Belle Decor

Made in the South Awards Winners Update

By Elizabeth HutchisonJuly 17, 2012

Tennessee designers Emil Congdon (Congdon won a 2010 Made in the South Award for his handsome handcrafted leather bags) and Otis James, who nabbed the same honor in 2011 for his hand-stitched neckties, are leaving behind their respective backyard studios in favor of a shared workshop and showroom in Nashville’s Marathon Village. We caught up with the duo to find out more.

You are both past winners of our annual Made in the South Awards. How did the Awards affect your respective businesses?
Emil Congdon: The Made in the South Awards was like a time warp for my business. It would have taken years to achieve the exposure and validation/legitimization that the award has given my business. Best investment ever.
Otis James: For me, the biggest effect was the incredible surge of orders I experienced last November and December. It was so much that we actually got a month behind. That was an overwhelming period, but it taught me some great lessons on how to maintain the handcrafted quality while increasing efficiency.

So tell me about your new studio space in Nashville?
OJ: It’s a shared work/show space in Marathon Village. The building is over 100 years old and at one time was a car factory, home of Marathon Motorworks. It's full of character and charm, with beautiful wood floors and gigantic wooden beams across the ceiling. It is an inspiring place to work in every day.
EC: But it is first and foremost a workspace. And we have a small showcase area in the front of the store that acts as our retail shop.

How did you two meet? What brought you together?
OJ: I met Emil shortly after he won the Made in the South Award, in December of 2010. I was looking for someone to talk to about leather, as I was in search of a good leather to use inside the brims of my caps. I had seen Emil's bags and got his phone number. We had a good conversation but didn't talk again for another six months or so. When we got together again to catch up, Emil said he was looking to move out of his garage and get a proper space. He briefly mentioned the idea of sharing a space with another artisan. I was working in my garage at the time, too, and I couldn't get it out of my head after he said it. We talked again a few days later and agreed it was a good idea. We both have similar ideals and visions for our companies. We want to maintain a relatively small size and continue to make the highest-quality product possible.
EC: Fate.  Or maybe Otis was stalking me…

There's so much going on in the South right now, particularly Nashville. Why do you think the city has become such a hotbed for creative talent? Is it a new development or are the rest of us just catching on?
EC: Nashville is a hotbed.  It’s a mixture of transplants bringing new ideas here (because this town is great – not too big, not too small) and the rest of us just being more aggressive about getting our ideas out to the world.  
OJ: Nashville has been seeing exciting new developments for a few years now. It's only now getting national attention. There has always been a creative side here, but it was largely confined to the music business. I'm not entirely sure what sparked this new, huge boom. I moved here 3 ½ years ago. At the time it already had begun but was just about to explode. Now there is something new popping up every day. The beautiful thing about this city is that everyone is so welcoming and supportive of new endeavors. There is a good community feel here, especially within the creative and business circles.
What's next?
EC: I’m doing a collaboration with Barney’s that comes out this August. Also getting to launch several new products in the fall line including some smaller handbags as well as some new accessories.
OJ: Maintain quality and relevance as new products are developed and hope that the great support we've had so far will continue for years to come. I have a lot of cap ideas that I'm developing, and we may even move into some products beyond just accessories. Who knows!

Starting your own business is tough. Do you have any advice for other young entrepreneurs and/or craftsmen?  
EC: Make/Offer a superior product/service.  The world doesn’t need another widget, it needs a better widget.  Enter G&G Made in the South competition and the rest will work itself out. Oh, and pay your taxes.
OJ: Trust your gut. Follow your heart. There are a lot of tough decisions that come your way that you can't really plan for. People will constantly try to push you in one direction or another. I think it is inevitable to stray slightly from some original ideals, but you have to maintain the heart of your original vision. Otherwise it just becomes a job.

Click here to enter the 2012 Made in the South Awards.  (Deadline for entries is August 1)