This bag designer turns trash into treasure
Don’t you ever wish that your mom didn’t bar you from spending so much time on the internet when you were younger? Maybe you could’ve been an influencer by now.
Or maybe you wished she would’ve chosen to raise you somewhere besides bumfuck Virginia so that you could’ve made friends with important people or at least learned how to ride the subway before your adult years.
Well, Jill Smith and her husband decided to move to Kaui, Hawaii, and both their sons ended up being (hot) professional surfers who now have thousands of Instagram followers – making them athletes and influencers! Goals.
But now that her tots are all grown up, Jill is crafting full time and has launched her all-natural, eco-friendly designs under the label Ali Dakota. We talked with Jill about moving to Hawaii from Michigan out of nowhere, how she got into designing, and natural fabric dying.
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Can you walk me through your background and how you got into the fashion business?
I have three sons, and two of them are professional surfers and one models and lives in NYC. I was [solely] a mom throughout the entire time they were being raised. I homeschooled them and traveled with them an awful lot. I’ve always done art and a bunch of different projects and I was definitely the art teacher at homeschool [laughing].
Now they’re kind of just off on their own and they’re more independent, so I just jumped into creating things. I guess how it really started was they had a whole bunch of T-shirts from contests. Eventually I just had a bunch of white fabric leftover and I started dyeing them, but I got to a place where I didn’t feel good about using the synthetic dyes, so I started learning about natural dyes and when Travis [her son] was out in NYC I actually came out and took some classes on that type of dyeing. Then I came across eco-print and that’s what I’m doing now. It’s when you take a fabric and bundle it up with leaves and then you steam it and the tannins and the pigments from the leaves come out onto the fabric.
We are still a really close family and we’re always traveling… everywhere we go I bring my bundle and a pot and I can explore the different leaves of that region. So that’s kind of what I started doing, I started little collections from different areas. So it’s kind of fun because I can do it wherever I go. So that’s kind of my background on how I really got into all of this. And the bundling is cool because you never know how they’ll turn out, no two will ever come out the same.
Do you find it hard to kind of not have control over that, as someone who’s a perfectionist I feel like it would be hard to let go of something and just let it take its course?
You mean to not know what the fabric will come out like?
Yeah, well I mean there are some that are just total flops. Like the boys go to Coachella every year, so I was like, “Oh, I’ll make you guys shirts.” I had these silk shirts, so I roll them up, and I was still in the experimental stage at this point, I didn’t really know how to get the print. So I do it and I sent it to them and they go, “Mom I don’t wanna hurt your feelings but this looks like a bunch of stains.”
And I said, “Oh, it’s fine,” like I wasn’t hurt about them at all. It’s interesting because you never know what you’re going to get, but that’s okay. I’d say 75% of the time now I get something that’s really usable, and the ones that don’t come out great at first you can just rebundle it and try something new.
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So I read online that the bags are made from recycled airplane leather seats?
Yeah, I have a sister-in-law that works for one of the companies that does the reupholstering for all the private airplanes. She knew I was creative, so at one point she just sent me a box of leather and said I’d probably be able to figure out something to do with it. That was the point where my printing was really coming together, and I was like, “I should just make purses.” So that’s what we ended up with! It’s nice because that leather is repurposed.
So how long have you been selling the bags for?
Well I just launched last December, I wanted to launch before Christmas. It did really well, I almost sold out. The bags that are left right now are in two different stores in Kaui. And I have one bunch coming in every week, so I’ll be able to put more on my website that are fresh.
What lessons have you learned about building a website and branding yourself?
The branding is all really new to me. I have a gal I’m working with in LA that helps with that. I send her all my prints and leather, and she takes it all to the man who’s sewing them. I’m just taking it one step at a time, I don’t have a huge funding behind it, I’m trying to just grow organically.
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The whole social media is just expanding and getting on Instagram and things like that, it’s all a learning experience to me right now. The marketing is new to me, I’ve always been more of an artist rather than putting myself out there and selling my things. I’ve never been that person. So I have a gal in LA that’s kind of guiding me and helping me through all of that. Along with being in different stores, I do want to grow the online stores, but then I’ll probably start doing more of the higher end. She actually has a few lined up in LA that she think will be good ones, to get the name out there.
So where are you from originally?
Originally I’m from Michigan. My oldest son who’s 26 now was born in December in Michigan. My husband said, “After this baby is born, why don’t we go somewhere warm?” The only thing he said was [the place] had to have good golf. So I ended up saying, “why don’t we go to Hawaii?”And so we did, and we were here for about three weeks. When it was time to head home, I was like, “Do we really have to live in Michigan?” He was just at this point in his career where he wanted to separate from what he was doing. So we were like, “Why don’t we see what we can do?” He had a few interviews before we even left the island, and things were looking good for him. So we went home and put our house up for sale and came back.
Cool! Yeah I feel like so many more people are kind of doing that when they’re just like, “Why do we have to live somewhere shitty?” Do you think it’s as glamorous as it sounds? People make it sound so amazing, but you’ve actually done it.
Yeah, each island is completely different, it is real glamorous but there is a lot of rain, so you have to be the kind of person who doesn’t mind rain. But the rain is warm, so you can still play. It’s absolutely gorgeous, I think if you’re someone who relates with nature, that’s pretty much what it’s all about. There’s a lot of really active people there who hike and surf and boat. I think the athletic people, the people who enjoy nature are the ones that really thrive in the islands, especially Kaui because there’s not much there. There’s really no night life.
Yeah, so it is pretty incredible. People end up getting a little crazy with island fever and they need something new, but fortunately we were able to travel quite a bit. After the boys started surfing we did contests here and there and everywhere. We’d spend most of the month of June in California, and there are contests in New Zealand and Australia. So we were always able to leave and come back and fly home with the destination being Kaui HI which was always so wonderful.
Model: Mahina Alexander