Traveling the Fashion Road: From Ghana to Urban Outfitters
Four years ago, Tina Tangalakis took some time off from her work in Los Angeles to volunteer in an orphanage in Ghana.
Little did she know that a few months later she would be bringing back an armful of brightly hued bags that would change her life and that of the U.S. fashion world.
“I was walking down the street in Hohoe [where she volunteered in Ghana] and saw all these cement shacks where they were selling panels of colorful fabrics. Next door to them was a woman with a sewing machine,” said Tangalakis, who previously had worked as a wardrobe stylist on various TV commercials, movies and TV ads. “I wanted to bring back some hobo-style handbags I had designed as gifts. I commissioned the seamstress to sew a few of them. When she finished I thought, ‘These could sell in Anthropolgie.’”
Seeing the sales potential, Tangalakis asked the seamstress to whip up 50 bags for her return trip. Once back in Los Angeles, she pitched retailers located on fashion streets such as Montana Avenue in Santa Monica and Abbot Kinney Boulevard in the LA neighborhood of Venice, trying to sell the bags, which wholesaled for $18 to $24. “In two weeks, I had sold all the bags,” she recalled.
Soon she was wiring $500 via Western Union to a business acquaintance she had made in Hohoe, Nii Addotey, now head of operations in Ghana for Tangalakis. He had 100 more bags constructed out of vibrant fabrics whose colors are reminiscent of exotic African landscapes.
With that, the Della label, named after the kind driver who picked up the volunteers working in Ghana, was born.
The next step was to figure out how to expand the brand.
“We started with totes, and then we expanded to wallets,” Tangalakis said. The wallets, about 50 of them, were sold at the new Bloomingdale’s store that opened in 2010 at the remodeled Santa Monica Place shopping center.
From there, more products were developed. “We started thinking about what people needed. We thought everyone needs computer cases. So we started doing MacBook and iPad case covers. That is what really got the company rolling.”
Tangalakis emailed the accessories buyer at Apple, but she wasn’t interested in the cases. Too colorful, she wrote. Not to be deterred, Tangalakis circled back via email six months later and discovered there was a new accessories buyer who was interested in injecting a dose of color into the merchandise scheme. Last year, Apple stocked the computer and iPad covers in 20 of its stores—10 in Los Angeles and 10 in New York.
With that stamp of approval behind the brand, Tangalakis decided her next step would be trying to get a foot in the revolving door of the contemporary lifestyle chain Urban Outfitters. Through a friend who worked at the retail chain, she got the name of Roshella Ricker, an Urban Outfitters buyer in New York.
Ricker gave Tangalakis an assignment: work on a small collection of apparel centered around two concepts, Keith Haring and Boho. Tangalakis had two weeks to come up with story boards, line sheets, samples and pricing.
The budding entrepreneur had samples made in Ghana, which were then sent overnight to her in Los Angeles, hours before she flew to New York. Once in New York, Los Angeles photographer Sequoia Ziff, who works with Della, took photos of the looks, using Brooklyn’s urban sprawl as background for the vivid clothing, whose colors and prints are eye opening.
The ideas were a hit. Next, Tangalakis was off to the Urban Outfitters headquarters in Philadelphia to present her collection of colorful shorts, bomber jackets, rompers and bralettes to Brigid Andrews, the women’s branded-collections buyer.
The meeting was a success. On May 1, Della’s products appeared in 30 Urban Outfitters stores as well as on its e-commerce site. “It was very exciting and a great feeling after three-plus years of hard work,” Tangalakis said. “It had finally paid off. … It’s like a courtship.”
Della is now working on future collaborations with the retailer.
Last year, Della received a free booth at Project in Las Vegas through Project Love,the trade show’s special program for fashion brands that integrate philanthropy into their business model.
It was at Project that Vans shoe company executives saw the creative and fun fabric designs incubated by Della’s workers in Ghana.
Vans has been working with Della to create and produce wildly colorful fabrics that will be used in six styles of Vans’ “Classic Shoe Collection” for its Spring/Summer 2014. Della is now working on a Fall 2014 collection for Vans.
“The fact she was able to develop product and then, suddenly, Urban Outfitters is buying it is amazing,” said Frances Harder, founder and president of Fashion Business Inc., a Los Angeles fashion incubator. “Urban Outfitters is really good with new companies. If they find a product that is new, they will do test orders on it.”
Roseanne Morrison, the fashion director for The Doneger Group in New York, said she has noticed more African labels being stocked in mainstream U.S. retail chains. “There is real interest in the fabric, the colors and interest in the continent as well,” she said. “All of a sudden, people are recognizing it.”
She pointed out the brand Lemlem, created by model Liya Kebede, who wanted to give jobs to the textile makers of her native Ethiopia, has been carried by J. Crew. And Nigerian lawyer turned designer Duro Olowu had an agreement with JCPenney to exclusively carry his self-named line.
This could help explain Della’s success with Urban Outfitters. Now that sales are picking up, Tangalakis feels more confident. In May she moved the label’s business operations from her apartment to a 200-square-foot office space in Culver City, Calif.
Tangalakis is working with a small team of people in the United States, which consists mostly of six interns and two full-time employees. The interns help with social networking, marketing, sending out products sold on Della’s website and sending out samples to stylists to match up with celebrities. A move into home products is being contemplated for the future.
Della has its own factory in Hohoe that employs about 40 people on a full-time basis for mostly cut and sew and some batik printing. The fashion brand pays for employees’ social security and healthcare and provides a weekly literacy class. Della works with a larger independent factory for things such as batik fabric.
The company’s revenues, which were in the five-figure category last year, are slated to grow 10 fold this year. Until now, the business has been funded by personal and family investments, but Tangalakis said she hopes to bring on outside investors by the end of the year.
“The goal is to have people buy the product because they like it,” Tangalakis said. “And then for the story behind the label.”