Dodo Bazaar founder and vintage seller Laëtitia Damonsing on redefining success
Like most small-business owners, Laëtitia Damonsing, vintage seller and founder of Dodo Bazaar, juggles a lot. But two years into running her own brand, she has shifted how she measures success.
As a champion of mental health, Laëtitia doesn’t want to only sell sustainable products and services — she wants to create practices that are sustainable for herself, and advises others in the vintage community to do the same.
Laëtitia is a multihyphenate in every sense of the word: A vintage reseller, curator, stylist, designer and model. A social activist who worked in international development before starting her own side hustle focused on sustainable design.
An advocate for inclusivity and representation, racial justice, environmentalism and mental health.
A Mauritian-Canadian, born in Montreal to immigrant parents, who maintains a deep connection to her roots (Laëtitia’s brand is named after the official bird of Mauritius, the dodo, and the country’s markets, called bazaars, that serve as gathering places for the community).
It’s an impressive resume, but it’s also one that has led to burnout in the past. The 29-year-old Laëtitia, who now runs Dodo Bazaar full time, is clear about one thing: things weren’t always so clear. “I’m just really truly finding my voice now and doing what feels right to me,” she says.
Throughout her 20s, Laëtitia thought she had it all figured out. She did humanitarian work for NGOs in social change throughout her schooling at Montreal’s McGill University.
After graduating at 21, she took a government job that led her to live and work in Paris, France and Sydney, Australia over the next five years. She opened Dodo Bazaar in 2020 as a pandemic project and kept working at her full-time job.
But in 2021, the government cut the funding for the program Laëtitia worked in, and, with her future suddenly seeming uncertain, she took a step back.
“I was the most creative child,” she recalls. “I would come up with fashion shows. I would draw. At 15, I had a collection of sketches and wanted to become a fashion designer. And my parents were okay with it. I’m still figuring out what made me totally drop all of that and go for money, stability, security, success. The ‘Canadian dream.’”
Meanwhile, social-justice efforts such as Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate were at the forefront of public conversation not just on social media, but at her job, too.
“I’m mixed, but I’m Black, and all these movements took a toll on me. I realized that I couldn’t really work in that field anymore,” she says. “I was exhausted trying to explain stuff that to me is just human common sense. I do still have the desire to create change, but it’s going to have to be my way.”
Now, that’s exactly what she’s doing. Dodo Bazaar is rapidly expanding beyond vintage-decor shop to include new products and services.
Laëtitia maintains a showroom in Montreal’s Rosemont neighbourhood, sells vintage on her website, engages with her 11,000-plus following on Instagram and hosts curated collections at four stockists in Quebec, British Columbia and New York. All the while, she’s making space to engage and educate her community through her work.
Here, Laëtitia chats to The Vintage Seeker about Dodo Bazaar’s evolution from vintage shop into sustainability brand, mental health as an entrepreneur, and how the secondhand economy has the potential to shift typical production models.
Laëtitia Damonsing: I always say I started Dodo Bazaar on a whim, but I think something inside of me knew that I had to take action, and that maybe what I was doing wasn’t as fulfilling. Then Dodo Bazaar exploded. Now, we’ve pivoted in 2022 with a lot of new services that we’re offering.
We’re no longer just a vintage decor shop. We’re becoming an upcycling studio, and I’m already working on collections that are launching soon. I still have objects on my website, but now I have stockists that carry vintage fashion that I sourced myself. We just started offering sustainable interior design and sustainable fashion styling.
LD: I just announced my first capsule collection with Luiny, a New York–based Puerto Rican artist, for a line of upcycled jewellery. It’s the first of upcoming collaborations with local and international artists. I want to do both fashion and home design — because I don’t want to choose!
My collections are based on waste reduction. For instance, I learned that wool is one of the materials that goes to waste most often. Companies are using new technologies to recycle wool, but [it’s not widespread yet]. So I’m working on a wool collection where I want to educate people on that.
For me, it’s about the stats, it’s about the history, it’s about facts — because that’s the person that I am. I’m into reading case studies. I’m into research and data. It’s important to share that with people.
And this is where it will be meaningful and true to who I am. Upcycling is a mix of my old life and my new life, where we’re educating people on the effects of reducing, and on taking action to reduce waste.
LD: Dodo Bazaar is in the mid- to high tier of [vintage] pricing. That was my intention from the beginning.
I’ve always really loved high fashion and luxury fashion. But at the same time, I’ve always felt very torn where I’m like, well, there’s no representation of different types of bodies, of cultural diversity, of race. Now it’s a thing.
But when you learn about the back stages of fashion, and you hear the amount of racism that these models experience, and then you also understand that all these high-fashion houses are based on colonial money or power money that has been passed on from generation to generation, this is where I have a hard time with high-end fashion.
But I thought, if I’m going to stay true to what I’m doing, I’m going to make it so that I feel okay in this. That I feel respected in this as a woman who is five-foot-two, more curvy, a woman of colour, a woman who does not come from money and cannot afford all of these things [firsthand]. I’m going to do it my way and that’s going to be my way of creating change.
My purpose is to create change. To use my creativity and use my creations to educate people on the impact that they can have on the planet, on society, on culture, on everything, just by being themselves.
LD: For a long time, I felt guilty. I was like, “Laë, you’re the girl that works in sustainability and NGOs and believes in education for all, mental health services for all, and all of these things that you’re not supposed to pay money for, but at the same time, you still have this desire for luxury.”
And then I took a pause. How many girls that look like me — that come from my world where you have to work extra hard to overcome adversity — are able to allow themselves to even dream of having a luxury business or even dream of buying a luxury product?
Maybe for some people [offering luxury products] is always going to seem superficial, but it’s still an action of inclusivity and representation in a rebellious form. I deserve luxury as a woman of colour. I do understand all of the socioeconomic aspects of sustainability and accessibility for all — but I can’t be saving the world! And I do want to show other girls like me that they deserve luxury.
At this point, it’s not even about it being accessible. It’s about being attainable. If you work hard enough, if you believe in yourself and you know what you deserve, you can attain it.
LD: I want things to be timeless. I don’t want it to just be trendy because it’s trendy. With Dodo Bazaar, obviously I have pieces that other sellers have. But I always try to find that one funky item [where] I don’t know if it’s going to sell, but I like it — and it always does end up selling because I did take that risk!
I trust my eye for design. I like to think I’m a bit funky and eclectic in my style. That’s kind of what I want to shine through, all while respecting the boundaries of my clients.
LD: At first I did a lot of the pink couch [as a backdrop]. In 2022, I no longer want to stick to one formula. The pink couch worked for the longest time, but I got bored. I felt like it was just like an easy thing to do. So I sold the couch — I don’t want to depend on it for my business! So now there’s going to be more artistic direction when it comes to product shots.
LD: My parents are from the island of Mauritius. And my mom always had this mentality that vintage clothing is dead people’s clothing, and why would I want to wear that? And I’m like, “No, it has such a history!” So I didn’t grow up seeing it. It’s just something that I loved because I always followed fashion blogs.
But my early memories are of looking at my mom getting dressed up. She’s always been a fan of fashion. She is from a fisherman’s village in Mauritius on the coast. Grew up catching crabs. She’s always had this impeccable sense of fashion. It was her form of femininity and adorning yourself and feeling good.
It’s a feeling that, for me, became important. I do understand that could seem very superficial, but I’m saying it in terms of being romantic with yourself — making yourself a priority and making yourself feel good. That’s the feeling that I love.
LD: In the next five years, I’d love to incorporate an NGO aspect to the business, because it’s a sphere I worked in for a long time, and for me, it’s always about giving back. Even though I’m making profit, even though I’m selling luxury, I do want to find a way to be inclusive and give back.
LD: It’s very scary. But once you do it you’re like, “I should have done that earlier.”
I spent my life putting myself in a box — being the good immigrant girl, having to be successful, going to the best university, having all these trophies, all these medals, all these accomplishments.
It was so I could compensate for the non-existent debt that I created in my mind for my parents immigrating and sacrificing everything. There was this pressure that I put on myself to be perfect.
With Dodo Bazaar, this is where I feel like I’m my true self. I’m not going to put myself in a box. I have all these ideas.
I’m going to do them whether you like it or not, whether people want to buy it or not, whether it’s for profit or not. It makes me happy and I know that in the long run, when you’re authentic, and you’re true to yourself, it’ll pay off. And I’m not just talking about monetary value, but about creating change and having an impact.
LD: I always want to speak about mental health. It’s something that we don’t necessarily talk about as entrepreneurs. Juggling all of these things and wearing all of these hats. I have to do shipping, then I need to do artistic direction, then I need to source but then I need to answer clients and I have to do social media. I’m a one-woman army.
It took a toll on me in 2021 and that’s why I kind of slowed down. I wasn’t offering new products with Dodo Bazaar and it took me maybe eight months [to work through it].
I had to pivot and fight to get to this point where I’m at now. We live in a society where you can always do more and more. Why are we putting this pressure on ourselves to execute and not feel our feelings or not do what we want to do in that moment or not be present?
LD: One thousand per cent. For me, it’s now about ensuring that I’m okay first, and then money and profit and artistic direction and shipping and all that will come after. I want to make myself and my mental health a priority as a business owner, because I’ve seen a lot of people crumble. I’ve seen a lot of burnouts. I’ve done a burnout. It taught me a lot, but it’s just not worth it.
LD: I worked in sustainability, so I learned a lot about the circular economy and circularity. I became really passionate about the concept. Right now, we live in a capitalist system.
But there is a way out — there is a way to reduce the effect of profit-making at the expense of people, of the planet, of a whole generation. It’s circularity. I feel like the 18 year olds, and Gen Z, are so aware of what’s happening to the planet and for me it’s truly inspiring, being a Millennial.
The typical waste reduction hierarchy model is reduce, reuse, recycle. But what happens is, society overconsumes. When there’s overconsumption, there’s overproduction, because we need to fulfill demands and needs. We have to satisfy customers for profit, but the direct product of that is waste.
The reduction of waste [is] also political — it’s not just in terms of money. These things are going to end up somewhere. They end up in developing countries. I saw it in Brazil at 21. I worked out of a favela called Jardin Gramacho, which was one of the largest landfills in the world. [Ed. note: The landfill closed in 2012 and has been reverted to a neighbourhood.]
I worked with kids mostly, and you realize that these kids are growing up in dirt and filth, and it’s not even theirs. [It] comes from Europe, it comes from North America. That is not okay. And people don’t even think of the implications. I’m not shaming fast fashion — I have stuff from Zara and H&M as well. But it’s about understanding the role we play.
This is the whole thing with upcycling and the circular economy, and also the things that we learned during the pandemic. Purchasing is power. Purchasing is political.
So, where are you placing your money? Where there’s more waste being created? To support a company that is blatantly racist? To support a company that is clearly homophobic and has no people from the queer community working for them?
Or are you thinking about your purchases? You have the power to put your money where your mouth is, where your values are, where you could actually create change. People always think, “I’m not gonna make a difference.”
LD: Voilà. If everybody thinks like that, we’re not going to get anywhere, right? But if everybody thinks in terms of, “Instead of buying this sweater at Zara, I’m going to pay $20 more and I’m going to support this local independent crochet artist. Oh, that means I’m going to be supporting a local woman-owned business. Oh, cool, she’s actually trans.” It is making a difference.
This is the whole thing with circularity. It’s no longer really about profit. It’s to educate people that purchasing is a power and that you have the possibility to create change.
LD: In the capitalist system, people of colour, for example, or anyone who makes money who is not a white man, enters at the bottom of the system. It creates a social divide. Whereas circularity is almost free of hierarchy right now.
I’m not saying it won’t be in the future — that is, if it becomes the future, because humans are so great at creating greed and spoiling stuff — but right now, there’s nothing that is attached to circularity that implies there’s a social hierarchy.
And that’s what’s really great about it. You could be a kid from a lower socioeconomic background, turn your mom’s old T-shirts into headbands, sell them at the park and make money. Anybody can do it.
Laëtitia Damonsing, Founder, Dodo Bazaar
This interview has been condensed and edited.