In the glittery world of luxury, limited-edition pieces and bespoke items are now staple status symbols. Yet, as fierce fashionistas, the fabulous, and famous know, for that extra-extra in opulence, it’s all about personally customizing the most coveted of wares.
Few in the nation — if any — have honed in on that trend like Tara Martin, who launched her luxury hand-painted customization business, DTLAcustom, in 2015 out of sheer necessity.
Since then, the Los Angeles native and passionate Newstonian (she arrived last year) has become the customizer to the stars: her celebrity clients include Lady Gaga, Madonna, the Kardashians, Elton John, Gwyneth Paltrow (and her company, Goop), and John Mayer.
Through DTLAcustom, no customer item is off-limits — a $30,000, wait-listed Birkin purse, Louis Vuitton luggage, sneakers, boots, hats, even everyday housewares — can be hand painted with initials, personalized images (pets are a favorite), logos, catch phrases, alma maters, and more.
Business is booming: Martin, who has made Houston the headquarters for her company, boasts a local, statewide (Dallas and Austin count as big markets), national, and global reach.
Quick to avoid name dropping (especially with celebs) and with a (quite Houstonian) deflection of praise, Martin is quick to point out that this all started with a origin story that is perfectly screenplay-worthy, including a “bag-shaming” incident at Trader Joe’s and later, an inspired business plan quickly scribbled on napkins in Paris’ toniest bar. Très perfect, indeed.
Bags to riches
As is the case with so many successful entrepreneurs, Martin’s business origin story begins with pure need. The USC graduate (she studied international relations) worked in high-end women’s fashion, cultivating brands and learning every aspect of the industry. A random trip to an LA Trader Joe’s led to her being scolded for not bringing her own bags.
“No really, she yelled at me,” Martin laughs now, remembering the moment. Slightly embarrassed, Martin went on a search for tote bags with some style. Frustrated and finding none, she launched My Other Bag, a line of eco-friendly, hip totes, in 2011. In seemingly no time, My Other Bag could be found in 60 countries, with 15 showrooms across the globe.
Years later, Martin spotted a woman carrying a Louis Vuitton bag customized with stripes and initials with the inside dyed. “I saw that and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m gonna do that to my bag,’” Martin tells CultureMap. A friend informed her that the LV customization at the Beverly Hills store was not easy and could take 10 weeks — and included ordering a whole new bag from the brand.
That didn’t sit well with the serial entrepreneur. The avid global traveler soon found herself in Paris at Louis Vuitton’s headquarters — where she was again stymied. Her quick Google search for luxury customization yielded nothing (this was 2014, after all), so the industrious Martin was on a mission. “Everything business-wise that I have done has been born out of necessity,” she says.
Martin found herself furiously scribbling down the business plan for her new company on cocktail napkins at the swanky bar in Paris’ iconic George V hotel. She returned home to LA, where the business idea haunted her “for an entire year,” and launched DTLAcustom on January 1, 2015.
The personal touch
Customization is everywhere now, from Adidas and Nike kicks to Jimmy Choos. Not so in 2015, when Martin launched. “When I started, even I was scared,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘who just paints on a $30,000 Birkin bag?’ Even my artists were like, ‘what!?’”
Headaching the problem of delicately painting on exquisite — and wildly expensive — goods, Martin realized the best artists would be tattoo artists. But even her team of craftspeople were intimidated. Martin calmed the artists’ nerves by testing designs on all her Vuitton travel duffle and a Goyard purse. She posted the works on social media and they immediately sold.
Perhaps her most prized work is for the legendary Elton John. Louis Vuitton commissioned DTLAcustom to craft a hand-painted trunk for the Rocketman in honor of his 70th birthday, depicting him in full Los Angeles Dodgers gear in front of an adoring crowd at Dodgers Stadium.
DTLAcustom (which stands for Design Team LA) is flooded with requests for personalizing every manner of luxe and designer goods. The 10-artist shop in LA hand paints on every manner of clothing, shoe, and accessory, but also valet trays, pillows, ottomans, bar trays, decorative trunks, jewelry cases, cosmetic cases, hat boxes, mirrors, party favors, and champagne bottles.
Martin shepherds clients through the design for their preferred product, though she’s quick to point out that she’s not an artist herself. “When I hand a Post-It to my artists, they’re like, ‘what is this sketch?’” she laughs. “I run the business — thank God I have talented people who do the rest.”
Clients can choose from DTLAcustom’s impressive stable of renderings and options via Instagram or send photos or images they choose. Artists send back a mock-up to start the process, which can take an average of two to four weeks, depending on the type of work and the shop’s workload. Next-day items are available — for a rush fee, of course. Customers ship or messenger items in or order products online and send directly to DTLAcustom’s shop.
Prices start at around $250 for small items and can run beyond $7,500 for larger, more intricate and detailed work.
Aside from A-list stars and every day fashionistas, DTLAcustom has been swarmed with corporate requests — many of them cold calls. Herbalife regularly requests hundreds of items for their employees. Luxe brands such as Jimmy Choo, Vogue, Dolce & Gabbana, Marc Jacobs, Neiman Marcus, Stanley Korshak, Nordstrom, and Far Fetch, utilize her shop. Martin and DTLAcustom work glam affairs such as a Jimmy Choo and Vogue summer party in The Hamptons and a Vanity Fair Oscar party.
Live-painting luxe items, Martin notes, is especially hot — for luxe style houses luring choosy customers into stores for special events and private affairs. One generous personal client flew his teen daughter and her friends from New York to the Beverly Hills Hotel for a private, live customization of the lucky group’s Nike sneakers. (Dad of the year, indeed.)
Houston’s queen of custom
The exuberant and charismatic Martin is now taking the Bayou City by storm with her effortless elegance and a sincerity that seems far more Houstonian than typical Angeleno. Leaving pandemic-plagued New York last year, she recalls that while she enjoyed trips to Dallas and Austin, Houston “just felt right,” especially as she made friends. “When people here say they’re actually going to do something for you, they do it,” she says.
Not surprisingly, the queen of custom has wasted no time garnering top local partnerships. DTLAcustom’s hand-painted champagne bottles at Cotton Holding’s Cotton Ball were a hit, as were the customized cowboy boots she presented to the CEO, which boasted images of his alma mater, fraternity, and more. Martin has teamed with Zadok Jewelers and the McNair family, who personalized 28 pairs of Alexander McQueen sneakers for a summer wedding. DTLAcustom’s planned decorative work with Cityboots is sure to be a hit for rodeo season.
The next level of luxury
“When you get that client who has everything, this is the next level of luxury," says Martin. That’s how I’ve always seen it.”
So, what’s the hottest luxe customization this year? Easy, says Martin: dogs. She jokes that her business is now a “dog art studio.” Clients can’t wait to splash their fur baby’s face on their luxe goods. (Who wouldn’t want their smiling Golden Retrieiver’s face on a clutch or portfolio?) Monogramming and striping is also big, as is highlighting certain brand logos and making them especially pop.
Custom sneakers are also all the rage and definitely “having their moment,” says Martin, creating an intersection where “luxury meets street.” A surprise market is men, who are thrilled to tailor gifts for their wives and daughters, but also happy to trick out their own boots, wallets, briefcases, golf gear, and more.
Like any good business owner, Martin won’t decline any customization order — even if it’s not a normal service. DTLAcustom has worked on bike helmets, headphones, mirrors, and bedroom walls.
Her dream custom job? “An airplane,” she gleefully answers without missing a beat. “I will totally trick out your airplane — or your yacht. I have so many renderings, maybe Houston is the place.”
A yacht certainly sounds right up one Tilman Feritta’s alley. Perhaps a custom Landry’s superboat? “Yes,” Martin exclaims, the ideas clearly churning. “Tilman, call me!’”
While working with Houston’s Billionaire Buyer seems almost fated at this point — given her who’s-who list of customers and her effortless ability to mingle with Houston’s elite — the tight-lipped Martin won’t reveal the hordes of partnerships already in the works this fall, both local and national.
Speaking of fall: Gala season is nearly here — offering a perfect customizing opportunity for those looks and accessories. Then comes arguably her busiest season, the holidays. A new year brings an opportunity for Houstonians to create a one-of-a-kind look for rodeo season, with custom hats, boots, and even saddles. Nothing is too over-the-top, Martin reminds.
“I love what I do,” Martin says with what could be described as a gleam of Houston can-do zeal. “I love art, I love fashion, I love luxury — in all facets of my life. And I really love it here.”
The feeling, it would seem, is mutual.