Remarkable Lives: The Transformation Artist

Meet Deb Chusid, the latest entrant in our series featuring folks with unexpected side hustles, pet projects, and cool obsessions. She started out in advertising, and pivoted to making protective masks—with the help of some talented ladies in the very center of a pandemic hotspot.

I got my degree in graphic design from the School of Visual Art. I was in the music industry, and I wanted to be a rock star. All I wanted was to be cool!

After a while, I realized I had to support myself. So 20+ years ago, I tell my son, “Mommy's gonna make money!” I'd bite the bullet and go into advertising. But then I realized I actually loved it. I still do. Telling a brand story—whether you’re an artist or a creative—it's in your core.

Eventually everything was getting less creative. The bottom line: I wasn't enjoying myself. So I thought about what I did enjoy.

I did some traveling and volunteering in Africa: Zimbabwe, Botswana, outside of Victoria Falls. I'm a shopaholic, so I’d be in and out of the markets. I learned about a women’s cooperative that was weaving recycled plastic into beautiful baskets and other members sewing with great fabric. I come home, and I can’t get these visuals out of my head.

Then I go to my corner bodega and see these disgusting plastic bags stacked up. And I think, “I can't take it anymore.” And I decided to redefine the reusable bag by making it with African wax fabric. It's 100% cotton, tightly woven, and I am in love with it.

I discovered the Artisan Sewing Cooperative, which was founded by Bangladeshi women in Queens. Together, we started making Tembo’s bags, and within three months of launching the company, the bags had won a design award.

So when Governor Cuomo asked for help making masks, I thought: I have the absolute perfect infrastructure, right? My ladies work from home.

My son, Mr. Goody Two Shoes, says I should be giving masks away. I’m like, “Jonah, I need to eat.” But he was my conscience. So we decided that for every mask we sell, we donate one. It’s a joy to be able to do something. It’s also wonderful to keep the Cooperative employed, safe, and making up for the wages that their husbands and kids can no longer bring home.

They're very good seamstresses. One lady got her family working for her, cutting and ironing. The quality control is just magnificent.

We could expand, and we're moving into bandanas. Why? Because eventually this virus will go away, and you’ll want to repurpose your fashionable face covering.