By Monica Roman Gagnier
Albuquerque Journal, N.M.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Entrepreneur/designer Erika Eckerstrand creates unique eye-catching totes, bags and accessories from industrial fabrics. The idea to create her products was inspired by a gig she once had making fabricated awnings.
There’s been a lot of upheaval among downtown merchants in Santa Fe due to rising rents and competition from online retailers, but you’ll still find artisan Erika Eckerstrand ensconced behind her sewing machine in the tiny shop at 211 Galisteo Street that she opened in 2016.
The fact that Designs of Erika will celebrate its fourth anniversary on March 16 is even more remarkable given that its sole proprietor suffered a life-threatening car accident in December 2017, right in the middle of the all-important holiday selling season.
“I really had the opportunity to go to the other side,” Eckerstrand recalled. “I could see a door opening and white light coming toward me.”
But the Swedish-born entrepreneur wasn’t ready to leave her life behind. As she struggled to recover from her injuries in the hospital, friends and family stepped in to keep her business afloat. Even Debbie Collins, her counselor from Santa Fe’s Small Business Development Center, pitched in to help.
Oddly enough, it was an earlier accident that got Eckerstrand into the business of making eye-catching totes, bags and accessories from industrial fabrics. The Stockholm native came to Santa Fe in the 1980s to attend the Institute of American Indian Arts, which despite its name is open to international students.
Her first creations were hand-coiled pots and beadwork, some of which were featured at the Patina Gallery in Santa Fe. But like many artists, Eckerstrand realized she needed a reliable source of income. That led to a gig making fabricated awnings from 1999 to 2007. That job ended when Eckerstrand was in a car accident and the work became too physically demanding for her after undergoing shoulder surgery.
Over a long course of physical therapy, Eckerstrand had plenty of time to contemplate her future. One day, it dawned on her that she could fashion the sturdy, stain-resistant fabrics that she had been using to make awnings into totebags, eyeglass cases, travel kits and other accessories.
Her idea evolved into Designs of Erika, which was chosen by the Small Business Development Center as its star client and was honored during a ceremony at the 2017 session of the state legislature.
With encouragement from Collins, Eckerstrand applied to be certified under the state tourism department’s New Mexico True program, which features local goods on a website and in marketing campaigns funded by the state. On March 10, she’ll be traveling down to Albuquerque to participate in a New Mexico True event that will be held in the main hall of the Sunport.
In fact, the Sunport is already one of the main distribution channels for Eckerstrand’s products through Avila Retail. The wholesaler displays her work next to other Land of Enchantment products, such as Los Poblanos lavender soaps and candles, Señor Murphy candles and New Mexico Piñon Coffee. Eckerstrand’s other major wholesale client is the Mercado at the Santa Fe Farmers Market.
Despite her success in winning the backing of state and city programs that help New Mexico entrepreneurs sharpen their business skills, Designs by Erika still only has one employee: Eckerstrand. And, given the long recovery from her most recent accident, that’s OK with her.
“Coming so close to death really changed a lot of things for me,” said Eckerstrand during a recent interview in her shop. “Before, if I got an order, I might have rushed home and started cutting fabric in my workshop that night. Now, I might wait a few days. If it can wait, it will wait.”
What hasn’t diminished since the accident is Eckerstrand’s creativity. She’s updated the palette for the fabrics she uses in her designs, adding bright hues, such as melon, coral, a turquoise shade she calls “lagoon” and a hot pink she has dubbed “orchid.” A multihued pattern called “kona” is also a new addition to her lineup.
There are products and price points for every pocketbook in Eckerstrand’s shop. There are coin purses that sell for $13.50, travel kits for $39.50 and large messenger bags that start at $155.
One of her latest creations is a messenger bag that slides on to the handle of a roller suitcase that she designed for a friend who is on the go all the time.
The metallic bag is displayed prominently in the shop. “It took me a while to get it right, but I did and I’m really proud of it,” she said.
Post-accident, Eckerstrand sees virtue in keeping her footprint small. When Artful Tea recently moved from Galisteo Street to West Marcy Street, Eckerstrand thought about expanding her space and moving her workshop out of her home. “But then I wouldn’t be close to the garden and I wouldn’t take a break from cutting fabric to take a walk,” she said.
Over the years, the percentage of business that comes from online sales has increased from about 10% to 15%, but it is Eckerstrand’s wholesale customers that account for the bulk of her revenues.
Eckerstrand used to keep her shop open six days a week but, since the accident, she’s cut her store hours back and is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. She sometimes thinks about hiring an assistant to help her make products on her $1,800 Japanese sewing machine, but frets about how to find such a person and the time that it would take to train them.
“For me, it has been key to keep my overhead costs low and I feel very fortunate to be able to maintain a storefront downtown, even through the recovery from the accident. When challenges present themselves, I always find a way to improve how I run my business and life,” Eckerstrand said.
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