Vermont's Ma & Pembum Crafts Leather Bags With an Altruistic Mission
Four years ago, Phebe Mott had a nightmare: "My kids had been taken, and I didn't know where," she says. Sitting in a sunlit booth at the Bristol Bakery & Café in Hinesburg, she recalls the dream and shudders. "It was like a movie," she continues quietly. "Somehow, I found out they were at this hospital that did scientific experiments on people. And a woman and a man in lab coats were looking for my kids."
It was only a dream, but it changed Mott's life. "I literally could not stop thinking about it," she says. "What stayed with me was the fact that there are parents who that happens to. And they really don't know where their kids are."
Ma & Pembum was Mott's response. She started the leather bag and accessories business in 2013 with a model some might call crazy — or just crazy-generous. Mott donates 50 percent of her profits from each sale to anti-human-trafficking organizations. Yes, half. She chooses a different organization to give to each year.
So far, the list of recipients includes A21, End It Movement and Amirah. 2017 has been her busiest year yet. In fact, Mott has so much business right now that she can barely keep up. Every leather item is made to order.
Mott, 42, is wearing big earrings and lots of colorful leather accessories. Of course, she made them all herself. A red Triple Wrap bracelet adorns her wrist; a large, coral-colored bag dubbed the Biggie sits on the table next to her; and a mint-green Leather Tassel Long keychain dangles from it.
That curious company name? "Ma" and "Pembum" were Mott's names for her maternal grandparents, she explains. But rather than naming her bags after people, as many well-known companies do — "The Emma! The Juanita!" she quips — Mott labels her products descriptively so that customers can picture them.
From the Market Tote to the Crossbody to the Wristlet, Mott currently makes 12 styles of bags, priced from $65 to $299.25. "There's a list in my head of about 100 I want to do, but I don't have the time," says the mother of two. "And that's a good problem!"
All the soft leather bags come in Mott's signature colorful shades and definitive, clean style. And they each suggest a playful attitude — apart from talking about the dream that inspired her business, Mott doesn't take herself too seriously. Ma & Pembum designs are for the woman who is "bold, confident and classy," she says, but who needs a bag she can "toss like a potato sack onto the floor and get on with the day."
Mott offers custom options for the bags, too: different color combinations, straps or detailing. Her popular leather jewelry, priced at $40 to $42, includes tassel earrings and wrap bracelets in a multitude of colors.
Mott began her creative career as an art major at the University of Vermont and later became a painter. Right before she started experimenting with leather, she was making and selling jewelry — mostly earrings and necklaces — using found vintage items such as watch faces.
In late 2013, Mott stumbled across some leftover pink leather scraps from a college art project. "I thought, I could sew with this," she says. "So I experimented, and I found out it wasn't all that hard."
With that first piece of leather, Mott made a zip-up bag that she uses to this day. Then she began making more and more leather bags, asking herself, Who needs so many bags, anyway?
"Meanwhile, I had this thing in my head about the dream," Mott says. At first, she didn't put the two together, but, she says, "I couldn't stop thinking about it. And I felt like God was telling me something."
Mott says that praying on the matter brought this message: Keep making the bags because you love it. And sell them and donate half to organizations that fight human trafficking. So that's exactly what she did.
In September 2016, Mott's mother hosted a bag party for her. "People, like, actually bought stuff!" Mott says, still looking incredulous. "And then I just threw myself into it."
Ma & Pembum began to take off. Mott's friends, and then friends of friends, hosted bag parties at their homes. The requests poured in.
"I got busier and busier," Mott says. "I wasn't prepared for the volume of orders, and everybody, of course, wanted them for Christmas. I assumed it would slow down after the holidays, but it was still really steady, which was a shock to me."
This year has brought more of the same. Now, orders come in from Ma & Pembum Facebook and Instagram followers. Mott's best seller this year is the Shopper Mini, a bag priced at $210 to $220. Her leather goods are also available at select local shops.
Mott used to scavenge leather at vintage and secondhand clothing stores, but she now orders it in the colors she wants from a leather distributor in Massachusetts. She still runs the business out of her Hinesburg home, sewing everything on a large Necchi machine. Mott has hired two "part-part-time" employees, both friends. Next year, she plans to buy two or three industrial sewing machines.
"The goal, of course, is to have a retail space and work space in one. Ideally, in town," she says. "Gotta sell a few more bags first!"
Mott downs the last of her coffee and gathers up her bright leather bag. Time to get back to work.