Kelly Kong was living in Bali—living her best life, you might say. She had quit her influencer marketing job in Vancouver and moved to Indonesia to pursue a different lifestyle. She wanted to be global, nomadic, free to be. She was freelancing, figuring out her next move; wanted to create something, but wasn’t sure what. Then one day, her most crucial accessory broke: her fanny pack.
“Basically the only mode of transportation is motorbike,” Kong explains of life in Bali. “You can’t have a purse because people can take it or it can fall off, so you desperately need a fanny pack while you’re there.”
When hers broke, she had trouble finding a new one that matched her standards of quality and style. There happened to be a family-run leather factory on her street, though, and she’d walked by countless times—so she decided to pop in one day and see if they could make her a one-off. With no design experience (but with a discerning eye), she worked with the family to create something timeless; and it turned out so great that Kong realized she was onto something. She’d found her grand plan.
She called it MANDRN.
Working with that same family-run factory, she launched her fanny pack brand on a few key pillars: ethical production. Artisanal quality. Chic aesthetic. Less than two years into the business, she can barely keep up with demand.
While the fanny pack trend may have seen a resurgence in recent years thanks to 1990s nostalgia and music festivals, the truth is that these bags—which can be worn on the hips or cross-body—are incredibly functional. What MANDRN did was make them beautiful.
“We often lose touch with the products that we buy,” Kong says over coffee on the outdoor patio of Kafka on Vancouver’s Emily Carr campus (she’s currently back home due to the coronavirus pandemic, and has plans to return to Bali in 2021). “It’s really cool and special to produce products that are handmade, bringing back the craft of these incredible artisans. That’s a mission of mine: I want to travel the world and showcase the craft of these artisans—and make it a brand that’s relatable and that someone could choose to support versus a big-box, fast-fashion brand.”
The name MANDRN is inspired by Kong’s Chinese heritage, as well as by the bright, positive feeling that citrusy mandarin oranges represent (one sniff of vitruvi’s Sweet Orange Essential Oil will solidify this). She wants her brand to be one of lightness and warmth, like a ray of sunshine—it’s an ethos that extends from her own bubbly personality through to the products she creates and the team she creates them with.
“I’m very passionate about the people that I work with,” Kong says. “And the brand is really inspired by travel and freedom and positivity, and it’s all about feeling free to be yourself and chase your dreams.” She’s a firm believer in manifestation, and of building up her inner trust as a way to stay focused on her goals—and know she can achieve them.
In terms of what’s next, MANDRN is already expanding into other leather goods, including card holders and wallets. Kong is also diving into the world of plant-based leathers so that she can offer a quality vegan product to her community.
Speaking of community, she’s building her own from the ground up, using MANDRN to showcase the talents of creatives who she admires. “MANDRN so much more than a bag—it’s a lifestyle,” she asserts. She has already created a playlist with DJ Ricco, and has an exciting local artist collaboration in the works. “I want to create this engine of synergistic positivity of supporting other people,” says Kong with a smile. “That’s basically where MANDRN is going.” Like that first aromatic spray of rind when you start peeling an orange, MANDRN is a welcome burst of energy.
In a world that feels very dark right now, it’s nice to find something that is bright and joyful. That reminds us of better times, and that helps us believe maybe, just maybe, we might one day get back to them.