Photo by Erin Little
“From the time I was very young, I was told I was going to be an artist,” recalls Natasha Durham, the multi-talented, Maine-based designer behind luxe leather handbag line Rough & Tumble. “Nobody was a business person in my family. But I knew by the time I was four years old, making things and selling them to my parents’ friends, that I was meant to be an entrepreneur.” Following a brief stint teaching painting in her twenties, Natasha struck out on her first big entrepreneurial adventure, turning a four-table diner into a thriving two-restaurant business with a combined staff of 80. But after 17 grueling years in food, she was ready to find a new material—and her next hands-on creative pursuit.
“I picked leather as my new ingredient,” explains Natasha, but she’s the first to admit the decision to pursue handbags was a bit of an accident. Never one for carrying a purse, Natasha whipped up a simple bag to use on a recentering trip to Italy shortly after leaving the restaurant world behind. “Long story short, I got so many compliments, I couldn’t even believe it.” A born business woman, she recognized the opportunity. In 2009, she listed two handbags on Etsy and sold them both overnight. Eight years later, business is booming for Rough & Tumble, which today boasts a staff of almost 40 and a sunny, 3,600-square-foot flagship store in Portland—not to mention over 26,000 Etsy sales.
She may have stumbled into handbags, but Natasha doesn’t take her success for granted. And thousands of bags later, she remains laser-focused on producing the best possible product. “I only have 24 hours in the day and there’s only one thing I want to do, and that’s make a better bag,” she says. “I’m determined not to lose sight of the magic, of that special thing that made people fall in love with us.”
We tagged along with Natasha to see what a typical day of magic-making in Maine looks like.
7:30am Emails with a view
I live on the coast on Bailey Island. It was a lifelong dream of mine to purchase a home on the ocean, and this business allowed me to do it. Back when I was in high school, once a year I used to drive down to the tip of Bailey Island and back again just to see where the other people lived. I never really thought I would ever live there, but I wanted a piece of that beauty in my heart. And then I had a really good year one year! I could have cared less if the house was a shack—what I was shopping for were the seagulls and the crashing waves on the rocks and the privacy, and I found that in this amazing spot.
So before work I get up, grab the computer, and open up all my different accounts. I do my banking, check what orders came in overnight, and see what our shipping for the morning looks like. I check my emails, make some coffee, look out over the ocean, and say to myself, “I can’t believe I’m looking out at the waves.”
8:30am Coffee and commute
Our studio is in the town of Brunswick, about a 25-minute drive from Bailey Island. Brunswick is at the top of the Harpswell Peninsula and Bailey Island is at the tip, so to get to and from work, I just drive up and down the peninsula. It’s unbelievably beautiful—fishing boats, ocean cottages, and the water.
I’ll often stop for more coffee right over the Cribstone bridge at the Salt Cod Cafe, or I’ll swing by Frontier in Brunswick. Frontier is a restaurant right next door to our studio, and having been a foodie in the business for so many years, I’m just kind of in awe of them. They’re as good as, if not better than, any similar venue in Portland. And they have a new espresso machine, so we basically walk over every hour. We’re there constantly.
9am Morning rounds
Our studio is in an old mill right on the river in Brunswick where they used to make shoes. It’s got that really great warehouse feel, with the high ceilings and 20 feet of glass overlooking the river. It’s really quite stunning. I’m usually the last one to work these days, which is terrible, because I just want to look at the ocean one more time. When I walk in, the first thing I do is check in with my team, including our in-house photographer and web manager, our leather specialist, our riveting team, shipping team, and our bookkeeper. It very much feels like Mad Men, which is bewildering to me. I’m like, “Good morning, Phoebe. Good morning, Chris,” and I walk by everyone’s offices.
I like to be in the middle of things, and I don’t sit down, so I just have a little standing desk. I’m continually checking in with my team and seeing what they’re up to—I like to have my hands in the equation. Luckily, my staff is super forgiving and accommodating to my need to be involved in every detail.
1pm Cutting time
I still like to do manual labor, so every afternoon I spend a few hours cutting leather. I cut maybe half the bags we make. The cutting is actually just as important as the sewing is, and it’s one of the trickiest things. Everyone thinks it’s easier than it is, but then you’ll get a whole bag made and there’ll be a little dot right in the middle of it that you didn’t see when you were cutting. Leather is like wood. Imagine you’re a carpenter trying to pick the top of a table—a hide of leather is the same way. It has a grain, it has direction, and it has the good part and the not-so-good part.
3:30pm Flagship visit
Twice a month or so, I drive from Brunswick to Portland to visit our flagship store to see how the latest designs are merchandised. Originally I wanted a smaller retail space, but this was what was available. It’s really dramatic: You walk in and it’s all high ceilings and beautiful, huge windows on three sides.
Our staff there is amazing—they really know the product. These days there are a lot of products that are designed in Maine, but we’re one of only a handful of companies that make our products from beginning-to-end in the state, so I thought we should have a presence in Portland. It’s sort of the quintessential tourist destination—and it’s very seasonal, so it’s quiet all winter and bustling all summer. There’s no solution for the quiet winters in Maine, but summer makes up for it.
5pm Stocking up
Because I lived in Portland for so many years, it still feels like home base. Whenever I’m in town, I like to go to my favorite bakery, Standard Baking Co. It’s incredible—you feel like you’re in New York or Europe, even. I always get a brioche and a coffee. And then I’ll go to Harbor Fish Market and ice up some halibut and oysters for the drive home.
I’ll also definitely shop at my favorite boutiques, k colette and Judith, and swing by my all-time favorite business in Portland, which I hate to even mention because it’s such a well-kept secret. It’s an Italian market called Micucci’s, and it’s basically the reason I threaten my husband that we’ll have to move back to Portland one day—I can’t drive an hour to get to Micucci’s every time I need some prosciutto or a baguette.
7pm Dinner on the water
I definitely have a bit of a black-and-white personality. When I sold the restaurant, it was almost like I’d never cook again—but I love eating out. For dinner, my husband Steve and I love the Dolphin Marina in Harpswell, or even better, Erica’s Seafood, a lobster shack right next door. They have picnic tables right by the harbor.
Part of what I love about it is the long drive down the peninsula to get there. You drive all the way to the tip, and then it opens up, and it’s just ocean on three sides. I could really care less about what’s for dinner. We get to sit there and have a martini and look out over everyone else’s boats, and dream about which boat we want to sail on some day.
Photographs by Erin Little.
Katie Hawley is a senior editor at Etsy. She’s also an aspiring weaver, a perpetual snacker, and head-over-heels obsessed with her dog.