Most of you reading this are probably already familiar with the social enterprise formerly known as t-615. It’s probably what brought you here. If you don’t already know, t-615 has rebranded itself as BRANDED Collective, a business that employs survivors of human trafficking who work with local artisans to craft a line of jewelry from recycled metals ethically manufactured in the United States. The jewelry is traceable from the earth to your bodies. BRANDED Collective also donates 25% of its profits to anti-human trafficking efforts.
Transparency and adaptability are two words that I think best describe the social enterprise co-founded by Lauren Carpenter and Emily Landham. These two women are owners of a company that isn’t afraid to rebrand to better communicate its purpose. Through its adaptability, it continues to pursue its goal of “turning oppression into opportunity for women worldwide.” The journey of this company is as outstanding as its mission.
Instead of taking out a business loan to start their company, Lauren and Emily decided to fund themselves by selling BRANDED cuffs for $100 a piece. The response was overwhelming. They sold 100 cuffs in just two months, and their business quickly became afloat in the Spring of 2013. From there, they were able to stock and begin selling screen printed tops, their first business goal.
After further educating themselves about the history of cotton and its commonly unethical practices in the fashion industry, Lauren and Emily decided to start a new line of tops “that [they] could trace from the cotton seed to your closet,” Lauren said. So, in the Fall of 2014, that’s what they did – everything with transparency and what’s referred to as ‘slow fashion.’ They hired two NYC designers who had recently relocated to Nashville to design their new line of tops. Then, they found a cotton supplier in Asheville, NC, whose cotton was organically grown in Texas. When they met the cotton supplier, “he had a water faucet hanging around his neck,” Lauren said. I can’t find a way to contextualize that fact, but I didn’t want to leave it out either. Moving on.
The new line of tops were beautiful but sold with less speed than the BRANDED cuffs. “We learned that people don’t normally do this because it’s much easier to outsource to China,” Lauren said. The process of slow fashion cost them almost $90 to make one top, an expense that required communicating to buyers “why ethical clothing costs so much to make and why it’s important to know where your clothing comes from,” Lauren said. Of course this message overlaps with anti-human trafficking efforts; however, the message they send through their BRANDED line of jewelry rings out louder, clearer, and more efficiently. “Do one thing really, really well,” Lauren said. For them, that’s crafting jewelry with a message.
Lauren and Emily are now returning to their roots as a company, to its original message. That’s why, today, they’re called BRANDED Collective. “It’s our tribute from Nashville to the world,” Lauren said. “We are doing it because we’re passionate about it.” Since interviewing Lauren, I’ve adopted her mantra that perfectly sums up her conscientious mission through BRANDED Collective and all of its endeavors: “Buy less, pay more, take care, and give back.”
“Photography is about light,” professional photographer Courtney Davidson says. I am sitting with her in a Nashville coffee shop on a chilly winter day and the light is nothing remarkable, but Courtney’s story is.
Originally from the Carolinas, Courtney moved to Alabama to attend Birmingham Southern and study painting. When the required Introduction to Christianity course was closed for enrollment, her advisor and photography professor suggested she take Photo I. “I’ll help you. It’ll be fine,” she said.
Initially, it was not fine. “When she was talking about the enlarger, I’m thinking it’s a machine you just put the thing into and it spits it out,” Courtney explains. “That’s what I really thought we were going to see in the dark room … really bad. I’m so bad at this.” The rolling of undeveloped film onto spools in pitch black closets is not the fun part. I’ve done it before and I stood, fumbling in the dark, for 45 minutes on the metaphorical struggle bus. “It took me forever to figure it out” Courtney says. “I did the worst stuff I’ve ever seen.” Part of the struggle, probably, was that Courtney was using her father’s old F-Series Nikon film camera lacking a light meter. “I don’t know how this woman had the faith in me to keep me in that class,” Courtney says. It is a good thing her professor did. Photography is hard. It is technical, but it gets easier.
A bit later, Courtney contracted a January term project to complete a photographic documentary of Blues and Jazz musicians in the Mississippi Delta. She stayed at the Hopson Plantation in Mississippi in a 1920s shack, ambled around Clarksville, and took photographs. “Then I went to Memphis and wandered around Beale Street at two in the morning at the age of 19, which my mother was really excited about,” she says. “I didn’t have a fake ID.” Courtney remembers, “This man was standing there,” and my hands started sweating. I’m worrying as much as her mother probably was worrying. “I called him my angel,” she continues. “He was the information guy for Beale Street. He walked me into every bar. He told the bartender, ‘She’s going to order a coke, sit here, and take some pictures,’” and that is what she did.
As a Photo I student, Courtney was only allowed to use 400 speed film in class. That is what she brought on this trip and, if you know anything about film photography, 400 speed film does not bode well in dim lighting. “This man said, ‘You should go get some 1600 speed film. What are you doing?’,” she recalls. Despite these challenges, the photos turned out well. When she returned to Birmingham, Courtney’s professor told her to continue to pursue photography. She was the person to encourage Courtney to go to grad school. After undergrad, Courtney moved to New York City to study photography at Parsons where she completed her MFA.
“I was living in New York working at a law firm as a paralegal because that’s what you do when you’re broke and out of grad school in New York City,” she says. She shot her first wedding in 2007. In early 2008, Courtney made a major shift back to photography. Kenny Pang, an award-winning wedding photographer, takes on already competent photographers for a one-year mentorship-type apprenticeship. “He hired me and I shot 45 weddings in 2008,” she says. “It was very much like boot camp for wedding photographers.” Her “drill sergeant” shouts, “What were you thinking? F-11?” and Courtney salutes.
“I was making, in one day, what I made at the law firm in a week and getting valuable experience,” she says. “Even though I had ‘poo-pooed’ weddings, I actually discovered that I really loved it and that I was really good at it.” After working with Pang for a year, Courtney “got kicked out of the nest,” but her career as a wedding photographer began. “He really invested a lot in me, I got really good, and he started giving me referrals.”
Courtney developed her business in New York. Pang fast-tracked her and she shot 15 weddings her first year on her own. “Everything was moving the way it should,” she says. “I was on track to make some money and do what I love,” working out of an office in Tribeca, lower Manhattan, a big deal, especially after “com[ing] out of Parsons with student loans coming out of your ears.” That success, however, did not deter Courtney from moving to Nashville and starting over again. “I really knew very strongly that I was supposed to come to [Nashville],” she says. Courtney found out that an old friend from Birmingham was living here in Nashville, they reconnected, and that friend happened to have a 2-bed/2-bath house in East Nashville and was looking for a roommate. Can you say, ‘serendipity?’ I can.
Now, Courtney has rebuilt her clientele and is even rebranding her business in order to further distinguish herself as a Nashville photographer. When she first moved, her brand was bridging the gap between New York and Nashville. All of her images were New York, but that is changing. “I also was kind of establishing that’s where I came from when I was working with people here in Nashville, which does give you a little credit because it’s hard to have a business [in New York City],” she says.
To get the most out of your own brand, you have to consider your clientele. “I really had to look at the kind of clients that I draw, the typical brides that I get, and I also had to be honest with myself about what I really want to do stylistically, what I feel like I’m drawn to, and what I stay away from,” Courtney says. She describes her brides as traditional, “not in a sense of stodgy,” but modern and fresh. “They don’t want me to Photoshop a T-Rex chasing their bridal party, and they don’t want to turn around with their butts hanging out of their dresses,” she says. “That’s not my bride and I’m totally okay with that.”
Courtney’s logo reflects that style by staying as clean and classic as her weddings, regardless of the current trend. It also works with the “totally gritty, totally not pretty” style that she conjured when she shot film in the Mississippi Delta and continues to enlist in her music photography. “My Instagram does not look like Darling Magazine would want to publish it,” she says. We talked about trend for a while because I deal with the alluring nature of trendiness daily and, as Courtney put it, the trend is “informing people’s aesthetics.” Courtney can separate herself from trendiness, remaining classic and timeless in her branding. “I want to look high-end but also approachable,” she says. “I want it to show what, ideally, I like to do with a wedding day. I love to work with light. I don’t like it when it’s cloudy.”
We have about 142 hours of sunshine in Nashville in February. Shine on, Courtney, shine on.
Robert Johnston sells Legos online as a full time job. Yes, you read that correctly. “Most old people think I am making my business up because they don’t understand the internet,” he explains. “Basically I have a store online instead of right down the street in a shopping plaza.”
I’ve been friends with Robert since 2007, when we met in college. By then, he had already started “selling vintage clothes on the sly out of [his] dorm room,” significantly contributing to the 90’s being alive at Milligan College and filling my tiny closet with other people’s family reunion and Bible camp t-shirts.
Before he started Vintage Nashvegas, Robert was training to be a manager at a local restaurant and selling various things online, sometimes scavenged. “One month I made the same amount selling stuff as I was making at the restaurant, so that, combined with the upcoming 60+ hr/week management role, changed the course of history forever,” he says. “The next month I quit the restaurant and started slowly building my online business.”
Now, six years later, Robert sells a variety of retail merchandise “through eBay, Etsy, and Amazon.” Robert describes this transition as “a continuation of a lifestyle.” Vintage Nashvegas officially started in a spare bedroom in his house, and is now run from a West Nashville warehouse, adjacent to a meditation studio and below a restaurant wholesale supply store. The walls of old windows and distressed brick, lined with color-sorted legos, Western shirts, mom jeans, flannels, and Members Only jackets, agree with Robert’s brand and personal interests. The name Vintage Nashvegas covers Robert’s “desire to incorporate [his] love of all things vintage, but still valuable,” into his brand. It is organically him. “I have been living ‘vintage’ for many moons,” he says. “I've never wanted to separate my business from who I am, thus the focus on Lego and vintage clothing. Even most of the Lego items I sell are considered vintage and are unavailable in any new market.” Robert discerns that when “people hear ‘antique’ [they] think about their memaw,” but, when they “hear vintage [they] think ‘Give it to me,’” something any reseller wants his customers to have in mind.
Robert spends his work days shipping orders to customers, photographing new items, submitting new listings online, and testing out strategy. “Unlisted inventory is basically wasted money,” he says. His business thrives off of a bit of space, a computer, and an internet connection, but requires a good online business planning to be successful. Robert describes his online presence as “eclectic, wide, and deep.” A Summa Cum Laude Business School graduate, he analyzes his strategies constantly and “tweak[s] future actions based on their performance.” His first love is eBay but says, “Etsy and Amazon are newer marketplaces for me to ply my wares.” Robert found that Etsy was the marketplace for vintage clothing and “a few custom Lego items for the discerning hipster.” A Ron Swansonesque Lego from his Etsy shop was featured on BuzzFeed this past Christmas season (#19). “My eBay store is big and getting bigger all the time, as it is a worldwide market where anything can be sold,” he says.
Small businesses come in all kinds of boxes. Robert’s is one that helped inspire to me to start my own. I’ve been able to see Vintage Nashvegas grow from a dorm room to an upstairs spare bedroom, and then to a large warehouse space, and it is still growing today. Robert is an example of what a person can do with a good idea, serious dedication, support from family, and enough time.