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Earlier this fall, I spotted a lady with a tote that featured Shenzhen skyline. After having lived in China for 2 years, I know that Shenzhen souvenirs are virtually impossible to find, so I accosted the poor woman to find out where she got her bag. To my amazement, it turned out that I already knew the person who designed the tote – a fellow expat Sherley Reese. Intrigued, I messaged Sherley, met with her over a coffee, and chatted with her about expat life, Shenzhen, and her brand-new company called Bolsa & Sacoche.
Sherley’s family has been in Shenzhen for over six years. They came here from California in September of 2013 because of her husband’s job. She laughs when she tells me how his company had been asking him to move to Shenzhen for years. “Three times I said, “No.” And finally I said, “Okay, you know, there must be something. There must be a reason why this question keeps coming up.””
Sherley quit her job doing marketing communications for Peet’s Coffee, sold her business – a weight-loss clinic that was doing very well – and followed her husband to China. “It was a tough decision but my husband had been out of work, consulting off and on, and we just wanted to change things up a bit.”
She pauses for a while when I ask what she’s been doing once they moved to Shenzhen.
“I was literally what they call a trailing wife, I think. I don’t like that word because it feels like you don’t have your own thing. I understand the concept, but I don’t like the word. Well, for the first year, I felt like it was pretty much a full time job just learning the culture and the language. For the first couple of years, I didn’t really want a job because prior to that I was working two jobs, so I was really tired and I had a toddler. My prayers were always, “Oh God, can I please have a way not to work?” And finally, they were kind of answered. So I never thought about working, wanting to do something, I just wanted to immerse myself in the culture. It was completely different. So for the first year, two years, it was just learn and travel, figure things out.”
“Did you ever get bored?”
“Well, yeah, I think many times! I do enjoy being alone. I love being in my solitude, I’m glad that I am one of those people that could be alone. But yeah, you get a little bit bored because you’re coming off doing so much and all of a sudden you have all this time. You know, my daughter’s at school. What do you do?”
“Is that how you came up with your side hustle?”
“You know, that actually came up really quickly when I moved here. I had friends and family come to Shenzhen to visit, which was nice. And they would always ask, “Where can I get some Shenzhen bags? Some souvenirs like canvas totes and stuff?” And you know, my husband is a bag designer. So it was always in the back of my head that I was going to do something related to bags at some point because I love bags. And very soon I was thinking, “You know what, this would not be a bad idea!” But I just kept it secretly to myself, and I just kept wondering, and people kept asking the same questions, and I just kept making a mental note, “Okay, this question is coming up a lot. Something’s gotta give.”
“So what was the push? How did you actually start Bolsa & Sacoche?”
“I thought about it for about five years. I think what did it was losing my mom earlier this year, and just realizing that life is fragile, and it’s quick, and if you don’t seize it, things can just get away from you and I said, “It is now or never.” And it was also a nice space filler. Not thinking about mom and everything that comes with her Alzheimer’s. So it was almost a therapeutic way of thinking about her while I was just sort of dreaming about these things and drawing. I was drawing a lot of the designs that I wanted. It wasn’t good drawings. But I knew exactly what I wanted and that I wanted it to be canvas. I wanted it to have a certain Shenzhen aspect to it. Every day, I would get really excited about my plans. And so I started riding my bicycle everywhere and looking at buildings, just day-dreaming, thinking, “Oh, this would be really good to have.”
“Did you do all the drawings that are on the bags yourself?”
“I’m not good at drawing but I came up with all the ideas. I would sketch a lot of them. My husband helped me sketch better. And then we also have friends who are designers, I would send them my cartoonish designs asking if they can make them into what I thought they could be. I just come up with a concept. I know bags, I love bags, I knew exactly what I wanted but when I drew it, it wasn’t the perfect drawing and of course if you are giving it to a factory they need a proper design.“
“So how many people are involved in designing these totes?”
“Three. Me coming up with the idea and the size. You know, whether or not I wanted a leather strap or this color or that color. And then I talked to my husband about the functionality, like, “Do you think this is worth making in this size or this length or these measurements?” And then, obviously, I have a friend who took my concepts and drawings and made them come alive.”
Sherley is clearly passionate about her totes and proud of what she has achieved:
“I’m super excited. It’s giving me a little bit of something that I care about. Because after being here for six years, you can get pretty jaded. I don’t want to just do the coffee with friends all the time, the lunches. It’s all good but I just wanted something to call my own, where I can just lose myself in that space, and be creative, and do something that I love. So it feels like it’s playtime when I’m doing this, although it can get a little frustrating. Going to the factories with the language barrier. And learning how to work with the Chinese, and what I want, and what they want, and what my perception is, and what their perception is. So I also learned how to work with the Chinese community because it’s very different. You need to spell things out. You have to be very clear.”
“What is special about your totes? Why should someone buy one?”
“Because there’s nothing like them. I call them “Shenzhen-themed canvas totes” and there are no other Shenzhen bags now. I wanted to look for iconic landmarks. So I started with that. Shenzhen is so beautiful, right? The landscape is very luxurious. So why not start with Shenzhen, and the bullets, and the boat? You can’t go to Sea World without seeing that boat around. And then the skyline, and so I started with these designs, and a lot of them were actually my own pictures that I took at some point. The quality, the material, everything was me. I spent weeks going on trend shopping, going to Dongguan and Longgang, going to fabric factories, printing shops. The way the canvas feel, the weight of the canvas, the straps – it is all what I wanted, it is all me.”
“How many do you have now?”
“I have five designs. Two of them are the same size. I have a bucket tote, a long tote, a smaller tote, and just this week I finished a makeup pouch that I think would be really good. I figured that women want to keep their makeup without it spilling and the pouch can go inside a bigger tote.”
“And what’s the next step now that you have these five bags?”
“Well, I don’t want to be known as the bag lady. The tote lady, maybe? When you think of Shenzhen souvenirs I want to be on your mind, you know? I have tons of designs in my head, I really do, that’s why I want these to go fast because I can’t wait to show the new designs and to share them with people. I’m also considering what people are asking for. Right now, some people are asking for smaller totes, and some are asking for zippers. I don’t think I can accommodate everyone but I think those are good lessons learned for the next generation of bags and I can’t wait. Eventually, I want to do, maybe, yoga bags and other bags, who knows, but I want canvas. I want to elevate what canvas is because you generally think of canvas as of something you use once, toss around, and don’t need anymore, right? You don’t take care of it, nothing special comes to mind when you hold it. But I want these canvas totes to be something you are proud to tote around, which is my tagline. They picture this city that we live in and they’re made by me, and are good quality. So why not tote them around town and see what happens.”
“I want to go back a little bit to talking about living in Shenzhen. What are some things that you love about living here?”
“I love the simplicity of it. I love the fact that I’m here and I’m learning. I’m traveling. I love that my friends are from everywhere.”
“What do you find hard about living here?”
“I think the hardest part for me was the fact that you have to reinvent yourself and if you don’t reinvent yourself, you can lose yourself pretty quickly. I mean, that’s the story of all of us. If you don’t have a day-to-day job to go to, and especially if your identity was tied to what you used to do and all of a sudden you don’t have that anymore, it can get pretty hard if you don’t find something to fall in love with. You can’t hang out every day, all day. You can’t. So it gets hard or you can get pretty jaded.
And of course, friendships are hard. We say goodbye all the time. You fall in love with a friend, and then you gotta say goodbye, and your heart is constantly being broken. It goes back to having something that you can call your own. So when it’s time to say goodbye to that friend, you can sort of reinvent yourself and focus on something. So I’m happy that I have this now because I think this summer when I say goodbye to some friends, I can now just come up with new designs. I can name a bag after them. Just lose myself and go into the little creativity shop in my head, and for a few weeks forget that I said goodbye to some good friends.”
“I can’t wait to see the new designs. I love what you already have.”
“I’m hoping that Shenzhen loves it, that everyone in Shenzhen can have at least one. Or if you have a friend coming into town and asks where they can get a souvenir, you say, ‘I know a girl! Bolsa & Sacoche!'”
Where to Buy a Bolsa & Sacoche Tote
You can find Bolsa & Sacoche on Facebook, Instagram, and WeChat (@sherleyreese). A website is coming soon. Sherley is willing to meet with you in person if you are in Shenzhen and ship anywhere in the world if necessary.
You can also find her at several of the local bazaars coming up in November and December.
Special thanks to Melissa Tremblay of MAY – Photography for taking the photos for this post. Do check out her other beautiful projects on her website below:
Photography Copyright: Melissa Tremblay (MAY – Photography)
Facebook Page: @by.may.photographe
Instagram: @terresetrangeres and @may_photographe