Once upon a time, Toni Truong was a 22-year-old energy trader living in Houston, Texas. Every Monday through Friday, she sat at a desk flanked by eight computer monitors and two phones, dutifully dealing megawatts on an electrical grid.
Then, at age of 25, a “quarter-life crisis” hit. She soon quit her job at the oil and gas company, packed her bags and headed to Los Angeles, enrolling in Otis College of Art and Design with an emphasis in fashion design. A flurry of schooling and employment later — with each step of the way fueled by determination and perseverance — Toni now owns and operates her very own line of handcrafted leather goods for the refined and edited woman: TONI. Components of TONI’s luxe products are all locally sourced and handmade.
Though this change of heart might seem rather abrupt to you or me, it never was for Toni. She had always been crafty, particularly since learning how to sew in an 8th grade home economics class. Real life and its aptness toward practicality happened, however, and the hobby took a backseat to carrying out a booming internship turned full-time, lucrative job. Despite this paved path to success in the energy trading world, her “rat race”-type of life left her feeling empty and more than a little bit stuck.
Craving some sort of change, Toni took time off from her corporate-centric routine. Within a year, she gallivanted throughout approximately 14 countries, including a solo trip to Australia and a backpacking trip through Spain, Madrid and Barcelona.
It was the final push she needed. Toni explains:
I’m sure you have worked with a variety of materials. Why specialize in leather?T
: I had tried everything else already. I did silks, I did cotton, I did shoes. I even did bridal. At one point, I thought I wanted to be the next Monique Lhuillier or Vera Wang. Wedding gowns are a unique thing to do and have great added value. But whenever I worked on those projects, no light bulb went off.
I was in transition between jobs after Otis, and I worked at a textile company in DTLA. It was at that time I realized I never had worked with leather before. So I brought a skin of leather home and decided to make Christmas presents. The first product was leather bag I made for my mom for Christmas 2009. Then, I started TONI in February 2010. When I made that first leather bag for my mom, it just felt right.
How did you master working with leather, which is typically more difficult to work with?T
: While working with leather for the first time, I realized how intricate it was. Not everyone can really handle it. It was a big puzzle that I loved figuring out. I was never formally taught, and I’ve never worked with a leather company before. I just tried. Any questions had, I just went to the stores where they sold [leather material] and asked tons of questions. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise because I feel if someone told me how to do certain things, it would’ve been overwhelming.
But when you dive first into something you don’t know, you kind of take it as it comes. This also applies to starting a business. I definitely didn’t know what was going to happen — I’m the person who would just go with it.
How long does it take to design and create a bag?T
: For some bags, designing could take months. It could be up to five prototypes just to make the design. I will wear the bag and see how it fits, just so I can make sure it’s something I relate to and would possibly buy.
The backpack, for example, can take six hours to actually make. Smaller bags are easier and take up to at least two, maybe three and a half hours. You have to hand-cut everything because there are curvatures and delicacies that machines just can’t get. From there, you have to assemble it and stitch it.
The best thing about being a self-made entrepreneur?T
: You have your own schedule, and you get credit for everything that you do. But, you also get credit for every bad thing you do. Creating a brand from scratch is very difficult, but now that I see what direction I want to take, it’s like: “Wow, I didn’t realize I had that in me.” It’s a personal challenge and a professional challenge, but to look back and see that you’ve overcome all of those obstacles? That’s probably the most rewarding thing.
And at the other end of the spectrum: What’s the worst?T
: Finding the direction. Finding the pace. Where do I go next? Nothing is ever written, you know. For awhile, I wanted to sell things on my own because I wanted to be involved. I went from store to store before realizing that wasn’t the best way to work. Trade shows weren’t for me either. Now, I’m finding a showroom to help me with all of that, which means finding the right chemistry with how you work. Showrooms have a complexity because you have to find one you trust and mesh well with, and one that goes with your aesthetic.
It’s all of these variables, and finding the right balance. That even applies to designing a bag: You have so many options out there, but you have to find the balance of your aesthetic, what’s available for hardware and leather; and just creating something you can sell, that is honest with you and what others would like. It’s always always a balance with everything, and that’s part of the struggle.
Do you have any advice for other people in your field who are just starting out? T
: I guess it goes back to how we started the conversation.
I met Toni while attending one of her first-ever leather workshops that was stocked with wine, gummy bears and cheese and crackers. (Uh, count me in.) What initially struck me about Toni was her bright talent. The second impression that immediately followed the first? Her bright adoration for what she does, shining from the inside-out. Toni’s positive attitude was infectious during the workshop, even coming from someone like me who has absolutely zero patience for working with needles and other small-sized objects. Like the Young Creatives featured on this blog before her, Toni is one to watch, y’all.
photos of Toni courtesy of Trisha Angeles
all other photos via TONI