by Elizabeth Coady
No bland black fanny pack will do when your aura is as fabulous as that of Mercedes Dennis. The 43-year-old long-time employee of Chestnut Hill’s Kitchen Kapers is also a part-time hair stylist and the designer of her own line of fanny packs that she sells on Instagram.
But these are not your mother’s fanny packs, and Dennis is not your ordinary seamstress. Rather than the typical boring black of most fanny packs, the Germantown native produces the functional bags with a dazzling array of fabrics ranging from eye-catching African patterns to three-dimensional sequins — all made with the intent to steal your gaze.
“I’ve been making fanny packs, just playing around with them, before I even went to fashion school,” said Dennis, who attended The Art Institute of Philadelphia for fashion design. “I think that they’re so function-able. But I didn’t want the same old traditional looking fanny pack. I wanted it to look fun where you could dress it up, dress it down.”
She succeeds wildly. The zipper-enclosed bags, designed to be tied around the hips or across the shoulder, shine with originality and panache, two adjectives than can be as easily applied to Dennis, whose own fashion sense is what the kids call “popping.”
“This is hot. You are so freaking talented,” gushed a fan about one of her latest designs posted on Instagram, a green sequined heart-shaped bag with patterned ribbon tie.
“LOVEEEEEEEEE I MUST MUST HAVE THIS!,” shrieked another Instagram customer.
With her fashion-forward styling, a bright energy emanates around Dennis, despite growing up orphaned by the early death of her mother and losing a brother in 2016 to brain cancer. She says her mother enrolled her and her twin brothers at Girard College before she died of stomach cancer when Dennis was just seven years old.
Losing her mom at an early age made her stronger, she said. “I’m learning that when I talk, I have a story,” said Dennis, who is married and has a 23-year-old son she raised as a single mom. “I encourage other people. I like to see other people happy. It’s just part of me.”
Making the bags has become an integral part of that story. “Sewing is my life!,” she said. “It’s what keeps me happy because it’s a tangible thing that not only keeps me happy, but it also keeps other people happy. They’re made with love.”
Here’s how it works: Dennis visits area fabric stores to find unique and fun fabrics, makes a prototype bag at a sewing machine in her dining room, then posts the finished product to her 1,900 followers on her Instagram page at @MeDesignsMMD. Then the orders pour in through direct messages to her on the site.
“Most people still want it like ‘Insta-gram.’ They want to see it, and they instantly want it,” she said. Dennis tried selling the bags on a Big Cartel page but found that the immediacy and connectivity of Instagram worked better.
A lot of her sales come from customers who tell her, “I saw my friend walking down the street with it, and I want it, like, today. And can you meet me at Walmart?”
Each fanny pack is custom-made to order with some qualifying as “one of a kind.” The bags made with ribbon belts sell for $48 while the ones with chains go for $60. She calls the heart-shaped designs “Latoya” and the rectangular ones “Liberty.” So far the costs to her to make the bags outweigh the benefit of selling them wholesale, so she’s sticking with Instagram. And the bags.
The bags comprise a major portion of her income, which also comes from styling hair and working at Kitchen Kapers, a kitchen accessory shop at 8530 Germantown Ave. But she admits she doesn’t keep an accounting of how much she sells.
“It’s my passion,” she said of the bags. “When I’m down, it’s what brings me back up. So even when I’m having a bad day and I want to quit, I’m like, ‘Make a fanny pack because not only is it going to make you feel good, but once you give it to someone else, it’ll make them feel good, too.’”
You can visit Mercedes Dennis’ Instagram page for MeDesignsMMD and check out her bags on Instagram @MedesignsMmd