Hout Bay (tea) bag lady hits the big time in Paris

2018-03-27 09:30
Gracious Dube designs and creates handbags from recycled teabags. (Supplied)

Gracious Dube designs and creates handbags from recycled teabags. (Supplied)

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The domestic mundanity of a teabag can be underestimated.

The only thing the little mesh bag, stapled to a piece of string, requires is five minutes steeped in furiously, boiling hot water.

Thirty-three-year-old Gracious Dube's story is similar to that of a teabag - which is in fact the very thing used to create her statement handbag, which is now sold in upmarket Parisian boutiques.

It is a tale of empowerment and of transformation from common-place to high-end.

In 2005, the 20-year-old Zimbabwean woman found herself in a great deal of hot water when she arrived in the surfer suburb of Hout Bay in search of employment.

"I was staying in Imizamo Yethu (an informal township in Hout Bay) for a long time. It wasn't a nice place – there was a lot of drinking and drugs," Dube recalls.

"I almost gave up, and then I spoke to a social worker at the local church, who said I should meet another lady at the church – Jill Heyes. She was looking for ladies to help her fill a big order at her company."

Heyes is the founder of Original T-Bag Designs, which is a company that started out as a social responsibility project to help impoverished women from Imizamo Yethu earn money through making unique arts and crafts from teabags and boxes.

She speaks fondly of Heyes, the woman who cultivated Dube's idea of forming the unexpected marriage between the ingredient for a hot beverage and fashion.


(Supplied)

"When I started, she encouraged me to think of ideas. I first made a handbag at home and when I brought it to her the next day, she helped me make it better," Dube explains.

"We have a very good relationship."

The process from teabag to handbag

It took time before Dube perfected her signature teabag shoulder bag. The creative process in itself was tiring for the single mother.

"I used rooibos bags because I realised that they were the strongest. We get different teabags from all over, so I sort through them and take the ones I want home," she says.

To make her fashionable purses, which are lined with silk, Dube starts off by drying and ironing about 45 to 50 rooibos teabags.

Once done, the teabags are varnished and, either glued or carefully stitched onto the silk. Some purses are also decoratively painted to add to the unique look.

"When I told my mother about the purses she said: 'What? Teabags? What is that?'" laughs Dube.

"I showed her how my bags were selling at the V&A Waterfront craft market and she started helping me when I got orders for 200 or 300 bags. Even my son, Dion, helps on school holidays."

It was at this very craft market where French fashion designer Carin Khalil laid her trained eye on Dube’s handbags.

The two spent hours discussing the design for a fashionable shoulder bag, before agreeing on the perfect formula.

'I'm always dreaming'

Kahlil has since worked with Dube on recreating her rooibos purse for the Paris market, which sells for €26 ($32) at Ithemba Design Ethik – a top fashion and decor boutique – owned by Kahlil.

The designer has also commissioned Dube to make a lampshade and basket from rooibos teabags, which are equally big sellers.

Dube says the experience of working with Khalil has been awe-inspiring.   

"Khalil knows the ins and the outs of the fashion business and has given me lots of advice to help me grow my business."

Dube’s success has helped her to move out of Imizamo Yethu.

"Funds generated from my designs have helped me to secure a flat in Hout Bay, where I live with my 11-year-old son and my mom," she says proudly.

"I've always believed in the power of education and am now able to pay for him to go to a good school that will open doors for him."

Dube is not yet content and has plans to reach a higher degree of success.

She laughs shyly when asked about a potential trip to Paris: "It's part of my dream. I'm always dreaming – one day."

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