Detroit designer Juna Durrant. Courtesy photo
Juna Durrant started her line of hand-sewn leather handbags, Jytte Designs, just a few months ago out of her home in Detroit’s Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood. But the name — and her sewing experience — reflects her family memories and traditions.
Durrant began her design journey at the University of Michigan as an undergrad, where there was not a set medium; the meaning behind the art was more important than the finished product. After graduation, she moved to California where she created her first leather bag in 2014. There she attended craft shows, made a website and then slowly let that dream fade into the background when she became a mother to a baby boy.
In 2016, Durrant moved back to Detroit, where she waited tables until 2020 when the pandemic caused her to lose her job. But it was a blessing in disguise. The time off gave her a chance to start her leather business back up.
Jytte Designs officially launched in December. With pebbled leather bucket bags, totes and laptop sleeves that could double as clutches, the line mixes classic shapes and playful touches for refined everyday pieces. Itâ€™s named after Durrantâ€™s late grandmother, Jytte Ulrich, who passed away while she was in college.
â€œShe was just such an incredible grandmother,â€ Durrant said. â€œShe’s the person who taught me how to knit. She used to take my sister and I to choose out fabrics to have little sun dresses made for us.â€
Durrantâ€™s grandmother would have the sundresses made by a seamstress in Ann Arbor. Durrantâ€™s mother, aunt and grandmother also made the siblings’ Halloween costumes every year. Those experiences instilled in Durrant an appreciation of fashion and supporting local businesses.
Using high-quality grain leather and solid brass for the hardware comes with a luxury price point. Durrant’s bags and keychains range from $25 to $850. Itâ€™s a little disconcerting for Durrant, who has lived a hard-scrabble life.
â€œAs someone who’s waited tables their whole life, I’ve never had enough money to shop that way or live a luxury lifestyle,â€ Durrant said. â€œIt definitely feels a little conflicting to make something that doesn’t necessarily feel accessible to a lot of people.â€
The price point also reflects Durrant’s care; she hand-stitches each leather bag herself. A backpack might take her six to eight hours to complete, because the work is so intricate. She also paints the backpacks with color blocks of reds, yellows and cream tones.
For Durrant, stitching is the foundation of the bag.
â€œWhen you look at a bag in person, the stitching of it is the most important design element, even beyond the shape or the color of the bag,â€ Durrant said.
The artistry of creating the bag by hand excites Durrant, who regards it as a form of relaxation and meditation. She explains that allowing the stitching seams to show makes the bag â€œprecise and beautiful.â€
Being a designer in Detroit allowed her to gain connections with other creatives in the city, such as models, photographers and other entrepreneurs who have given her advice.
â€œI have had nothing but support and positive feedback from people who are so willing to chip in and share what they’ve learned,â€ Durrant said. â€œIt’s a really wonderful community to be a part of.â€
The positive feedback keeps her going and feeling optimistic about starting a full-fledged business here.
Durrant has hosted two popups at local boutiques, with one on May 2 at Coup Dâ€™Ã©tat and the second on June 5 in Ann Arbor at Caravan Gift Shop.
While opening a brick-and-mortar shop is one of her long term goals, Durrant plans to wholesale her creations at Coup Dâ€™Ã©tat this year. Her bags have to be seen and felt in person to be appreciated, she believes.
â€œThe more shops that my bags are in, the more people will organically come across them and also be able to see them in person,â€ Durrant said. â€œI definitely think my bags stand out in person more than in photographs, because the hand of the leather is so luxurious and soft. You can see that hand-stitching detail really intimately.â€
Her next creation might be leather collars. She’s also finding inspiration in ’70s leather jackets and pants.
For other upstart designers, Durrant’s biggest advice is to build a community with the people around you and donâ€™t be afraid to ask questions and create a network. She believes to just start creating your passion, and start as small as your budget requires.
â€œStart with what you have, and don’t let a lack of funds or a lack of status get in your way,â€ she said.
Jytte Designs can be found on Instagram at @jyttedesigns.