For designer Jovanna Robinson, the creative process begins at the leather store.
“That’s when it speaks to me,” said Robinson, who owns Tonē Bekka, a line of handmade leather travel bags and accessories. “I’ll just see something and say, ‘That would make a great bag, that would make a great clutch or that’s a great backpack.’ The leather store is my candy store.”
And a small studio at 400 W. Rich St. in Franklinton is where the material comes alive. Robinson creates colorful and durable tote bags, duffels, laptop bags, wallets and more. She has clutches and cosmetic bags that are enhanced with African Ankara prints — sourced from the continent — and others that are adorned with calf hair.
The bags range in price from $27 to over $500.
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“I want my bag to be that eye-catcher, that puts your outfit over the top,” said Robinson, a 38-year-old graduate of Columbus College of Art & Design, who lives on the Northeast Side.
She sells her items online, at markets and by personal appointment. As her brand becomes more popular, Robinson has dreams of opening a storefront, hiring her first employee and inspiring others through teaching.
She is already turning heads outside Columbus. Her bags and accessories are carried by The Brown Sugar Collab, a boutique in Charlotte, North Carolina. The shop’s owner, DeAnna Allen, said she was impressed by the quality.
“She uses a high-grade leather and her stitching is impeccable,” said Allen, 47, a Columbus native. “I’ve traveled all around the world and my favorite bags come from Italy. And her bags would give them a good run for their money. I love her patterns.”
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Allen is intentional about selling handmade products made by Black women.
“I felt like Black women are underrepresented, especially in high-end boutiques,” she said. “Either they don’t have the resources to do it, or they don’t know how to access those opportunities. I just want people to understand that Black excellence is everywhere. We can afford to be in nicer areas and have our products on shelves in nice stores.”
Back in Columbus, Robinson originally envisioned her creations on the red carpet. In third grade, she decided she wanted to be a fashion designer and work for herself. That dream evolved into being a fashion stylist.
But an assignment in a CCAD class helped change her trajectory. She created a bag and was surprised when it began getting attention from others.
“Oh my gosh,” one student exclaimed. “It looks like it came out of a store.”
But the real moment of truth was in Target.
“A lady was just passing by and said, ‘Oh, I really love that bag,’” Robinson remembered. “To hear other people respond to it, especially a complete stranger, I was like, ‘OK, this is something.’”
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The journey to launching Tonē Bekka in 2014 wasn’t easy. Robinson had already taken a break from her original college career at the University of Cincinnati. And when she enrolled at CCAD, she was juggling life as a wife and mom.
“I did not sleep,” she said. “I was determined to finish in four years and not let anything stop me.”
After working at J.Crew and for a law firm, she committed to her design career full-time in 2018. She and her husband, Rance, both invested their own money in the business.
“I’ve seen her skill level increase from that first bag that she made at CCAD,” said Robinson’s husband, Rance, 40. “Seeing her progression as a maker and as a business person, as well as becoming more confident, it’s been a brilliant experience.”
As a Black woman entrepreneur, Robinson said she has noticed some barriers getting access to capital — and some clientele.
“I’m just not going to be well-received in some markets,” she said. “In the city of Columbus, I do well, but I’ve been to some markets where it’s like, I’m the only one. And I don’t do so well.”
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Like many others, Robinson was concerned about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on her business.
“I said, ‘No one’s going to buy travel bags,’” Robinson recalled. “Who’s going to be traveling?”
She quickly pivoted to designing masks and pairing them with matching clutches.
“That actually helped to open the door because people were like, ‘Oh, you’re more than a mask maker,’ Robinson said. “It actually helped me gain clientele. Last year was actually one of my best, financially.”
After a 19-year career at John Glenn Columbus International Airport, Robinson’s husband, Rance, decided to follow his dreams and start his own photography business. He now shares studio space with his wife.
He said their success has set a powerful example for their three children.
“They’re seeing us have the courage to step out,” he added. “That helps them see that anything is possible. We’re thriving. We’re completely out of debt now. There’s nothing wrong with working for someone, but you can absolutely be an entrepreneur and there’s nothing to stop you.”
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Their daughter, Sharayah, 15, has helped out in the studio. Robinson also hired a high school intern and offers private sewing lessons to kids. She said it’s important to pour into the next generation.
Melody Brim, 40, of the East Side, signed her 6-year-old daughter up for classes with Robinson prior to the pandemic.
“She’s a very good teacher, very patient,” Brim said. “She gave my daughter a little notebook, and inside there were very affirmative, ‘I can do it,’ statements.”
Brim has since become a customer of Tonē Bekka; she recently purchased a handbag.
“I wouldn’t expect to go to the mall and see someone else carrying that bag,” she said. “It’s also very durable. Ten or 15 years from now, I still expect that bag to be in good condition.”
Robinson said she hopes to teach sewing classes to adults, and eventually have her own shop with a few employees making her products by hand.
“My goal is to have the boutique in the front, and then in the back is where all the magic happens.”