By Jana-Mari Smith
There is a distinctive quality that emerges from the hand-crafted items available at the Desert Garden Art & Design stall at the Namibia Craft Centre. They all have one thing in common – they exude the love and passion that their creator, Elsie Imhof, manages to infuse into everything she creates.
Her words reflect this. “At the end of the day, if your heart and passion is not in it, you can’t sell it. That’s what I believe is the most important thing.”
The Desert Garden Art & Design shop was launched about four years ago by Elsie when she realised that her artistic talents could be the basis for a small business.
After working as a tour guide for 12 years, she presented an exhibition of her paintings, which was, according to her, surprisingly well received. Although she was keen to continue painting, circumstances intervened, and she decided to begin looking at alternative options for an art-based business instead.
After some pushing and prodding from friends, she took the leap and began making her own leather handbags. Without a proper background in the arts, says Elsie, she had to lean heavily on her innate ‘artistic and creative’ abilities and the basic sewing skills she had been taught by her mother.
But to her delight and surprise, the handbags were a hit, and she was able to slowly but surely expand and grow her business. Elsie follows her inner artistic sensibilities and gut instincts in the process of creating new products.
She explains that when she sources the leather, she has to touch and feel it. “If it speaks to me, I buy it.” After she has fallen ‘in love’ with a particular piece of leather or skin, she is patient, waiting for inspiration to allow her to take the next step – whether it is to create a handbag, a pouch, or a book cover. It can be mere days, or even a year, before she is ready to create the item.
She prides herself on the fact that no two items are the same – they might fall into the same line of products, but each product is individual and unique, a testament to her belief that the leather, skins, beads and other elements needed to create it are allowed to retain their individual imprints.
Elsie is constantly mulling over new ideas, looking around her for inspiration. Over the years, some products have proven to be highly popular, but she says it is important to continually evolve and adapt to what the market wants and needs. For instance, she has developed a range of products suitable for any modern woman, man or child – pouches for tablets, smartphones and mouse pads. She feels that it is important to ‘keep on top of fashion’ because ‘it changes, and one has to keep in touch with it’.
Since she began as a ‘self-taught’ maker of leather goods, Elsie has expanded to the extent that she now employs three women to help her with her output. She strongly feels, however, that her business will not grow much more, as she wants to continue supplying the market with individual, hand-crafted products. “I don’t want to become a big, commercial business. That is not me.” She wants to keep it ‘personal and individual’.
At all times she is keen to adapt everyday items and to do it ‘the Elsie way’. She says she is often inspired by designs she sees around her. She then takes her time to let her mind come up with ways to individualise what she’s seen, and give it the Elsie stamp of creativity.
Not only will you find leather and skin cushions at her stall, but also iron candleholders, which are given that extra touch with carefully sourced beadwork. Elsie is constantly on the lookout for African beads, which she interweaves into all kinds of products, including her handbags and the candle-holders.
“I like to always give it a little bit extra, not only in the design, but also in the finish.”
Some of her bestsellers include the Easy Clutch, an elegant clutch bag made from leather and skin. Another hit has been the Rachel bag, a large handbag for which she designed carefully-considered soft, thick and durable handles, answering to the aspect: ‘the bigger the bag, the more one puts into it’.
These personal and thoughtful touches mark all her work: soft leather angel wings made to slip over wine-bottle necks as a funky Christmas gift; playful wooden angels clothed in cut-off leather (the pieces of leather that pile up after a while in her workshop) and topped off with cheeky smiles and bushy hair; and small leather slippers for toddlers, finished off with fun and colourful dyed skin.
Elsie is clearly in her element, and her passion and love for what she does, ensures that if you visit her stall, you will always be able to walk away with something special, unique and unmistakably ‘Elsie’.