When life gives you lemons, you make...handbags. Recently, we caught up with Dominique Heileson, a Northland entrepreneur and AMP Scholarship winner, whose venture into the world of high-end leather goods came to her literally by accident.
Inspiration comes in many forms and in Dominique’s case it was in the shape of tiles and a door frame. “It turns out that hitting your head isn’t such a good thing to do.” she laughs as she reflects on the day her life changed completely.
At the time Dominique’s accident was anything but funny. “I slipped on wet tiles, landed heavily and hit my head.” she recalls.
Left with a concussion, Dominique suddenly found that things she had once taken for granted were no longer available to her. “I couldn’t drive anymore.” she recalls. That’s when I knew I had to change.”
“Once I started, I had a focus and this is what I was going to do. Make beautiful handbags that would last forever.”
Dominique sold her car and with the money, bought herself an industrial sewing machine. “I had no idea how to use it.” she says. “I just started teaching myself to use the machine and work with leather. “I guess this was my rehabilitation.”
Dominique's rehabilitation was never going to be easy. “I persevered each day, slowly getting my body and brain working together again.” she says. “It took me three years to teach myself the skills I needed to create high-end, bespoke products, but once I started, I had a focus and this is what I was going to do. Make beautiful handbags that would last forever.”
After years of hard work, Dominique now had finished designs and a new brand that she named Eekie after her childhood nickname. Her challenge now was to find a distribution platform.
“I couldn't look at a computer screen for long, so this ruled out starting online.” she says. “So, I just hit the road and started showing people my work. I did suffer from fatigue, but I just tried to push through. I’d be cold-calling retail stores and most of the time, people actually listened. My hit rate for conversion was pretty high.”
“I relied on instinct and I guess I was lucky that the right person was there at the right time. All of a sudden, my work was being stocked in stores. I then started approaching 5-star golf lodges and now my work is in most of the major lodges across New Zealand.
“If we don't try to chase our dreams - we will never know what could have been and life is too short for that.”
As Dominique travelled the country, someone else was constantly by her side, encouraging her at every step. Dominique’s mum, had passed away from cancer at 49, but her love and determination would remain a powerful influence.
“My mum was my world, my best friend, my everything.” Dominique says. “Ever since that initial diagnosis, all I can remember is that she never let it get her down or stop her doing anything. She still worked every day, raised us kids and ran the house and never once complained about anything. She was the strongest person I’ve ever known. Her determination and drive to keep going no matter what is a constant source of inspiration to me.”
“If mum was here I am sure she would be the one that is giving me the confidence to cold call the Golf Lodges, to just turn up and to just give it a go, cause if we don't try to chase our dreams - we will never know what could have been and life is too short for that.
Today, the Eekie studio is temporarily housed in a converted, 160-year-old blacksmith’s shed in Kerikeri in the Far North. Colourful, one-off leather pieces adorn the walls. Dominique loves to mix colours, patterns and textures, which is why no two Eekie bags are ever alike. “These bags are handcrafted and unique.” Dominique explains. “There is only one of each in the entire world, like a piece of art for your arm.”
Although she continues to face challenges, Dominique considers herself lucky and she plans to give back to the community that has supported her success. “I’m training people to sew.” she says. “I can’t do everything by myself any more, plus it is one of the reasons why I am doing what I am - to create jobs in Northland.”
In 2018 Dominique was a regional AMP Scholarship winner. The next step is to tap into the international market and this year, she plans to enter her designs in the Independent Handbag Awards in New York, the first stage in a move into overseas markets.
“I am looking to export.” Dominique says, “And to achieve this, I will be increasing my team of skilled workers and bringing on a mentor to help with the growth stages.
Sometimes I look at how far I’ve come and can’t believe it’s me. I guess the universe gives you a clip round the ear to get on the right path in life!”