In a world brimming with mass-produced products, Taneish Miller, founder of Kalia & Co Designs, wants her locally crafted bags not just to stand out, but to be the preferred, Brand Jamaica purchase option. "I want my bags to be of such great quality that they can sit on a shelf with those that carry 'Made in France', and/or 'Made in Italy' labels; and stand out [ostensibly] because they are as impeccably made!" Miller told the Style Observer (SO).
Miller's leap from vocal critic of subpar workmanship to soughtafter bag designer is a pretty interesting one.
"My foray into the world of bag designing was the result of a dare... I was until two years ago, working in hospitality" she shared with the SO. "I would spend hours in the gift shop. One day I was being overly critical of the quality of a particular gift item. My comments sparked an unexpected proposition. The store manager challenged me to put my dissatisfaction into action: 'If you can make it better, do it!'" she charged.
Miller not only accepted the challenge but added her own. "If I make it better, would you sell it in the shop?"
The manager responded that if it was good enough, she'd certainly think about doing so. Buoyed by her words, Miller took inventory of the stock and set about making something different.
Miller's sewing skills coupled with research on the Etsy online website, led her to create a simple, yet elegant pouch. This marked the start. Indeed, she recalled, with a sparkle in her eyes, her first wholesale order.
The significance of her first sale being a wholesale order is not lost on her. "I didn't appreciate [it] at that time, how truly unusual that was. The typical purchase would be a single item with fingers crossed for more. So that was very exciting for me... I immediately started researching more complicated designs.
"I attended the University of YouTube and Google, leveraging the power of online resources to teach myself the intricate art of bag design. My early exposure to the sewing machine laid the foundation but it was my resolve to be successful that kept me going. Transitioning from the security of a regular salary to full-time entrepreneurship was both thrilling and terrifying.
"I put it off for as long as I could. But when I started to earn around the same as my job, I decided it was time. I also have an incredible support system of friends and family who believed in me, which further encouraged courage to do it," she said.
Miller knew from her childhood in the small community of Burnt Savannah, Westmoreland, where the whirring sound of the sewing machine was always in close proximity, to her student days at Manning's, and later as a business administration student at the University of Technology; that entrepreneurship was her calling.
There's more to Miller the entrepreneur. "Based on my personal experience of seeing really bad workmanship presented as souvenirs in gift shops for visitors and thinking 'OMG' these people really believe this is what Jamaica has to offer, was troubling. Oftentimes they were not even made in Jamaica but had made in Jamaica slapped on them... I had to change and elevate the narrative around Brand Jamaica."
Her latest collection does just that! Her Jute collection, she tells SO, was a long time coming " I made my first jute bag four years ago, but because it was so time-consuming, I was forced to press pause on it. I have subsequently returned to jute, and design what I believe to be a beautiful line. Woven baskets are a part of every culture across the globe. They are at once beautiful, and functional and I was inspired by the basket shape. I cannot weave in the traditional sense so I had to teach myself how to make a basket bag using the sewing machine which wasn't so easy, but the final product is so beautiful and so well worth it."
No idle boast. The bags are exquisite! No less time-consuming, Miller has kept the silhouettes simple, colours natural, and the bags functional. She's also grown a community of individuals who truly appreciate her craft, love to support Brand Jamaica and most importantly are willing to invest in her pieces.
Miller is now contemplating expansion. Her long-term goal is to partner with global stockists such as Nordstrom, Bloomingdales, Anthropology, etc, and to be featured in a few major publications. Ambitious goals, yes! But let's not forget that this artisan thrives on a dare.