When Sarah Cowen set out to make a practical, beautiful baby bag, little did she know that she'd start a cultural movement in the process.
Without a background in fashion or a file full of contacts, Sarah’s research and love of community led her to a Mexican village, where her spectacular range of bags are now created. Alongside the beautiful designs and practical carry items (which now extend beyond baby bags, to everyday totes and clutches) that are produced and cultivated in this small village, so are meaningful relationships and lifelong careers.
We spoke to Sarah about the inception of her brand, the handiwork that goes into every piece and what’s next for her collection. And we’re now ready to update our wardrobes with these divine, colourful pieces that truly make a difference.
Visit Memah | For Sydney-based readers, view Memah at the Le Marche du Luxe pop-up at 2/5 Knox St, Double Bay.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
Interestingly, I don’t have a background in design or fashion, but I come from a highly energetic and adventurous family who encourage ideas, and who have all followed their own dreams and visions in one way or another.
I grew up just outside of London and like many a pommie story, I ended up in Sydney whilst travelling the world after university. 17 years later, I am still here, with the addition of a husband, 2 kids, a house, a cat and a business… Oh, and a love of Aussie words for what I previously called aubergines and courgettes.
I do think I was always going to end up doing something creative and something which involved seeing the world and experiencing other cultures. My father was an amazing commercials director and that world always excited me. I am at my happiest when I am making things, so seeking out a career in TV production, which I continue to do, has been an exciting path for me, and really Memah is just another large production.
Despite not following a traditional path into fashion, I have always loved fabrics and colours, tassels and embellishments. I have always been drawn to unusual detailing on clothes and love a hunt for something unique… Let me get lost in a market any day of the week!
What led you to launch Memah?
When I was pregnant with my son, Archie, I was busy looking for a baby bag and found them all to be mass-produced and rather dull and uninspiring.
I could see there were some innovative and practical ones out there but did I really have to carry something around every day that pre-baby I would never have considered? I knew that leggings and sloppy t-shirts were on the horizon but surely I could at least retain some style with my everyday bag?!
Anyway, I ended up with a plain black bag as a last resort and decided when I was pregnant with my second child, Myla, that I would get to work designing some alternatives.
I have never felt a stronger sense of community as I did joining the mum club. I met some wonderful friends at mother’s group to turn to for advice. Old friends had been super generous passing on hand me down pieces, and I became part of social networks bringing together other mums to buy and sell stuff, and to share tips. This just made me feel that there must be a way to continue this sense of community in what I wanted to make. I then set about trying to find groups of women who could make my bags, and who would be empowered themselves by this enterprise, using the money they made to support their own babies. The idea of mothers helping mothers.
My research took me to this beautiful village in Oaxaca, Mexico where there were communities of weavers primarily making rugs. I could see that there were three generations of women working harmoniously together on one single rug. So after crafting my designs in Sydney (born from my love of these woven rugs) I knew it was time for the three generations of women in my family, my mother, myself and my four-month-old daughter to jump on a plane to meet these artisans. And so Memah began.
Your bags are handmade on the verandahs of your artisan’s homes in Mexico. Can you tell us about this process?
When you see how much work goes into each bag, and the pride of the artisans behind it, you know it is a real labour of love. At Memah we say “woven by hand with heart.” Every bag takes over four days to make, and by staying in the homes of our makers I experienced and gained an understanding of the craft and detail that goes into each piece. I actually became part of their very welcoming village community.
Every bag is hand-dyed, hand-woven and hand-stitched using time-honoured skills passed from generation to generation which trace back to the ancient Zapotec Culture. The natural wool is dyed in small batches over open fires, before being left to dry in the sun. Sometimes the wool is dyed twice to reach the unique vibrant tones characteristic of Memah. The tapete rugs which form the bags are woven on the looms one at a time before the bag is sewn into the desired shape by another family member. The leather straps are the last part to be stitched and these are all made in a home workshop in a nearby village.
How did you source the artisans you work with?
Taking the leap and getting on the flight to Mexico was really the start, and from there it evolved, through staying in the village and knocking on doors.
The beautiful thing about Teotitlan Del Valle is that everyone is connected somehow, so once you meet one artisan, you get to meet the rest of their family, friends and neighbours, all whom can offer something unique to the process. It became extremely collaborative very fast. In fact, one of the highlights of the journey so far came when we needed to expand the choice of leather available so one of our weavers, Ello, her 8-month-old son and I flew to another town to meet artists who specialise in leather and expand our team. This was the first time Ello had been on a plane and it gives me goosebumps even now when I picture her face as we boarded.
Can you share some details of your baby bags and what they entail?
We have three different types of bags – the baby bag, the nappy clutch and a matching little girl’s bag.
All bags are handmade from 100% natural wool and are lined with a premium black wipe-clean nylon lining. Pockets, pockets and more pockets. All bags in our range have multiple pockets for ultimate organisation. I actually don’t think I could live without pockets now, and when designing the bags I thought carefully about all the pockets you could possibly need… Then added some!
Our baby bags have detachable soft leather shoulder straps, and triple dipped chunky gold metal hardware such as D hooks to enable the bags to be attached to a stroller.
Most importantly, the bags are stylish, vibrant and versatile as well as practical, so they can be used outside those early baby years. The larger baby bag makes a great weekender and the smaller nappy clutch is perfect for those much-needed kid free nights out.
One of the unsung properties of wool (thank you nature!) is that it is highly water resistant, so when they do get wet in the rain, the water just runs off… A bonus when you just need to get out of the house whatever the weather brings as that coffee simply cannot wait!
How do you like to style your bags?
I think our bags really do the styling for you. The pop of colour and the striking geometric designs derived from the Zapotec traditions complete any outfit and help your baby’s stroller stand out.
How do you incorporate colour into your own wardrobe?
It might be easier for me to answer how I add blacks, whites, and neutrals into my wardrobe! I think from the early days of me loving my fluro neon wardrobe growing up in the eighties and nineties, I have always been drawn to clothing with bold prints and bright colours. It’s fun to leave the house in vibrant colours. I think as soon as you put on some colour it can change your mood. I don’t think you need to wait for a change in season to pop on your bright colours; bring summer to your day by wearing them.
If we took a look inside your bag today, what would we find?
A very different array of things now than if you had asked pre kids! Now it can almost be classed as dangerous to leave the house without some form of kids’ snack which I can make a Hansel and Gretel style crumbed pathway with to get them out of the park and back home!
But for me, I always have a small notepad to jot down ideas that spring to mind. Despite technology, I will always be a pen and paper girl. I always have my Thank You hand cream, and maybe you might just find a chocolate Lindt ball or two!
What tips do you have for women looking to launch a side-hustle?
It’s never going to be the right time. You are never going to be able to afford to do it. You will always doubt whether it will work – whether you are good enough to pull it off, whether you have the right experience and what people will think.
But I reckon all of those thoughts are less important than the bigger worry of never knowing if it was going to work and never fulfilling your own dream to try it.
So in short, just take the plunge and work out the rest as you go along rather than trying to have all the answers before you start and therefore never starting.
What have you found to be some of the most challenging parts of starting a business?
It’s certainly not one long straight road, and the challenge is to stay confident that these twists and turns will land you in a better place. Holding onto your energy and tenacity isn’t always easy when those inevitable moments of doubt creep in.
For Memah, great challenges arise with the lengthy time it takes to make each bag and the distance it needs to travel from the remote Mexican village.
That’s what makes each piece meaningful and unique though, so we wouldn’t have it any other way.
As a woman juggling a career, a family, and now a business – how do you make it work?
Lets just say it’s a work in progress!
What hacks or organisational tips do you implement in your everyday life to help life happen more smoothly?
Getting up before the rest of the tribe wakes up works for me. Just gives me time to shower, sometimes go for a walk, and gives me that crucial ‘me’ time that I won’t get for the rest of the day! I am also a fan of lists… These days if I don’t write it all down there is every chance it will get forgotten!
What’s ahead for yourself and Memah?
Spanish lessons… There is only so far Google Translate is going to be able to take me!
Truly though, the exciting part is that I really don’t know. If you asked me two years ago what I would be doing, I wouldn’t have said designing bags. I would, of course, love to see Memah grow and for it to be a primary source of income for the artisans in Mexico. If they didn’t have to leave their village home to earn an income for their growing families, that would be amazing. If I see the bags being enjoyed by mums all over Australia, that too would be wonderful.