At Oliberté, we believe that the only way to continually bring pride and prosperity in Africa is if it is a joint effort by several persons, brands and partners. “Ambassadors” will feature subjects who are directly or indirectly working with non-profit or social good organizations or those who exemplify a passion for Africa and its citizens.
Tina Tangalakis founded Della, a Los Angeles and Ghana based fashion line, in 2009, starting with wax-print hobo bags designed by Tina and sewn by Beatrice, a Ghanaian seamstress. Today, in Hohoe, over 40 full-time Della employees – management, seamstresses, and fabric makers – handcraft high-quality products from locally sourced or in-house made fabric while being paid fair wages, given good work conditions, and building a strong community. The brand has collaborated with Urban Outfitters, Modcloth, and Apple, and has several exciting debuts (one of which we cover in this Q&A) coming up.
What inspired you to start Della?
I used to do costume design and wardrobe styling here in LA. I grew up here. I loved it, it was fun, but after doing it for a few years, I was getting a little burnt out on the entertainment industry. I was about 20 at the time, and I was looking at my life and at people who were twice my age, and they were having the same love issues or just weird little things and I wasn’t sure that’s what I wanted mine to be like. I had this ‘aha’ moment when I was driving in my car and I was so stressed about finding the right color of green socks, and I was like, ‘Okay, wait a minute. What am I doing?’ So I stopped doing costume and I started volunteering at the Venice Family Clinic and doing freelance design.
Then I got to this place in my life a few years later, I had broken up with a boyfriend, I had to move back home, and I realized I could do anything at the moment. So I saved all my money and went to volunteer in Africa. While I was there the first week, I fell in love with the textiles, and I saw ladies waiting with sewing machines for work. So I commissioned a seamstress to make a bag for my sisters, and when I saw the finished product it all clicked. I was freelance designing for a company manufacturing in China, so seeing it in Ghana, I was like, ‘Wait a minute, why don’t people produce in Africa? They need jobs, you could pay fair wages, everyone would benefit.’ So I just went for it, I commissioned the seamstress to make 50 bags at the time. I know the other volunteers thought I was insane. I sold them in two weeks, peddling them up and down Venice beach and Abbot Kinney and such. Two months later I was back out there again.
What is one of your favorite things about doing what you’re doing?
I’m able to be creative, but at the same time I’m able to help people and see a difference for all of us. It’s nice being able to do both, they really mean a lot to me.
What has been one of your biggest struggles?
I would say growing a business, growing any sort of business is a challenge. Every day you have to make the decision to keep moving forward.
How would you say people could serve Ghana or greater Africa better?
I would say being open to purchase products that come from that come from Africa. I believe people in America generally don’t expect high-quality products to come from a developing country, and I’m working hard to change that. People can help by simply purchasing and supporting the cause, whether it be Della or another like-minded company. That’s the easiest and most direct link.
Do you have any examples of something specific in Ghana that made you see the success of Della?
Just little things, seeing seamstresses I met when they first started working with us compared to now: their hair is done, they’re wearing nice dresses, they can easily support their family. I equate this to when we’re successful in the U.S., we reward ourselves by getting our hair and nails done. So culturally comparing levels of success, so ‘Oh she has a new dress, she was able to treat herself to that.’
What advice would you give to someone who wants to start a nonprofit or similar business?
This is something I could write a book on. It’s a lot of hard work, so go after what you’re most passionate about. Once you find a way, don’t give up because that’s when failure happens, through giving up. Don’t be afraid to be resourceful, and always be sensitive to cultural differences.
If you could have a one-on-one sit down with anyone for a conversation, who would it be?
Oh gosh, that’s a tough one. There are several humanitarians I’d love to meet, but there are several fashion icons and entrepreneurs … for more of a who and where I’d like to be in the future, I’d love to speak with the designer Stacey Bennett from Alice and Olivia, specifically from a fashion mentorship point of view.
What’s your favorite Della item right now?
I’ve always, since we started making them, used my MacBook case. It works and I totally take pride in how cool it looks. That’s my ultimate go-to, ‘I use it every day’ kind of thing.
What’s something exciting we can expect to see from Della soon?
Well we’ve got a very special collaboration with Vans coming up soon, so I’m very excited about that.
What’s one of your favorite things about Ghana?
I’d say first my friends there, because that’s what keeps me coming back. The people, the food, the fabrics.
Photos and interview by Anna Harmon, portrait photo by Sequoia Ziff