What is Empress Bohemia? Was it always called Empress Bohemia? Where did the name come from?
When I first started selling art, it was Designs by D. Colin. Now @empressbohemia is the Instagram handle for all of my visual art but it's also been my former Etsy shop and vendor name for a long time. When it was my side hustle, I wanted a business name that embodied the afrocentric inspiration of the work and a bohemian lifestyle, not in the popularized decor sense but more about living unconventionally especially as a writer and artist. Empress also known as Black woman also known as Queen also known as Magic. Bohemia also home for the unconventional, the artist, the writer, and free minded. Those are the roots of the name for me.
What made you start Empress Bohemia?
Fun fact: I didn't pierce my ears until I was 27 years old. Not too long after that I started making my own earrings because I wasn't finding pieces I was excited about wearing when I went to the mall. Empress Bohemia really started because the earrings I was making were conversation pieces and the more people asked how they could get a pair, the more I knew I should start selling them. I've since broadened what I sell and over the years, I've grown as an artist through my vendor life.
What do you make and how has it evolved over the years?
Before I was making earrings, I was painting vases! I haven't done that in a very, very long time. Anyway, nowadays I turn my art into buttons, greeting cards, and prints while still hand painting wooden pieces to wear. And of course, acrylic paintings on canvas and my book!
What are your favorite things about vending?
First of all, I get to vend with my best friend and partner now husband, Robert Cooper. He has amazing photo prints that he sells alongside my work and I think we make a great duo in collaboration. Also, I have met so many people from vending. It's beautiful to see folks interact with my work and I love meeting new people in my booth or at my table wherever it is. I like to make my canvas art as visible as possible. Sometimes people say they came to my booth because of the bright colors I paint with or they wanted to see the painting up close. Then they see that they can get other renderings of the art or they could get a pair of earrings. Every once in a while, I see a someone wearing a pair of earrings I made. I don't think the feeling of gratitude and excitement for that will never get old.
What are a few of your most valuable lessons from vending?
1. Price what you're worth and make your vendor fee back at least. I've been to a lot of vendor events and they are not all attended equally. My goal was always to make sure I didn't lose money even if there was light attendance. Vendor fees became my baseline for pricing. This helped me figure out how much I needed to sell to at least make my vendor fee back. If it was more than any combination of 7-10 items (except paintings which are naturally priced higher) then I checked my pricing.
2. Maximize your space. Typically vendors have a 6'-10' space. I try to think of new ways to make it feel like a mini shop especially since there isn't that much space. But you don't need a lot of space to make it feel inviting. It's not just about selling. I like to think of it as a way for people to experience the space you create.
3. I learned from other vendors what to do and not to do. It pays to observe the interactions at a vending event and also to engage in conversation with other vendors and visit their tables. Doing that has taught me things like painting live is great, being on the phone or sitting the whole time might deter folks from your booth, and you might be underpricing/overpricing yourself. Deeper than all of that though is the biggest lesson: be in community and be present.
How would you describe your products to a complete stranger?
Afrocentric. Big. Bold. Vibrant. Poetic. Lightweight. Handmade. Conscious. Intentional. Conversation starters. Made with love.
Why should folks as consumers patron my establishment?
People can get earrings anywhere but there are folks who have bought earrings from me that are truly one of a kind pairs, pieces I painted that I only painted once. There are less than 10 iterations of every kind of earring pair which means if you buy a pair from me, it's a pretty unique set. I remember starting to feel like I needed to start making earrings that were easily replicable and that made me lose some of my motivation. When I return to why I started Empress Bohemia in the first place, it all falls into place. I wanted unique items I couldn't find anywhere else and that means not treating myself or my art like a machine. I make what I love. I have fun doing it. And if it's earrings you bought from me, you get to wear art.
Where can folks purchase Empress Bohemia merch?
The pandemic really impacted the number of vending events I could attend which by consequence also impacted the income I was making from vending and my regularity in keeping up with inventory. I mean who was going to buy earrings if there was no where to go? At least, that was my mindset for a while. Now, folks can still find me at an event though they are fewer. Also, this year I decided to take a leap and rent out wall space in a shop called Her Love Collections which has two locations, one in downtown Troy and one in Crossgates Mall. I'm at the Crossgates Mall location. It's a different kind of vending experience having my items in a literal storefront without having to be present. It's also the biggest vendor fee I have ever paid but I'm learning a lot about other ways to put my work out into the world.
D. Colin (she/her)
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