Michelle Smart founded the purse design company Bags to Butterflies to offer employment for formerly incarcerated women in Metro Detroit.
By Arianna Smith
Photography by Sylvia Jarrus
Michelle Smart has never been to prison, but she understands the plight of those who have.
“The daughter of a very good friend of mine, who has been like a sister to me since sixth grade, went to prison in 2014. She received a 7- to 15-year sentence,” Smart says. “She’s a wonderful woman, but she made a mistake. And now because of that mistake, when she comes home, she’s going to be severely behind the curve in terms of getting employment and trying to better herself.”
The situation her friend’s daughter faced was the catalyst for Smart’s idea to leave her job at Ford Motor Company and found Bags to Butterflies in 2015. The company offers employment opportunities for formerly incarcerated women to create stunning designs for one-of-a-kind handbags and fashion accessories.
“The biggest barrier for women coming home from being in prison is, undoubtedly, the employment struggle,” Smart says. “Not a lot of people want to hire them because of preconceived notions. I wanted to create an opportunity where women could have a place to be comfortable, creative, cared about and successful.”
Bags to Butterflies currently employs 10 women. The purses and clutches created by the women are crafted from discarded or donated re-purposed wood, leather and metal materials.
Each one is hand-painted and assembled with a unique pattern and style by a designer and sold for $75 on the company’s website and at retail locations, like ArtLoft Midtown, which recently hosted a Bags to Butterflies product line launch called “Hello Butterfly.”
“They use recycled wood because it speaks to the spirit behind the company,” says Rachel Adadevoh Woods, owner of ArtLoft on Cass Avenue in Detroit. “The materials might have been thrown out by society, but they still have value and beauty that’s worth showing off in the best way possible.”
Smart sometimes drives through Detroit in her car and searches vacant lots around the city, in high heels no less, for materials the women can use.
“Michelle is a real visionary and a caring woman,” says 66-year-old Tonya Carswell, one of the designers for Bags to Butterflies. “Everybody says, ‘Oh, we can help you,’ but it’s rare that they actually do.”
Carswell was incarcerated for 44 years. When she was released, she was referred to Bags to Butterflies by a friend who knew she was struggling with finding employment.
“This was the first kind of company that I had heard of that did things like this,” Carswell says, “with the focus on art, and with helping women like me. I was, and continue, to be so grateful for it.”
Carswell says the inspiration for her designs are largely helped by the free-flowing atmosphere of encouragement at Bags to Butterflies.
“The question we’re supposed to keep in our minds is, ‘What can I do?’ There’s really no set answer, and that’s the trick to it,” Carswell says. “Michelle gives us a lot of creative leeway, and we only have a few guidelines to stick to when we design. They come from our own thoughts, and the freedom is inspiring.”
Bags to Butterflies isn’t all about designing purses — the company also provides a “Pathways to Flight” service. The initiative is meant to help women return to society by giving them job and resume training, among other self-improvement help.
“We provide the women with self enhancement, first and foremost,” says Tanya Bankston, a life coach collaborator with Bags to Butterflies. “We help them learn from their mistakes in the past and show them how to make better decisions through positive life skills.”
Bankston says success in the program is ultimately up to the person, but the attention women are given is invaluable to the process.
“If I had to choose one word to describe Bags to Butterflies, it would be reinvention,” Bankston says. “That’s the theme. The materials are repurposed, as are the women. They can be something greater than anyone knew.”