ROANOKE, Va. – What started as a necessity for a young mother has turned into a full-blown business for a Roanoke woman whose journey has been nothing short of eventful.
Like many creative minds, Tree felt stuck in a role that didn’t suit her and dreamed of becoming more than a cog in the system.
She started in the corporate world, working as a medical biller in a call center — a job she wasn’t passionate about.
Tree always had a knack for piecing together her own outfits, gathering clothing and fabric from thrift stores, family, friends — truthfully, anywhere she could.
A mother at 18 and a single mom of two not long after that, money was tight. Repairing clothes or making her own were simple solutions to her at the time.
“I always had this thing of, ‘Oh, I’ll just make it. I want to figure out how to make something.’ And so, it didn’t even start with me making leather goods. It started with me making my own clothes because a lot of stuff didn’t fit me,” Tree explained.
As a testament to the times, the first handbag she said she ever made was out of a pair of old Levi jeans she thrifted. The designer said her parents exemplified the importance of being resourceful.
“My mama said, ‘A closed mouth doesn’t get fed,’” recalled Tree.
The Southern saying wasn’t lost on her, motivating her to reach out to fabric and upholstery shops across the Roanoke Valley, as well as in Floyd County, asking them if they had scraps of leather they were willing to give her.
With those scraps in hand and a full-time job still in full swing, she hit the ground running and created the humble beginnings of Tree Fairfax.
All she had was a pizza pan and a vision.
Up until 2020, Tree used a pizza pan to cut out the perfect shape for one of her most popular bags, the Half Moon Bag.
While the ins and outs of starting a business were foreign, something Tree knew from the start is that she wanted to create handmade, sustainable pieces that would last the test of time.
It’s an aspect of her business she holds dear: slow fashion handmade with love.
“People tell me, ‘Oh, I’m going to pass this on to my daughter or my child or my son’ and that made me feel like, that’s a big deal,” she beamed. “It made me really, really serious about the quality and the time I put into it.”
She started her Etsy shop in 2008, and after that, her business began to skyrocket.
As the years went by, she started fulfilling domestic orders with folks as far away as California and New York. Then, the business gained international clients with customers from Italy and Japan.
Tree even had the opportunity to collaborate with a fashion designer in Milan for a men’s fashion show.
Even though she was at the peak of her “I’ve made it” moment, Tree detailed the struggles of being brand new to the business-owning world.
Folks left and right asked her for wholesale orders to sell her bags in their consignment stores. While the request for those orders was an exciting feat as a creator, she recalled, “I didn’t even know what any of that meant. I was learning as I went.”
A pivotal moment in her life, however, was in 2014, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“That really changed everything for me, because I was like ‘Oh, God, if I make it through this, I am going to focus on living a full life,’” she said.
Tree took half a year off from working her medical biller gig, using the time to undergo both chemotherapy and a double mastectomy. Though the time off was tough, she remains grateful for that period in her life, saying it was the first time she could put herself first since she first became a mother at 18.
“In that six months, I was able to watch the seasons change. I looked at the trees changing, the weather changing,” she remembered. “And I was thinking to myself, ‘There’s more to life than clocking in and clocking out. What do you want to do?’”
Thankfully, Tree’s eight-year anniversary as a cancer-free woman comes up in April.
For her, those few months of recovery and reflection opened her eyes.
“It really pushed me to get things started because life is short,” she said.
She worked and worked, but knew she had to be true to herself and her talents.
“I hated going to work because I was so excited doing what I did. I never felt stressed [making bags] because I just loved doing it, but I knew when I pulled up at work... They were never going to pay me what I felt like I was worth,” she said.
In 2018, Tree said goodbye to her role as a medical biller and fulfilled her dream of being her own boss with the privilege to do what she loves.
Before she left her job, her strong desire to leave her 9-5 was a true motivating factor to make her passion into a career. When you ask her what inspires her now, she says she’s inspired by slow living, freedom and a cup of chai.
“I just realized nothing is really in your control and we’re just learning to ride this wave and it’s been a hell of a wave since 2000,” she said. “Every day I’m just able to wake up and do what I love, and if I see one order come in, I’m like ‘Thank you, God. Let’s go.’”
Click here to visit Tree Fairfax’s website.