Gracious Dube has always had an eye for fashion, but never did she think her handmade purses from Rooibos tea bags would one day be sold as a hot accessory in the fashion capital of the world.
Growing up in Harare, a career as an artist wasn’t encouraged by her parents, but when Ms Dube, 33, moved to South Africa and got involved with Hout Bay’s Original T-Bag Designs in 2006, her creativity took flight.
Original T-Bag Designs is a company that started out as a social responsibility project by founder, Jill Heyes, to help impoverished women from Imizamo Yethu to earn money, by making unique arts and crafts from tea bags and boxes.
Ms Heyes, a former art teacher, trained Ms Dube in various art mediums and encouraged her to try new product ideas as a way to boost her income.
While holidaying in South Africa, French fashion designer Carine Khalil, who focuses on upcycling products, was intrigued by Ms Dube’s eye-catching tea bag purses, which she spotted at the V&A Waterfront, where they had set up shop.
Ms Kahlil has since worked with Ms Dube on recreating her Rooibos purse for the Paris market, which sells for 26 Euros (R377) at Ithemba Design Ethik, a top fashion and decor boutique, owned by Ms Kahlil.
Ms Dube said the experience of working with Ms Khalil had been “awe-inspiring”.
“Khalil knows the ins and the outs of the fashion business and has given me lots of advice to help me grow my business,” she said.
To make her fashionable purses, which are lined with silk, Ms Dube starts off by drying and ironing about 45 to 50 Rooibos tea bags. Once done, the tea bags are varnished and either glued or carefully stitched onto the silk. Some purses are also decoratively painted to add to the unique look.
She said one of the reasons she specifically used Rooibos tea bags in her design was because it’s her favourite tea.
“I love drinking Rooibos and it was while drinking a cup that I came up with the idea of creating a purse from tea bags. Initially, I tried making it with lots of different tea bags, but the Rooibos tea bags were ideal. Not only do they give my purses a beautiful rich colour, but they also tend to be a lot stronger than other tea bags,” Ms Dube said.
Ms Kahlil has also commissioned Ms Dube to make a lampshade and basket from Rooibos tea bags, which are equally big sellers.
“Funds generated from my designs have helped me to secure a flat in Hout Bay where I live with my 11-year-old son, Dion, and my mom. I’ve always believed in the power of education and am now able to pay for him to go to a good school that will open doors for him. From a business perspective, Heyes has also taught me the basic principles of marketing such as pricing a product right, knowing what products customers want and to never compromise on quality.
“I’d like to think that this is just the beginning of a burgeoning fashion business. I have so many ideas buzzing in my head and can’t wait to try them out. My mom and son are also very supportive and just love that my purses are making headlines in Paris. They often help me to prepare the tea bags, so are very much a part of my success.”
Adele du Toit, spokesperson for the SA Rooibos Council (SARC), said Ms Dube’s products were exquisite.
“It’s wonderful to see how artists the world-over are incorporating rooibos tea bags, leaves and even boxes in their art. It’s also a great way to upcycle and gives rooibos tea bags a second life. The concept of painting on or using tea bags in fashion is truly unique and forces artists to work on a canvas that isn’t blank, but is instead imprinted with odd colours and textures.
“The creative possibilities are endless,” she said.