Owning The Tomboy Label
We speak to the designer whose handbags have caught Beyonce’s eye, as well as major fashion and entertainment brands. Kelly Gunner is one to watch.
By Kemi Alemoru
“I was good at sports so I was always called a tomboy,” Tomme founder Kelly Gunner explains over the phone. Most girls who enthusiastically embrace sport and its aesthetics at a young age will often be branded with this label. As if their interest is an aberration of what is expected of a woman-in-waiting. However, Kelly sees her tomboy moniker as an opportunity to experiment.
Bespoke colourways, gold-linked chain handles and recognisable brand emblems – like the Nike swoosh – this is Tomme: a blend of ‘tomboy’ with the French word ‘homme.’ These Instagram-ready bags are made out of real basketballs and tap into the zeitgeist of the fashion-forward streetwear fan. The brand also pays homage to people who blur the lines between genders and flout societal expectations. “It’s about taking something from within a male-dominated sport and turning it into something feminine,” Kelly explains.
When Kelly was cutting her teeth as a designer, one of her first T-shirt designs included the definition of what it meant to be a tomboy as she’s always found the blending of male and female aesthetics interesting: “I used to have an athletic body but I never saw embracing the masculine as a negative. I have always kind of been proud because I like the strength of athleticism.”
Originally, Kelly started making clothes for her friends in 2016 and since then she has grown a business which completely eclipsed her 9-5 in a marketing agency: “At the beginning it was just an interesting hobby. Some of my earlier bags were made out of cuddly toys and other things you’d have lying around the house,” she says. Her creativity is born out of curiosity and eventually she started investigating how she could create an ode to her love of sport by incorporating the equipment itself.
It took time before Kelly felt confident enough to post her work online, but launching in 2019, the project has evolved from a side project to a solid business that has amassed 46k Instagram followers. Her bags became one of the most coveted accessories last summer: “I had a pinch me moment the other day,” Kelly reveals, “Zerina Akers, Beyonce’s stylist, wanted some pieces for her wardrobe.” This wouldn’t be her first A-list client either – Billie Eilish was also snapped wearing a brown Gucci print Tomme bag over her shoulder. Other fans include Rosalia, Ciara, and Vanessa Bryant.
BLUR THE LINES
Unbelievably, Kelly built all of this momentum working alongside her full-time job, often finishing her day at midnight: “It’s just me making bags and playing around with adjustments until I get something better.” This trial and error approach means that it can take around 3-4 weeks before all of her orders are processed. She’s working hard to cut this down. Still, as a one woman show, she’s also social media editor, oversees customer queries, design and production. Luckily she has an encouraging support system who are helping to keep her sane: “I’ve got a very understanding husband,” she laughs. Since handing her notice in at work, the business has grown and Kelly tells me she is now looking to expand her team.
ONE WOMAN SHOW
Timing is everything; Tomme sits at the intersection of a number of major movements in fashion and culture. For example, research shows people are looking for ways to bring their hobbies into their home and then there’s the unstoppable rise of streetwear. “I’ve always been into streetwear because it’s part of my life. I’m not jumping on a trend,” Kelly explains. Unlike other streetwear brands, about 80% of her audience is women, some as young as 13 years-old. “Streetwear is such a male dominated space and it’s nice to have something that women can have a bit more ownership of.”
At the moment Kelly is sourcing and upcycling old basketballs, which means her brand is more sustainable than most. She adds: “Reworking old objects is a big movement online, especially in streetwear. People like The Shoe Surgeon cut up and customise trainers, so Tomme is tapping into a few trends that are popular on Instagram.”
However, she’s quick to distance herself from being labelled as a sustainable brand: “That definitely adds pressure,” she explains. As she doesn’t make the zips and chains herself, there are some elements of production that she can’t control: “You might accidentally use a supplier who has not been sustainable. If you are labelling yourself as a sustainable brand and someone spots that error you could be called out.” When it comes to the sluggish pace at which the industry at large has adopted more sustainable practices, she says it may be down to the size of the company: “It’s harder to trace every detail within bigger businesses whereas little brands can use local suppliers,” she points out.
In the last few months, Kelly has teamed up with film and fashion heavyweights including Warner Bros and adidas. “I’m a small voice but they’re coming to me because they see potential,” she says. Bigger brands have budgets to experiment and in return Kelly offers a fresh perspective: “There’s a cultural cachet for them by working with me and giving opportunities to smaller brands who want credibility. It’s mutually beneficial.”
The project for Warner Bros involved making a limited run of bags in four different designs to celebrate the release of the film Space Jam: A New Legacy. “I’m very lucky as Warner Bros approached me, and it is the first time the company has worked with a small, niche brand.” Similarly, it was exciting for Kelly when adidas approached her with a request to make 25 exclusive bags to give to members of the adidas family, marking the re-release of their made-for-basketball Forum sneaker.
Most recently Kelly has expanded her ‘pink’ collection, which has proved to be a popular colour. “The pink Nike mini is my best seller, so this collection is a mix of old and new in different shades of pink,” she says. Kelly also crafted a bespoke, monochrome basketball handbag to celebrate the launch of Glorious. The piece symbolises the concept behind the new platform: where sport and design merge. “I really believe in elevating women’s sport and Glorious does exactly that by telling stories in a totally different way. I’m always up for collaborating with causes and platforms that I align with personally.”
When designing the bag, Kelly wanted a clean, premium look: “We decided to go for the mini because it holds everything but isn’t too bulky. The monochrome makes it look very high-end and it appeals to a wide range of people – patterns can be polarising.” When describing the moment she saw the Glorious bag for the first time, she says: “I had an inside squeal! I’d never done anything all white and I absolutely love it.”
Throughout her journey, Kelly has focused on effortlessly blending her customer’s interests, politics and aesthetics, and creating a desirable accessory that reflects their multifaceted personalities. At the heart of its authenticity lies Kelly’s own love for sport and fashion: “I always felt powerful when I carried my basketball. I wanted other women to experience that pride. They can express themselves through the sport that they love. It gives them another outlet.”