By Vincent Desmond

June 31, 2020

Thalia Strates is a straight shooter. You can tell this from the signature designs of her eponymous handbag brand: painstakingly crafted and practical leather bags. The South African designer, who lives and works in Cape Town, has garnered worldwide interest in her work not just for its high craftsmanship, but also for her eco-friendly fashion practices. Strates, who’s largely recognized for her successful collaborations with New York-based shoe label Brother Vellies in 2016, has been featured on several platforms and outlets such as Glamour SA, Elle SA, and Vogue; yet, when Industrie Africa talks to her, she does not harp on these credits to her name. She is quick to tell us that she doesn't want to be what she calls “a flavor of the month” designer, chasing the highs that come from external validation or being featured in the pages of magazines. Thalia Strates does not want to be your favorite designer for a moment, she wants to create pieces and a brand that have a lasting impact on the industry and environment. Strates’ desire to change the world through fashion—or, at least, affect the way we think about and consume fashion—is inspired by her love for the environment as well as her relationship with sustainability. When we ask her about the roots of her environmentalism, Strates tells us about her childhood and her grandmother who played an impactful role in her upbringing and in shaping her stance on sustainable fashion. ‘‘Slow fashion is how I was brought up,’’ she says, ‘‘My grandmother believed in quality over quantity. She brought me up this way. I don't believe in excesses.’’

As Strates recounts the influences of her grandmother, Maria-Anna, on her as a person and as a designer, emotion is palpable in her voice. She goes on to mention that her favorite of her designs at the moment is Muyora, a handbag inspired by one of her grandmother’s; a piece Strates had been working on when her grandmother passed away. Muyora, an asymmetrical, clean-lined leather handbag that takes about 20 days to manufacture completely by hand is available in a range of classic colors such as cognac, coffee, and black, and is exactly the kind of piece that Strates aims to keep creating with her eponymous brand. Though her grandmother never got to see the finished design, Strates’ is certain she would have loved it.

“My grandmother believed in quality over quantity. She brought me up this way. I don't believe in excesses.”

It is important to Strates that buyers gravitate towards her because they have developed a relationship with her work and the designer behind them. Born in Namibia to a Greek father and a German/Dutch mother, Strates is not short of cultural influences. A common thread she has found amongst her varied influences and heritage is the strong and independent women she shares a bloodline with and who inspire her to this day. 

‘‘I always knew that my career was going to be in the fashion industry, yet I had no idea what the job description was going to be exactly,’’ she shares. Immediately after graduating with a fashion degree from the University of Cape Town, Strates started a career as a freelance stylist in the same city. ‘‘After I dabbled in styling for a while, I realized it wasn't the right fit for me,’’ she continues. Before long, Strates realized that the South African fashion chorus lacked a voice dedicated to the making of bags. ‘‘I started designing my bags [out of a] need to do something unique. At the time no one in South Africa was making quality, bespoke handbags that could compete on an international level. It all started with a personal need and then became a calculated business move.’’

During our conversation, slow fashion and sustainability are subjects to which Strates passionately and constantly returns. ‘‘[Building a sustainable brand] certainly is not easy and comes with ongoing research and adjustment. We are still weeding things out. We keep things simple when it comes to materials and finishes, using the same colors and hardware across all styles which means no waste.’’

Strates does not release seasonal collections and only launches a new style when she feels that there is a need for it. She uses production off-cuts to make smaller items like cardholders and key rings. The choices she makes with her brand all serve to minimize waste and to ensure that every piece produced isn’t just special, but maintains a three-way relationship between the designer, the design, and the buyer. ‘‘When the time came to create something,” shares Strates, “I wanted to create something that would be timeless, and which people would be excited about: [Pieces] that would be sentimental and would create a bond between the designer and the consumer.”

By the time we say our goodbyes over the phone and end the conversation, I feel that Strates’ infectious zeal for the environment has rubbed off on me. Perhaps it is her openness when it comes to talking about her grandmother or her student days at the University of Cape Town, but Thalia Strates knows how to build a connection. It is such a connection with her creations that elevate her handbags from luxury accessories to a calculated investment in the consciously curated life. 

Photo courtesy of Thalia Strates