Dar Leone is the name of the brand and shop of Londoner Isatu Funna, who creates colourful, Sierra Leone-inspired, and elegant homeware. Isatu brings a lot to the table: pockets full of memories from her childhood in Freetown in Sierra Leone, the experience of a career as an American Lawyer and also as the mom of two daughters – and now the creativity that goes into her brand Dar Leone. We met for a photo session in her shop in Islington, London.
Isatu, you have been a lawyer in America! And now, only a few years down the road, you`re sitting in a shop in London surrounded by your own designs. This is a story I would think to find in a novel – would you have thought this to be possible when you were at law school?
I have to say: Never in a million years. When I started law school it was with the firm commitment that I would study and then start working in a law firm – and that would be that. But life often doesn`t go according to the plans you might have set out. For me the definite break came about when I had my twin daughters. I wanted to take some time off and I was lucky to be in the position where I could do that. I started to explore areas where I could be a bit more creative. When I was decorating my first home, I was looking for ways to reflect my heritage in the design of my own home. That`s how the idea of creating Dar Leone came about.
You started your brand in 2014 as an online shop. Meanwhile, your designs are also stocked in Liberty and in the Tate Shop - that`s an extraordinary success! Would you rather say it was despite you being a late starter as a designer or because of it?
For me having a late start was the only way I could do it. As I said before: designing is nothing I would have imagined myself doing when I was at a younger age. I know, some people have that creative spark, and they go ahead and pursue that dream early on. But I really like the fact that for me it came later. And for some people, it can come even later than it did for me. I think a lot of times we`re prohibited – or we prohibit ourselves – from exploring things because we find this issue of time to be so important. I was closing in on forty when I started Dar Leone and I`m really happy that I didn`t let that dissuade me.
In fact, your career as a lawyer and the experiences you were able to collect may have been beneficial for you when starting your journey as a professional creative?
I definitely would agree with that. Studying and practicing law really prepares you for a number of different careers. It prepares you for thinking logically and for problem-solving. If you can find a way past barriers with prior education and prior training, if you can think around problems, that is really helpful. I was more mature and more developed in my thinking, so it was good that this endeavor came later rather than earlier.
Soon after you launched your online shop you had a pop-up store and in 2015 you opened your first permanent shop. How important do you consider the exposure a physical shop window provides?
In fact, I consider it phenomenally important. I do try and figure out how could it be done without having that physical bricks-and-mortar shop and I think it`s really hard. Because it`s when a customer picks up an item, feels it, touches it, imagines herself wearing it or having it in her home, that you can see that click. That moment when they think ‘I`ll take this home with me today’. And I think it`s very hard for a brand to connect to a client without enabling that physical relationship with the item.
How about the interaction between your clients and you as the designer being personally there in the shop for people to approach?
I can say in all honesty, it`s a pleasure to meet people who come in and are looking for the story behind the design. They might walk in and not quite know what brought them here. But then, hearing that Sierra Leone is the inspiration, my upbringing in Freetown or the stories I sometimes tell of very old West African patterns – of course that also helps to compel a sale.
THE big inspiration behind your brand is your childhood memories as you grew up in Sierra Leone and lived there until you were 15 years old. Is translating your memories into designs something that comes naturally to you, or did you have to learn this skill?
It was complete work in progress because I also do not draw. I needed to look for an illustrator and sometimes there is happenstance: I just happened to bump into a good illustrator and started working with her. All the ideas in my head – she could make them happen on paper. That was the first step. Very often I use physical examples of old vintage textiles from Sierra Leone, from Ghana or from Nigeria or I see an art show and that will trigger something. I also have distinct memories of my grandmother and the way she dressed and the colours that she used to dye her clothes with natural dyes.
How about learning about all the other things you had to figure out as a career jumper?
What I know now is that you make a lot of mistakes along the way and some of them can be expensive. For example, you`re sampling things and they don`t always work out. And you`re also working with suppliers who traditionally have been dealing with people in the design field, who went to design school and know the language – they know exactly how to describe the processes that they are after. I had to teach myself that and learn from many mistakes I made along the way. There`s no instant success it`s many years of honestly trying something and it`s a learning process.
What helped you the most on your journey as a business owner? What were your personal keys to success?
It was good that I had the opportunity to have a mentor. A business mentor who has already been through the same and had more experience than I did. Age is not a factor it`s more the experience and the ability to guide. Because there are things which I had no idea about. Trade shows for example: it just wasn`t a world that I knew anything about before I started Dar Leone. The cost of it, the setting up and the breaking down, the installation, the meeting the customers and dealing with other trades people, … That is fantastic and having a mentor – somebody who is willing to give you some guidance – is very good. I also did a lot of research on my own and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Everything is out there! You just sometimes have to focus and dig deep.