Feeling newly vaccinated with hope in our step, we ventured out for a visit with our Boerum Hill neighbor and local bag designer, Susannah Thompson, to explore the masklessness of it all around others. Fueled by coffee and green juice, we streamed Bieber and danced around the garden’s lavender pots, dressed in our new styles.
As soon as cat Jack and pup Penny made room for us on the couch, we chatted with Susannah about working in fashion, bonding with Jackie O. at Doubleday, and why we need to ditch plastic bags already. Her daughter Nona joined in to talk a little mayoral politics, life in lockdown, and returning to visit the country where she was born.
Susannah Thompson: Alright, here we go!
M.PATMOS: We’re all wired up.
Susannah: Wow! Cool.
M.PATMOS: Very official. So, just to get started — are you from New York originally?
Susannah: No, I'm a fourth-generation Californian. Born in San Francisco, raised in Pasadena.
M.PATMOS: And what led you to this coast?
Susannah: Well, I’m really trained as a dancer and my mom took me to see West Side Story when I was nine years old. I saw it and said, “My god, I’m going to move there.” I just knew I wanted to be in New York City. I love California. I love L.A. It is the most beautiful, experimental, wonderful place. But, I am definitely more of a New York energy. So, I worked to a point where I knew I could exist on a salary and moved in my thirties to New York City.
M.PATMOS: That’s smart! Not many people do that. Did you find work as a dancer?
Susannah: I really, really wanted to be in the theater; it’s still my love. But, I hated auditions. I was terrified of them. I would throw up at auditions.
M.PATMOS: You were auditioning out in L.A.?
Susannah: In L.A. But, when I was a kid everyone always told me, “Oh, she’s got so much style that girl, how does she do that?” I used to cut up my sandals, I’d wear petticoats over my pants, I was always changing things. My love was theater, but my talent has always been fashion. So, I had to give up my love and start pursuing my talent. And by that time, I just didn’t have the money or the time to, let's say, go to FIT and all that — I had to do it through the work world.
M.PATMOS: And New York, a notoriously hard work world to break into. Do you remember your first gig in the city?
Susannah: Oh, my first job was with Polo Ralph Lauren, working in production. I worked in the knit department that did all the infamous Polo shirts — that was when he was still on 55th Street, he was just in a brownstone and it was pretty amazing. But then, he was right at the explosion level, and they moved everything, they moved all production to New Jersey and I just thought, I did not move across the country to commute to New Jersey. So, I got out of that. And yeah, that was my first gig.
M.PATMOS: A pretty good New York first.
Susannah: And then, oh my goodness, I worked for a private label house that made women’s suits, I worked for Hathaway shirts… I worked for so many people. But by this time, I’m telling you, I really hated it. In L.A. I also did a whole stint in retail, you know, I was a manager of departments, I was an assistant buyer. And when I got here the fashion world was fine for a while, but then I think I just kind of grew up. I thought, this is too hard, the women were backbiting and horrible — I always had a problem with this. I’m sensitive, I’m not a ballbuster. So, I just realized I couldn’t do it.
M.PATMOS: When it comes to the industry, you’re not alone in that regard.
Susannah: So, I signed up with a temp agency, thinking okay, I just gotta make money, pay my rent — I landed at Doubleday publishers in the managing editorial department. I’ve been a reader all my life, books are a really important part of me so, I was as happy as a clam. And the people were so much nicer. I bounced around with them for a while before landing a job in marketing. Their marketing at that time was sort of a combination of PR and marketing and they gave you a whole lot of editors to work with. I used to talk to John Grisham on the phone, Sam Walton, Thomas Friedman — all of these just incredible people.
M.PATMOS: Not bad!
Susannah: But the real sugar was Mrs. Onassis, that was just really amazing. And none of my coworkers wanted to work with her because she didn’t do high volume books. She always did creative books, she did young authors, she had a couple of big heavy hitters, but mostly she was picking people that were talented. I just really liked her, we got to know each other in the bathroom.
Susannah: I was pregnant at the time with my son — and her daughter Caroline was pregnant with her last child. And so I think that bonded us. That was really a very special time.
Susannah: But, I had my son, Max, and then I was basically working to pay a sitter, and that’s when moms have to make a big choice. When Maxy was about three or four, I was restless again and I’ve never wanted to be a stay-at-home-mom; it’s not my cup of tea. Through my kid I happened to meet a woman who was doing home styling and she needed an assistant. So, I started there moving couches and rugs, all the flowers, oh my god… It was really hard work. And then, I don’t even know how I got it, but I did styling for HBO for this little fifteen minute series of interviews with famous people. And through that I made connections with people at SpotCo — they do the print production for all of the Broadway shows. That was probably the most fun because theater people are very different from movie people; I loved it.
M.PATMOS: You found your way to Broadway after all.
Susannah: I found my way to Broadway! At one point, I worked on this show, a big music spectacular, and I had to meet the two leads in this really famous dance rehearsal studio where all of the shows rehearse, (it’s right on 42nd Street). And, as I was going up the elevator, I called my mom and said, “Mom, you’re not going to believe it… I mean this is the pulse, this is where I am.” The elevator doors opened and all these dancers were rehearsing and aaahh, it was a moment I’ll never forget.
M.PATMOS: And you were never even tempted to try out for one little dance audition in New York City?
Susannah: You know, I moved here when I was thirty-four and I had still been taking dance classes in L.A. three days a week: I did ballet, I did mostly jazz; I love jazz. When I got here, I went to Steps, a very famous dance studio. I looked at their jazz classes and I stood in the doorway and I watched everyone dancing and said to myself, no, I’m done. I was burned out. I just thought, I can’t handle this competition. I have to make money, I just moved here, I can’t do this part of my life anymore right now. But my discipline, my creativity — I have always been a goal-oriented person — I credit all of that to dance. So, I still take barre classes, I take aerobics classes, yoga; I have to move everyday.
M.PATMOS: Does it help with your mental health during the pandemic?
Susannah: You bet. If I couldn’t have taken classes online… My little barre class did a whole Instagram thing. I have a really cool teacher up at the Y, she did Zoom classes, and then I did a lot of yoga. My husband, Howard, and I really went out to Montauk and the kids stayed here, and everyday I would walk for two or three hours. The only thing you could do was be physically active. I couldn’t do my bags. I couldn’t be at home.
M.PATMOS: Did you have to pause production?
Susannah: Yes, it was decided for me. Thankfully, I had a lot of inventory last March when everything closed up. I’m grateful because with no money coming in from the bags, to have to produce would be really, financially hard.
M.PATMOS: How long have you been producing this line?
Susannah: My bags have been my life for about, probably almost eight years. I originally started with the idea that the plastic bag was going to disappear and I wanted to create a nice looking schlepping bag, and that’s where I started.
M.PATMOS: The bags are durable, they can definitely hold a few things — city people often have to carry their lives around with them.
Susannah: Right. That was my intention. And, I wanted them to look good.
M.PATMOS: So, you were early to this. What was it that first bothered you about the plastic bags, did you just notice them in the trees everywhere and think, people need to stop?
Susannah: I’ve been concerned about the planet for a long time. I was seeing them in trees, I was seeing people throwing them in the gutter, I was seeing that we all had too many of them. I just thought, this is ridiculous. We need to retrain. Then I started seeing everyone carry hideous Trader Joe’s bags, hideous Walgreens bags with their beautiful leather purses. So, I recognized an opportunity. I started with just a basic tote with an inside pocket, no snaps, no zippers, (I hate zippers), just that. My original inspiration was the potato sacs with the printing on them. I thought, this is so cool, how can I translate something that everybody knows, a fabric that everybody knows, into something that is good looking? And that’s why I started with the burlap. And I only did natural color burlap. And then the jute upholstery strap.
M.PATMOS: Nice and simple. And some of them are rather unisex in style, men seem to be attracted to them as well, which is helpful.
Susannah: Yes, yes, which I did not anticipate.
M.PATMOS: And they’re made proudly in New York.
Susannah: Designed in Brooklyn and made in New York City. All of them.
M.PATMOS: Do you find your new customers are interested to learn about how they should use these bags as a daily shopper to be more environmentally conscious or do they just like the look of them?
Susannah: I would say it’s definitely fifty-fifty. Most women ask me why I’m doing what I’m doing, you know, what’s the story? When I tell them, they are very interested in the philosophy behind it. All my returning customers say, “I’ve been carrying this thing every day, it’s the best, it does the job.” So, I’d say some women get what it is, and others are definitely attracted to the look.
M.PATMOS: Helps to have both style and substance.
Susannah: Well, my tagline is practicality with class. That’s really what it is.
M.PATMOS: We happen to know you’re also very passionate about politics.
Susannah: Oh, I’m very passionate about politics.
M.PATMOS: We’ve all come to learn over the past few years how politics play a role in almost every part of life. We all, of course, can make small impacts through individual choices in what we buy, the kind of bags we carry, etc. But ultimately, greater resolutions are found when legislation is passed around certain issues — for example, in New York, they recently banned single-use plastic bags.
Susannah: It’s great. It’s a step.
M.PATMOS: Yes, and an example of something that local government can do to make a greater impact. So, with that in mind, what was it that first drew you to politics? And what thoughts would you share about the importance of voting in local elections that affect all of these everyday quality-of-life issues, like our upcoming NYC mayoral primary?
Susannah: Well, I grew up in a very political family. My father was a super, duper Republican and my mother was a super, duper Democrat. And she was really, really political. I mean, when I was — I don’t even remember how old, my brother and I must have been seven and eight when JFK ran for the presidency. And my mom was so involved, that was her first really big political campaign. At the time she had a Ford convertible when we lived in Pasadena, California. Pasadena was one of the first school districts to integrate, so we had a large black community and my mom was passionate about helping to turn out the black vote — she just knew that for Kennedy this was so important. So, she put my brother and I in the back seat of this convertible with Kennedy signs all on the side, we drove up to parts of town that I’d never been to, and my mother’s driving with a megaphone going, “Gotta come out and vote for JFK! Gotta come out and vote for JFK!” I’ve never forgotten it. And I was so proud of her. It so impacted me and from that day forward, politics has always been a really, really important part of my family upbringing and me.
M.PATMOS: What a memory.
Susannah: What I have come to realize is, I like doing individual things. I did a lot of the marches and so on but within all of that, I do something personal. Like with the March for Our Lives protest after Florida, I bought three hundred little muslin bags and stamped, “Please, No More Guns,” on the front and handed them out only to teenagers and said, “Please carry this”, and they did. I also made a bigger bag, I sold it at the Brooklyn Flea for quite a while, and all the money that I made from it, I gave to Sandy Hook. So, I do stuff like that, my own statements. But this election, I have to figure out what I’m going to do because this New York City election is for our entire City Council, it’s our Mayor, it’s our…
M.PATMOS: Manhattan District Attorney.
Susannah: The District Attorney, which is so important because they've gotta carry on what Cy Vance has started. So, I haven’t figured out what I’m going to do there, but I am definitely going to do something.
M.PATMOS: It’s kind of unfortunate that our mayoral election comes after the presidential one when everyone is too exhausted to think about it. It’s hard to follow all of the candidates.
Susannah: I agree. And the push just to get out the vote yeah, it’s hard.
M.PATMOS: What would you say to people then to help rally them through June?
Susannah: I think that this is just really important because of the City Council and the District Attorney, if we want any chance of seeing Trump be brought to justice. The city is going to be given a lot of federal money and that is going to make a large difference in the recovery and should also impact who we vote in to manage it. So, we have to rally the troops, we somehow have to rally the troops. I’m going to have to do something, something creative.
M.PATMOS: Looking forward to that. Nona’s here! We’re talking politics. Do you hate politics? Ha.
Susannah: She better not!
Nona: No, I just get lost in the end.
M.PATMOS: Do your friends follow the elections?
M.PATMOS: Do people vote?
Nona: Oh yes, definitely.
Susannah: Noni actually had a boyfriend in high school who loved Trump, it was very difficult for us.
Nona: Yeah, that was horrible.
M.PATMOS: Was it his whole family?
Susannah: They were really into it.
Nona: That was like a car wreck. Mistakes.
Nona: Growing up.
Susannah: Nons and I were actually a part of the infamous Women’s March in D.C.
Nona: Oh yeah, a couple of times.
M.PATMOS: How was that?
Nona: That was crazy. A lot of people. Very empowering.
Susannah: It was very empowering. I’m so glad that we did that. I pulled her out of school and I insisted; it was really important. And then we went to the March for Our Lives. So, Nons has done her marching. And made signs. What was it? You made a great sign for the gun march. It was like, ‘I’d like to finish school and not die.’
Nona: Something like that.
M.PATMOS: That’s pretty real. Did you ever feel the effects of that at your school? Did you have to do active shooter drills or anything?
Nona: No, they implemented that after I left.
Susannah: Well your last year, you had some weird incident. I remember you texted me and said, “We’re in lockdown.”
Nona: Oh yeah, it was a homeless guy outside with a gun or something.
Susannah: Yeah. That’s really scary.
Nona: I remember they brought in a special teacher for the younger grades to teach self defense in gym class because there was a lot of violence going on.
Susannah: Self defense would be helpful for all of us, even now, given that the subway is the only way home from here.
Nona: It’s unreal.
M.PATMOS: Well hopefully as the summer comes and more people visit the city, things will start to feel more normal. How was pandemic life for the family?
Susannah: The kids basically said, “Mom and Dad, go to Montauk and get out of here.” They really wanted us out of here, we are in the sixty-five range. Max went to D.C., where his girlfriend was living. Noni stayed here with her boyfriend, Johan. So, we all split up.
Nona: Yeah, it was pretty scary. The infection rate was growing, it just made us very uneasy having our parents here. I stopped going to work and school starting in March. School shut down and then they freaked out and didn’t know what to do in the meantime. So, I just withdrew. And then work, our store had to keep letting people go, it was very sudden; It was kind of a whirlwind.
M.PATMOS: Do you feel it was a lost year for you?
Nona: It was definitely a confusing year. It was just paused. And then the days blended together. It was the same day consisting of waking up, having breakfast, then just not knowing what to do. Maybe sit outside, but you couldn’t really go anywhere — a lot of video games just to fill the space.
M.PATMOS: Well, do you feel more hopeful now? Is there anything you’re looking forward to as things inch back to normal?
Nona: Yeah, probably participating in school, going back to classes and actually being with other kids.
M.PATMOS: Are you sick of social media yet?
Nona: Surprisingly not. I definitely have less social media than I did — I only stick with Instagram because of my interest in photos and I like taking photos.
Susannah: Wouldn’t it be great if there could be a trend of backing off the phone a bit, you know? But I don’t see it. That’s when your whole social ways changed when you got a phone. If you didn’t have a phone you guys would have hung out more in high school.
Nona: You think?
Susannah: Yeah, you would have established seeing each other more. But because they all had social media, they didn’t have to see each other to be social.
M.PATMOS: Once kids used to just bike to each other's houses and hang out on front lawns. There was no other option but to talk and pay attention to each other.
Nona: See, that’s so cool, I’m envious of that. I wish we could have done that. It’s funny though, just today I was texting my friend and I was like, “You know, we should go have a picnic.” That’s something that doesn’t happen. Me asking is a special request because that’s not something we do.
Susannah: Well, maybe they are branching out a bit.
M.PATMOS: When you look at all of the activism on social media and see the broad support that the Black Lives Matter protests received last year from all kinds of people, especially those your age, do you feel that your generation is more accepting? Maybe more hopeful?
Nona: From what I’ve seen, I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed anyone I know or any of my friends be motivated against someone just because of their sexuality, their skin color or any other factor like that. It’s surprising when I hear of hate crimes going on and people being just flat out disrespectful because of the color of someone’s skin. I just don’t know anyone in my generation that is like that.
Susannah: In your circle.
Nona: Yeah, in my circle. It’s interesting though to see a lot of my friends going to the protests and putting a lot of news articles on their Stories and it’s definitely reassuring to see that people are super supportive of something like that.
Susannah: Both my kids have really grown up — and I attribute this to New York City — they’ve both grown up with kids who are gay, kids who have two dads, kids who have two moms, Noni knows two people that were girls and they’re now boys, and lots of adopted kids. You know, I mean all of this is just normal; it’s no big deal to them.
Nona: New York is a very diverse place.
M.PATMOS: Nona, have you ever felt uncomfortable, or felt you had to explain to your friends about being adopted yourself?
Susannah: In college.
Nona: It never made me uncomfortable until I hit a different atmosphere. Growing up, I was always in the same school, it was never really brought up. It was never something that I took offense to, or put a wall up for… and yeah, like my mom said, in high school I knew a lot of kids that were adopted so it was kind of just like, whatever. But I think it really hit me when I went into college and had an identity crisis with it.
Susannah: It was hard for her, yeah.
Nona: I feel a lot better now. I’ve definitely found a good in-between with it. You know, with Johan and playing soccer with a community of Hispanic people. It’s still something that I try to get over, but sometimes it’s hard.
Susannah: She’s working on it.
Nona: It’s this time where I’m still figuring things out.
M.PATMOS: Susannah, what was it that led you down the path toward adoption?
Susannah: What led me down the path was I had my son Max, I delivered him when I was forty. Maxy was a very easy pregnancy, a very tough delivery — he was a big baby, and I’m a small person. He was a kind of miracle in his way, because I tried two more times after Max and lost the babies. It was horrible. And after that, I investigated fertility because I still wanted to get pregnant. I had this really wonderful doctor who just said, “After the experience you’ve been through, have you thought about adoption?” So that’s what led us down the path of investigating.
M.PATMOS: Was the process a difficult one?
Susannah: I had a fantastic adoption agency out of Philadelphia and they had been working with midwives and lawyers in Guatemala for years. So they knew how to do it and they had really great staff that knew how to walk me through all the paperwork. The paperwork was like being pregnant, it took me a year to do the paperwork. Because I had a boy, I was able to pick if I wanted a boy or a girl and, of course I wanted a girl. So, we went to see Nons at three months and met the foster mom, and then we went back down and got her at five months. And that’s kind of it. Nona is my daughter and Nona was supposed to be my daughter. And that’s what I’ve told her. You are my girl. And Maxy is my boy and that is the way it’s supposed to be.
M.PATMOS: Have you experienced any kind of stigma around the adoption?
Susannah: No, I wouldn’t say stigma. I don’t think people are against it at all, I just don’t think they understand it. Some people are assholes, yeah. I mean, I had a couple of times, especially when I had them both together, I would get asked really stupid questions because they look so different. People, they don’t think before they speak about these kinds of things and I think it’s probably even more true with Noni’s generation — I do credit that to social media. They have no filters. It’s just as life changing and unbelievable as giving birth to a child, it’s just really, really different. So, it was hard at times. But, we did send Nons to Guatemala to visit.
M.PATMOS: What was that like?
Nona: That was crazy. That was definitely one of the most empowering things I’ve done in my life. Especially going by myself.
M.PATMOS: Wow, how long ago was that?
Nona: I think when I was eighteen? Nineteen? Two years ago — It would have been when I was eighteen.
M.PATMOS: Was that your first trip by yourself?
Nona: Yes. Especially internationally. I was super excited. I think from the minute that I got off the flight, I was ecstatic. And when I got out of the airport and into the car that was waiting for me to go to Antigua — just seeing everything and everyone was crazy. Because I grew up in a world where people I knew were primarily either white or black, it was crazy to see so many people who looked like me with the same skin tone, the same height, the same black hair.
Susannah: When she landed she of course said, “I’m here,” and then she went, “Mom, everybody looks like me!” It was great.
Nona: It was just like a puzzle piece.
M.PATMOS: Do you think you’ll go back?
Nona: Um, probably. Probably when I learn more Spanish and grow more confident. I didn’t know any Spanish when I went, which was crazy. But everything was positive, I made friends there, people that live there from different cities. I learned how to get to certain places, certain landmarks. It was incredible. It was nice, too, because I enrolled in community service, so I did construction in low-income areas that needed help. I got out of tourist areas and integrated myself into small towns, some that didn't have electricity. It was just really good to see both sides of the coin.
M.PATMOS: Well, always during difficult times in life, especially when you feel a little lost, it does feel good to volunteer and help other people.
Susannah: Very true — Put yourself on hold and put yourself out. It’s definitely been an interesting road with Nons. I mean, I can help her with so much but she really has to find what makes her feel comfortable. We’re here for her obviously, but I completely understand that she’s gotta find her own path.
Nona: Luckily, Max accomplished the regular road. So, I can fall off a little bit.
Susannah: He’s going to work for the government here, he wants to help New York City.
M.PATMOS: Maybe there is something with the city for you too Nona, there are so many interesting service projects that you don’t often hear about, like the Zero Waste programs organized by the Sanitation Department. Kathryn Garcia used to manage those, she seems like a really interesting candidate for Mayor.
Susannah: She would be interesting, I just wish she had a chance to win. Noni’s going for Yang.
Nona: Oh yeah, I like Yang.
M.PATMOS: Well, here we go, back to politics again. Let’s just please all go out and vote everybody.