Art With Heart

Forbes Woman Africa
Published 8 years ago

Tracey Chiappini-Young does not sell teddy bears, she sells histories.

The founder of the Capetonian luxury soft toy brand Taunina says “a teddy bear is something so special to everyone”.

“I still have my grandmother’s [and] it’s something that is passed down. It really is an heirloom,” says Chiappini-Young.

She founded Taunina with Karen Jansen, her business partner in Cape Town three years ago. In the years since, her brand’s growth has almost tripled with a 100% year-on-year rate. She insists their success rests on their very specific kind of business model.

Taunina is an operation driven by women, more specifically, women with traditionally limited economic options. In fact, the latter end of the Taunina name is the acronym NINA – No Income, No Assets. So far, close to 600 women have been trained and hired by the Taunina workshop. Chiappini-Young hopes to help more women realize their potential as her workshop continues to grow.

It’s the detail that makes Taunina’s bears. Each artist works on a bear and injects her own flair into the creation. But the design process is ordered. After healthy discussion, a core creative team decides the collection’s theme. After that, three chief embroiders set a color scheme for the collection. However, the buck always stops with the artist and the teddy bear she is working on.

“She’ll play around with the colors, then she’ll choose the thread,” says Chiappini-Young. Within a chosen collection, the embroiders create their own sub-collections. And another creative meeting decides which ones make the cut. The finished product is accompanied by a sewn-on foot-stamp, initialed by the artist. Each bear comes christened with a name and has its own passport. A Taunina trademark stamp sits comfortably in each toy’s left ear. The embroidered bespoke teddies start from $375 apiece.

Chiappini-Young’s entry into the luxury space had an odd impetus. She began in the financial services sector, working with private equity firms and asset management outfits. But she felt unfulfilled and hungry to be a part of the empowerment of other people.

“I definitely thought about it for a long time,” she says. The concept actually came about 12 years ago, in a very different skin.

“I was 28 or 29 and I had a pre-30 crisis [I felt] that I wasn’t doing enough in South Africa.”

The crisis led to a book, How to Help, written during lunch breaks and researched after work that helped her craft her perspective on philanthropy.

“My feeling is really that money is one very small part of the problem, the most important thing is the skills transferred,” she said, on a call from her Cape Town workshop.

Taunina is “new age luxury” according to its founders. Chiappini-Young met her Brazilian partner whilst enrolled at a business school in New York. They began to consider the power of luxury.

“We decided we were going to build a luxury brand which was not about financial return. It was [going to be] about social impact,” she says. The two women got to work, learning much from their mentors and teachers, and set out to build a different kind of luxury brand. Beyond the profit, they want to give their artists “the strength to believe in themselves, to believe that they are artists”.

But the strength of the Taunina brand is not really invested in the aesthetics of their teddy bears. Instead, their most prized assets are the stories each of the bears they create carry with them. Chiappini-Young is hopeful that these stories will also carry the brand for years to come.

“I hope it becomes the thing that everyone talks about and they are sitting around a table in New York, London and Paris sharing a story of their teddy bear and the artist’s family…with pride and empathy,” she says.