Fashion industry veteran Stephanie Evans founded Pamoja, a handbag company that sources the leather goods for its products from Spain, for the customers she has affectionally dubbed “The Modern Trailblazer.” Modern Trailblazers are independent, fashion-loving and always-on-the-go change-makers who live to forge their own path — and their perfect accessory is Pamoja’s Nia bag, the brand’s first style.
A multi-functional bag made in contrasting leather and suede, the Nia is a three-in-one handbag — it can be a clutch, wallet or crossbody with a chainlink strap — that seamlessly transitions from day to night. Designed to satisfy both the functionality and the purposefulness that Modern Trailblazers crave, each purchase of the Nia also makes a global difference: a percentage of each Nia bag sold is donated to the Kujuwa Initiative. The brand also currently offers the Pamoja Tote. Featuring a cotton body with a full-grain leather handle, the tote is reversible, made with hand-dyed Nigerian prints. The opposite side proclaims the meaning of pamoja, a Swahili word: “togetherness, a shared sense of purpose or motivation in a group — collective.”
Below, Evans shares what led her to create Pamoja, her creative process when it comes to developing new designs and her plans for the brand’s bright future as it continues to grow.
Do you remember your first handbag? How did you know that you wanted to be a part of the fashion and accessories industry?
I don’t remember the first handbag I had, but I had a ton of handbags in high school. My mom loved shopping, so I would tag along with her and get a lot of stuff. In terms of knowing that I wanted to get into the industry, I thought in the back of my mind when I was in college that the fashion industry would be cool. I interned with Procter & Gamble after my sophomore year, and I did customer business development there. I was working on their pet national account with PetSmart and Petco, selling pet food to them. I thought, “if people are buying pet food for a living, then someone must be doing that in the fashion industry.” I started doing research and understanding if there truly were buying roles in fashion — and if so, how I could get into it.
What was your background in fashion before you founded Pamoja?
I was at macys.com for about four years, and I did mainly two roles in merchandise: buying and planning. When I was applying for MBA programs, I knew entrepreneurship was what I was interested in. I thought, “what would I pursue as an entrepreneur in the fashion industry?
Apparel was one thing that was top of mind, but I wanted [my potential brand] to be something that was of quality, and it gets really expensive when you’re sourcing great-quality fabrics — paying for wages and sourcing from the right places gets costly, so I didn’t think [apparel] would be feasible from a business perspective.
And then I was thinking about leather goods — it’s something that you can wear and use everyday. If you’re using great quality leathers, products should be built and designed to last. I started to sketch and learn how I could turn something on a piece of paper into reality. After business school, I was working at Coach in merchandise planning, picking up some additional [education] around what it takes to build a leather goods brand. That was instrumental for me.
How did you know there was a gap in the market that could be filled with the Nia?
Working in the fashion industry, I felt like we were pushing out product just for the sake of pushing product — promotion after promotion, we were enticing people to buy things that they honestly didn’t need. I live more of a minimalist lifestyle. I think that less is more, and if you own something that is of great quality, then you’re willing to invest in it. Multi-functionality is also important for me, so in terms of creating product, I wanted to make something that you can use for multiple uses. In designing the Nia bag, I wanted it to be something that you can use as a wallet, a crossbody and a clutch.
Were there challenges or surprises that came up when designing the Nia bag?
Definitely. It’s a lot of work in terms of designing a product — you start off sketching, but then you have to know all of the materials that go into creating that product. If you have something that’s a little more out of the box, it takes time. For my first set of products, I sampled into probably five bags, all of which I do plan on eventually launching. At the end of the day, the Nia bag was the one that I felt most strongly was ready to commercialize and start to sell. It took time in terms of sourcing and everything that you can think about under the sun to get there.
How did you decide to work with artisans and leather distributors based in Spain?
I did research online. I came across this unique article [in which the BBC] talked about Ubrique, Spain, and the leather craftsmanship out there that is pretty much under the radar. I reached out to a couple of manufacturers out there and learned about the history. For a lot of them, [the trade] is passed on from generation to generation. It’s really a beautiful part of Spain that I have not been to yet, but I can’t wait to go. I just fell in love with the area and decided that it was the best place for me to do my manufacturing.
Tell me about your work with the Kujuwa Initiative. How does its mission mirror that of Pamoja?
Pamoja means “togetherness” in Swahili. At the end of the day, I want to build a community around the brand, and I want it to be about driving social impact. When I was in undergrad, I had a friend who climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro to raise funds for obstetric fistula, which is a birth defect that is common in Sub-Saharan Africa and southeast Asia. [Obstetric fistula] is something that I feel should not exist in our world today. I thought, “how do you do things to help prevent that from happening?” I learned about the Kujuwa Initiative in Kenya. They work with young women and young girls on sexual reproductive health to really educate them. [They also educate] men and boys to be supportive in the overall process, because at the end of the day, when women and girls are empowered, it creates a better world, better communities and a better economy moving forward.
What is Pamoja’s brand philosophy?
In one sentence, Pamoja is creating multi-functional accessories for the modern trailblazer while driving social impact one bag at a time.
What does being a trailblazer mean to you?
We forge our own paths. We’re really trying to think about how to do things differently, stepping away from the confines of societal standards and evolving things in a positive way.
What makes you feel the most creative?
I feel most creative when I’m not behind a laptop — when I have music on in the background and I’m in my thoughts with pen and paper, writing or sketching new things that come to mind. As a child, [art] brought along a lot of creativity for me, so I try to continue to spend time doing things in that way.
What are the top things that you love do every day?
I try to work out mostly five days a week, I pray and I love working on my business. And spending time to talk with a loved one, whether it’s my mom, a friend or my siblings.
What is coming next for Pamoja?
I have other handbag concepts I’ve been working on, so I can’t wait to put those out and share them with my audience. I see Pamoja evolving into a lifestyle brand with concepts like “shop, chill, stay.” [I plan to] really touch on all of those elements and evolve from there. I’m just excited to continue working through that journey.