By Kristen Cook
The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson.
Sugar Skull Design started with a $350 clutch — one that owner Gabriela Fleming reeaaaaally wanted.
The graphic and Web designer was wandering around downtown Austin, Texas, on a break from a conference for young advertising professionals, when her friend pointed out the amazing little purse.
“It had skulls on it, and she said, ‘It’s so you,'” recalls Fleming, a 27-year-old Tucsonan. “It was $350. I was like, ‘Oh, I can’t afford that.'”
But, she thought about that clutch. A lot. She did some research, improved upon the design and made a version big enough to hold a cellphone, and then posted a pic on Instagram that got a lot of social-media love.
Necessity, you see, is more than just the mother of invention — she’s also spawned some pretty cool accessories.
Three years after Sugar Skull Design officially launched, Fleming has done well enough to quit her day job. Along with those clutches, she crafts glittery earrings, kitschy devotional candles, key fobs, bags and whatever else people ask her to make.
She splits her time working as a freelance graphic and Web designer and running her Etsy shop full of colorful creations, inspired by a mashup of pinup and rockabilly, Mexican cultural traditions and pop culture. Prices start at under $10 for earrings and keychains and tote bags can run up to $100, while clutches cost $25 to $60.
Sales have been going so well that later this month, Fleming’s Etsy shop is going mobile.
She and fiance Chris McKulsky are putting the finishing touches on a 1959 Shasta Airflyte, which will serve as a mobile shop. She calls it the Sugar Shack.
They originally bought it off Craigslist and figured they’d use the trailer to enjoy the great outdoors.
“We thought, ‘Oh, we could go camping,'” she says.
But, packing and unpacking her black Dodge Ram truck for local events, like 2nd Saturdays Downtown, became such a chore that converting the trailer into a rolling store seemed like a better option.
“Hopefully it’ll be less stressful,” she says.
Fleming works out of her mother’s northwest-side home in a small studio crammed with bolts of glittery vinyl, bubble wrap and packaging tape for mailing Etsy sales. A cluster of garden gnomes — she collects them — watch over her as she sews.
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Creativity flows through Fleming’s family. She credits her parents with instilling the desire to create in her and her two brothers. Free time was always spent drawing, and by the time Fleming was in high school, she owned a sewing machine and was screen-printing her own shirts. Her best friend made jewelry and taught her the ropes.
When she headed off to Chapman University in Southern California, though, she was on a premed track. And miserable.
“I was out of my element,” Fleming says.
Her roommate pointed out how she was always drawing and suggested she try graphic design. Turns out that was a much better fit, and Fleming transferred to Northern Arizona University while continuing to sketch and take as many art classes as possible.
Working at graphic and Web design is fun — “It’s creative, definitely, but it’s more structured,” she says — but her true passion is coming up with fun products like her candles. She creates Photoshopped images on overhead transparencies to make devotional candles featuring TV icons like Joan from “Mad Men” and characters from the dearly departed “Parks and Recreation.” No more Beyonce, though.
“I got a cease and desist from Beyonce’s people,” she sheepishly admits. There was no problem using her image, it’s just that Queen Bey’s name is trademarked.
Friends keep giving Fleming challenges — like making matching bridesmaid clutches or a diaper bag — and she adores the custom work.
“It’s awesome to get someone’s reaction,” she says of the special requests.
Sugar Shack should be cruising the streets soon, with a grand opening set for October. Fleming talks about joining Tucson Food Truck Roundup stops and is part of a group of female artists and entrepreneurs who do pop-up shows called Tucson Shoppy Hour. The group posts its upcoming events on its Facebook page.
“I’m definitely at a place where I’m really happy,” Fleming says. “I see this going places.”
And not just because the Sugar Shack has wheels.