Nyla Jano, owner of Torrain here in Portland, was designing the women’s line for a skate company in California when she realized she was not doing enough. Her background working with environmental organizations and social work companies sparked a need to help others. “I always felt weird being just a clothing designer,” Jano said. And so, she teamed up with artisan groups in Cambodia to create a bag line made from recycled materials, such as rice bags, fish feed bags, cement bags, and magazines.
The eco-conscious 34-year-old was wandering through a night market in Cambodia in 2009 when she encountered a local woman who was helping her community by providing jobs to craftspeople suffering from various misfortunes. “I was walking and I noticed there was a booth with really simple tote bags made out of this material,” she said as she picked up a wallet made from fish feed bags. “I started talking to the woman [Sothea Yung] and she told me she started picking up that material and recycling it. At that time she only had a handful of artisans she worked with who were all displaced from their farmlands and she employed them. I spoke with her about possibly making products if I gave her designs,” Jano said.
She launched Torrain in 2011 and is currently working with four different artisan groups in Cambodia, including: Angkor Handicraft, Friends-International, Rehab Craft, and YodiCraft. Her business is providing employment to people affected by disabilities, polio, or displacement from their farmlands. Rehab Craft employs people suffering from disabilities caused by landmines. Friends-International consists of a marginalized youth affected by harsh living conditions, drug abuse, illnesses, violence, legal issues, and unemployment.
During her last visit to Cambodia in 2013, Jano noticed a major increase in the number of artisans producing her line. At that time she saw nearly 20 people in each group. Their refined craftsmanship combined with Jano’s seasoned eye for style and design has resulted in some amazing work. The line is so artfully and professionally done, it is easy to understand why Torrain merchandise has become a top seller at PDXchange in the last few months.
PDXchange is a local shop specializing in mostly free-trade gifts, but has recently incorporated more items. The owner, Jess Evans, began selling Torrain products earlier this year. According to Evans, “the full collection became one of the top performers almost immediately. “People have seen Cambodian bags before. What pulls these ones apart is that the logo and design are centered just right, which is how people want it. They [customers] are drawn by the color first and then once they start opening it, checking it out and seeing how well it’s made, that, plus that it’s going towards something good is what sells it.”
Torrain has established a loyal clientele and is currently promoting an American made line that is manufactured by Black Star Bags, a local company owned by Dave Stoops.
Jano sources all the materials for this line. Some of her sourcing strategies are as simple as picking up feed bags from the recycle bins she has placed at local stores. She is definitely changing the way some people see fashion, all while discouraging waste habits. And while many will appreciate the stylish topographic map design inside the U.S. bags, the unwitting buyer may never know that the liner was actually made from melted plastic bottles.
Stoops, a friend of Jano’s and an experienced manufacturer who has developed Black Star Bags for almost a decade, readily took on the side project. Stoops said, “It’s been great to work with another company using these materials. People waste in extreme ways because that’s what our culture promotes, but when you have people who want to reduce waste that’s really admirable.”
The Torrain collection includes clutches, tote bags, messenger bags, backpacks, shoulder bags, handbags, toiletry bags, yoga mat bags, and wallets of varying colors and styles.
Nyla Jano’s studio space is located in the Eliot neighborhood hidden along Hancock Street off of Broadway. Neighbors are encouraged to walk in and scope out the merchandise. They will be graciously welcomed by a tall collection of elephant, giraffe, and colorful fish prints, among several other catching designs.
By Jacinda Perez