An Australian clothing label steeped in Mexican artisan traditions?
That’s Little Tienda, a brand created by Em Dezentje that was born out of an appreciation for garments that transcend trends and are the antithesis of fast fashion. As Em explains it, “Every community in Mexico has its own traditional dress, their own unique way of showing where they come from and their pride in that. If I can wear something that carries that much heart and love, I honestly feel better for it and love that my money went to directly to the community. It goes beyond fashion. All the artisans we work with in Mexico are so full of joy and pride when I show them how I style and photograph the pieces, though I feel the honour is mine to share them with the world.”
We took a deeper look inside the world of Little Tienda to see how it came to be one of the most beloved easy-wear brands (the entire collections are always season-less, meaning they are designed to be worn whenever, forever), how Em juggles the business with the demands of four kids, and why her goal moving forward is all about doing better, not bigger….
Em Dezentje photographed by Amelia Fullarton
Can you tell us how Little Tienda started?
It was after the birth of Eli, my third child, that I started to crave something that was my own, outside of motherhood. Admittedly, at the time I had three under three and a half, so choosing to start a business now seems like the craziest idea, though for me it was the right one, as it turned out. Coming from academia I was itching to get back into the practice of business. The idea to create a brand that would support my new role as a stay at home mama whilst indulging my passion for business seemed like a natural step.
I had been lucky enough to have travelled through Mexico for over 20 years before I started Little Tienda and the most recent trip with my husband in 2006 had very much prompted my real passion for artisan made clothing. I came home and dressed all my family and friends in pieces I had collected. We had spent 8 weeks backpacking from the north through to the south and it all had so many different styles of garments. It amazed me the diversity of pieces. Skip forward 4 years and three babies later to 2012 and I started to pitch the idea to anyone who would listen. It took a few months of me branding, conceptualising and stocking up on pieces until we launched.
Little Tienda has evolved so much over the nearly seven years, just as my life has, it organically moves with me through life transitions. We now produce with five communities in Mexico and create my designs in India and Australia.
Is your background in fashion design? If not, how did you manage to kick off such a successful brand?
I have never worked directly with fashion prior to Little Tienda, retail for many years through school and university, though never apparel. I spent the years prior to launching Little Tienda in academia and prior to that, I have a strong background in marketing, human relations and small business management.
In 2012 when I launched, the world had changed so much since I became a mother. The internet was a viable business platform and an online store a perfect place for me to start conceptualising what I wanted Little Tienda to be. Through social media, it also felt possible to link with like-minded women who supported each other, see what they liked and have a real-time conversation. I have listened all the way with what my customer is wanting, often it is exactly what I want too.
Truthfully the success of Little Tienda really lies with being small enough to adapt and change as my customers’ needs and wants change. Listening to where and how they want to wear my pieces and creating things that they feel strong, beautiful and ready for whatever comes that day is the absolute continual vision.
Mexican-style dresses and artisan clothing - where did the idea for this particular aesthetic come from?
Artisan created pieces hold so much value. They hold generations of tradition and technique and should be honoured and valued as such. Every community in Mexico has its own traditional dress, their own unique way of showing where they come from and their pride in that. If I can wear something that carries that much heart and love, I honestly feel better for it and love that my money went to directly to the community. It goes beyond fashion. All the artisans we work with in Mexico are so full of joy and pride when I show them how I style and photograph the pieces, though I feel the honour is mine to share them with the world.
When I started to move towards designing and creating my own pieces, I knew I wanted hand block printed, hand woven and hand dyed fabrics. The natural step was Jaipur, India, where traditionally these artisan made fabrics are created. I had worked so hard to create a business based on artisan-made pieces, that I owed it to my customer to stay true to this ethos. It defines the brand, I am proud of that. In such a fast pace industry, I just want to do better and make positive changes that impact the people I work with, who buy from me and support me.
Buying fair-trade and slow fashion, to me, is the only option, so as a business I need to support that ethos too.
Describe a typical day...
I am up at 5.30am most days with my boys and Indio, my eldest, bless her, sleeps a little longer. We hang out and play, make breakfast, do daily chores and get ready for school. Once my three eldest are at school, it is home to check the emails while I set Indio up with some crafting or snacks. Throughout the day, I work when I can, truthfully! Indio and I just go with the flow.
I have two amazing women that do all orders and stock updating, so customers are well looked after. Once we have picked up the kids, it’s full action stations with so much food and so many stories, after-school activities and fun, pure joy! When the kids are in bed at 7pm, my two youngest sleeping and my two eldest reading, I do all the production meetings with Mexico and India, plus anything that I didn’t get done during the day. I am usually in bed by 11pm.
Most of the designing and curating is done as I feel the inspiration, though every Monday I set aside 2hrs for production/design planning and try to put the week’s ideas into something beautiful.
Next year, all four kids will be at school… check back with me then!
Creative jobs always seem so idyllic but the reality is often very different - can you tell us how you deal with the challenges of running a small fashion business in Australia right now?
Creatives LOVE what they make/produce and are endlessly inspired, it keeps us moving forward. Truth is, it is your everything, you never switch off (even if you try), it is all-encompassing. As a small fashion business right now, the truth is it is hard with so many fast-moving businesses ready to develop something like artisan-made pieces in just moments.
I design and conceptualise 12 months in advance to keep my idea fresh and my own. We are so oversaturated with ideas right now, that I guess I just try to stay on my course and keep true to what my ethos is. My goal now is to not be bigger, just do better! Better fabrics, better stories and better understanding and better pieces that my customers can love.
How has social media played a part in your brand’s success?
Absolutely! I did my undergrad degree in marketing, so know how to build a brand with traditional techniques, I know the cost and time associated too. Social media is the most exciting way to speak directly to your customer exactly how you want. It has built my brand when money and time have been an issue. It like all things, changes, so you have to navigate it. Though for all the negatives, the positives are far more. Free data on how people are responding, free access to you as a business. I feel like everyone wins.
What are some business tools you use often that keep things running smoothly?
Truthfully, I am a pen to paper woman. I write all my appointments on the same weekly calendar as the kids’ activities. Little Tienda is part of the family haha! My website keeps all the details I need on customers, so that’s a win. All the background production information is on spreadsheets and then I continue to scribble on them, so much pen.
You’re balancing a business with four kids - what is the juggle day to day like?
Like any working parent, it can be hard some days and a breeze others. I take each day as it comes and I am full of gratitude at the end. My children and husband are my everything. I am not afraid of failing, some days just don’t work, that’s ok, it has to be. I work really hard when I am working and achieve as much as I can, so when I switch off, I walk away knowing I did my best. I am a realist.
Can you reveal any mum hacks you swear by - e.g. prepping meals, scheduling/calendar apps, food delivery, etc.?
My weekly calendar is my WORLD! I look at it every night and every morning. I encourage the kids to look to, so we respect that we all have something going on. That if we have to take Milla to drama, we are all ready to roll so she knows how much we love and respect her and she won’t be late because someone couldn’t find a shoe. I have little kids right now, I know as they grow and we create more freedom for them that keeping organised will become trickier. Plus again, if I mess up, it happens, I don’t love them any less if we forget a library book once in a while. BE KIND ON YOURSELVES MAMAS.
What is your definition of self-care and how do you make time for it?
I have just discovered reading… at 40! I have a brain that doesn’t stop (hence the lack of business tools) and have just taken up reading for 30 minutes – 1 hour a day. I GET IT, you readers were right and I am sorry if I rolled my eyes at you in the past. It is the best. I have read three books since I turned 40 in late October, so right now I am in the zone and loving it!
If you had to live in one style of clothing for the rest of time, what would it be and why?
Maxi dresses that touch the floor and are so full and romantic, though can be tucked into my knickers to jump on a boat if needed. I crave pieces that are natural fibres and made for every day though with intention. Of course, ethically and artisan made ONLY.