Founded by Toronto mom Melissa Richardson, Totem Bags features street-chic purses, messenger bags and carry-alls made from upcycled materials, including truck tarps, promotional banners, seatbelts and bike tires. Earth911 sat down with Richardson to learn more about her compelling story, her design inspiration and how she took truckers’ trash and transformed it into seriously awesome upcycled fashion.
An inside look at Totem Bags
When she was expecting her first daughter, young mom Melissa Richardson found herself hesitant to return to her job in the corporate world. Inspired by a successful Swiss brand that repurposed old truck tarps into bags and accessories, Richardson decided to modify the idea to fit the urban-hip fashions of her hometown of Toronto, Canada.
With the support of her husband, the budding entrepreneur started Totem Bags in 2009 from the basement of her Toronto home. Created to repurpose durable waste materials, Totem Bags emerged as a creative marriage of style and sustainability.
The young brand got its first big break when the National Ballet of Canada signed on to hand over a stockpile of promotional banners to be repurposed into new products for its gift shop. Not knowing how to use a sewing machine, Richardson sat down and created the very first Totem Bag, which later became the T2 market tote design that is still one of the brand’s biggest sellers.
Since that fateful day, Totem Bags has expanded its list of clients to include top names like Chevrolet, Audi, Honda, IMAX and the Toronto International Film Festival.
Most companies send over their old banners to be remade into bags for giveaways and in-house promotions. But the eye-catching bags made from National Ballet of Canada banners, featuring productions such as Romeo & Juliet, Sleeping Beauty and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, are some of the retail line’s most popular designs.
Other bags in the Totem Bags retail line incorporate non-branded promotional banners, truck tarps, seatbelts and bicycle inner tubes sourced from across Canada.
“It’s kind of like the Johnny Cash song ‘I’ve Been Everywhere,'” Richardson tells Earth911. “That seatbelt, it saved somebody’s life, potentially. The truck tarp has traveled across Canada and in some cases into the states as well. Every single bag has a history.”
As a mom and stepmom to four kids, age one to nine, you would think Richardson has adopted a more hands-off approach to her brand over the years, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Each bag in the line is handmade at a manufacturing facility about five minutes from Richardson’s home, and the Totem Bags founder gives every piece her stamp of approval before it heads out the door.
“I want to make sure that when the bags come off the line, I’m the last one who sees them,” Richardson says. “Everybody should know that I have actually touched every single bag. I continue to do that, and I will continue to do that… because I don’t want to send anything out that has any type of imperfection.”
In addition to lending a personal touch to each bag, Richardson says she is now a well-known upcycler in Toronto and receives calls daily about new shipments of waste materials waiting to be repurposed – jokingly referring to herself as “the crazy bag lady.”
“Every single bag is a win,” Richardson says. “One bag is a little less in the landfill, and that’s what I do this for.”