To celebrate pride month, Dina Baxevanakis discusses the values that drive Shop Velanidi and reflects on her small business journey.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PRIDE
During pride month, it’s important that we acknowledge, educate, and spread awareness of the struggles—both past and present—that the LGBTQ2S+ community faces, while also celebrating the beauty and rich history that this group holds. Today, queer empowerment and “pride” coincides with our freedom of self expression, specifically through our clothing or style. Visibility is integral to the LGBTQ2S+ experience, and I am incredibly honoured that the earrings that I sell through my shop have been embraced by this community.
I draw a lot of inspiration from queer art, whether it be drag, musicians, or other visual artists/makers. The vibrancy and eccentricity of the queer experience is so beautiful, and I try to harness that light with my work. Amid the systemic struggles the LGBTQ2S+ community faces, Pride celebrations show people celebrating, connecting, and spreading happiness and awareness. These extremes—having the grit and tenacity to fight oppression and the loving openness to celebrate our differences joyfully—exist side by side, and both are necessary.
A BRAND WITH PURPOSE
Shop Velanidi is a handmade jewelry business that specializes in creating what we lovingly refer to as “lesbian earrings.” This type of accessory— which I think of as anything wacky or Ms. Frizzle-esque—has gained popularity on social media, as more people feel comfortable expressing their authentic selves. Gone are the days where everyone is forced into one boring box in terms of style and interests.
After my grandfather passed away, I started wearing exclusively colourful clothes. I associated dark colours with mourning—and my grandfather had hated my past emo style. This change was the beginning of my obsession with eccentric fashion and Shop Velanidi is a tribute to my grandfather’s creative spirit—he would collect acorns and turn them into charms to give to me and my brother. “Velanidi” is actually Greek for “acorn.” I know my grandfather would be very proud to see the earrings I make now, and the support they’ve gained. People all around the world send me messages about how they make them feel confident, and how they’ve made friends with people that compliment them. Building a community and connecting with different people is central to my brand, and being able to create wearable art that brings people together is my ultimate goal.
I often ask my family if they ever envisioned me being the owner of my own art-based small business, to which they respond “…actually, yes.” I think they mean that they always foresaw me doing something creative in my career, but even I can’t say I envisioned my career being selling silly little food earrings online, especially not when the pandemic hit.
STARTING A SMALL BUSINESS DURING A PANDEMIC
Graduating from university with a Bachelor of Design would have been daunting enough as it was, never mind the fact that I would have had to find my way in an industry that still hasn’t fully addressed its own outdated and exclusionary practices. Graduating in the middle of a pandemic was downright scary. I thought, “who cares about pretty pictures when people are getting sick and businesses are closing down?” I had no direction or plan, no matter how many lists and mind maps I made in my journal. That’s when I started to play with polymer clay as a way to pass the time and release some creative energy. Thankfully I discovered whilst navigating lockdown that, despite my anxieties, the arts had become more important than ever to everyone’s mental wellbeing and for connecting with others. So I focused all of my energy into Shop Velanidi (mainly anxious energy, but it was an effective distraction nonetheless). And the rest is history!
SMALL BUSINESS ADVICE
The biggest piece of advice I can give anyone wanting to start a small business is to have patience and confidence. Soon after starting Shop Velanidi, I created an Instagram and TikTok page for the shop, and began posting, sharing, and experimenting. I had no idea how to make video content, and even now I hate taking product photos (despite both being essential when building a social media platform). It took a lot of trial and error, but I eventually defined my brand identity: primary colours, fruits, vibrant product photos, and earrings that any art teacher would wear. It was a slow process, but when I posted a video making my orange bag earrings on TikTok, it eventually went viral. However, even with this idea (which I always thought was pretty cool and unique) it took a while to gain any substantial attention.
There will be many frustrating obstacles, like battling the algorithm, the learning curve that comes with making content, and the ever-present imposter syndrome. You need to believe in yourself and your work, and eventually others will join the hype you’ve created for yourself. On top of making appealing content, it needs to be consistent! To this day I’m trying to avoid burnout, and developing my own schedule that includes breaks and self care. It is a long and uncertain journey, but I cannot express how rewarding it is. I have met so many incredible people through Velanidi, online and in person. There are customers that have growing collections of Velanidi pieces, and people that wear the earrings daily. I now have my earrings available in physical shops, have sold at local markets, and have had the pleasure of meeting my amazing supporters in real life.
Almost all of my knowledge of business and general art making has come from the Internet. I’ve watched countless YouTube tutorials, read blogs about clay, and asked other makers for advice. I believe in “community over competition,” and I think most business owners in my area believe the same. However, I do encourage you to support the maker that you’re asking for advice, whether it be buying their work, or interacting on social media. Barging into someone’s DMs demanding advice without even a “hello” can feel as if you’re taking advantage of the artist (even if this is not your intention). Community means we should all help each other, but that does not mean that anyone “owes” you the knowledge and skills they’ve cultivated over many years.
I’m often asked how I managed the transition from making art for fun to making art as a main source of income, and if it has ruined the fun of it. Admittedly, I do get very stressed about the business, whether it be about shipping, customer service, or making enough product. It’s no longer something I do to unwind, and differentiating between work and relaxation time is difficult. However, I don’t MIND being stressed about the shop, because I love it so much. This is my absolute dream, but even a dream isn’t smooth sailing all the time!
SUPPORTING SELF EXPRESSION AND THE LGBTQ2S+ COMMUNITY
As someone who identifies as part of the queer community, and whose customer base is mainly made up of it, the importance of this month is not lost upon me. It is important to me that people feel safe and welcomed when they stumble upon my shop, and I try to make it clear that it is an inclusive space, regardless of race, sexuality, identity, or ability.
Being able to dress and present yourself as openly queer is not safe or accessible for everyone, and should not be taken for granted. People of colour, especially Black trans women, face violence every day for dressing as their true selves; their contributions to queer history should not go unnoticed. Just because today it seems acceptable for some people to dress openly queer (or against the binary) and not face any repercussions, does not mean true liberation and freedom has been reached. I feel extremely privileged to be able to express myself as eccentrically as I do, and I am humbled that I can help provide resources for others to do the same.
For the month of June, I have created special pride produce bag earrings, with fruits corresponding to the colours of the rainbow. A portion of the proceeds from these earrings will be donated to Friends of Ruby, a local Toronto organization that provides free resources to LGBTQ2S+ youth.
I encourage you to seek out queer small businesses this month—and always— to show your support for the message of Pride!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dina Baxevanakis is the owner and maker of Shop Velanidi, a Toronto-based handmade jewelry business. She is inspired by anything colourful, quirky, and cute, which is reflected in her playful earrings. When she is not creating tiny clay foods, she is listening to emo nostalgia music, watching pro wrestling, or snuggling with her bunny/studio assistant, Rocky.
Learn more about Dina and Shop Velanidi at https://msha.ke/shopvelanidi/ and @shopvelanidi.