found in these local markets. It was also during that time that I started working with a supplier. I was able to meet him face-to-face, and I think that cemented for me how important building a good relationship is. This is something that has stuck with me throughout building my business.

Then, when we moved to the Philippines, my brand aesthetic changed again. I was influenced by the bright colors of the tropical islands there and moved towards a more resort-wear style. The other major influence was discovering the beautiful crafts and weaves of the Philippines and how other businesses were incorporating social responsibility into their business plan. I decided I wanted to do this too! While living there, I was able to connect with the artisan communities that I now work with face-to-face. This allowed us to slowly build authentic relationships, which I don’t really think I could have accomplished had I not been living there.

The “ALICE” Bag

COVID has been a huge economic and humanitarian blow for the world. How has it impacted you as a business owner and the artisans you employ?

The Philippines had a strict lockdown for a long time because of COVID. So unfortunately, this meant even getting supplies to the ladies in Palanog was impossible, as there were no courier services working. Additionally, they couldn’t leave their village to travel into Tacloban to drop off their finished work or pick up supplies. The production of our sustainable handbags was halted, as the government ordered the workshop in Mindanao—where they are constructed—to make PPE equipment and masks.

I made sure to keep in constant contact with the ladies and with Rey, who is the manager of the workshop, and helped out with some donations. I was hopeful the situation would eventually change, and it finally did! Now, we’re back to being able to make some orders of handbags and I’ve been able to provide the ladies in Palanog with some work too. I want to provide them with more work though. So, fingers crossed, I can get some large orders and we can keep on producing.

Click HERE to learn more about Soli & Sun

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