Environmental stewardship meets high fashion: The one-of-a-kind designs of Norton and Hodges
By Emily Havener
Suzette Bussey, founder of Norton and Hodges luxury accessories purveyor, shows off her Singita tote in indigo alligator and zebra, made in Savannah, Georgia. Norton and Hodges was an exhibitor at Paris Design Week 2021. Image provided.
You’ve never met a designer like Suzette Bussey.
She’s had no formal training. She’s a lifelong hunter. And she honeymooned in Namibia, where the inspiration for her sustainable luxury accessories line was born. Most recently her 2022 spring collection was featured in Paris Design Week.
Suzette grew up outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she hunted with her father. “We were always around guns and my dad showed us how to responsibly use them. I started hunting pheasant with my dad and always enjoyed it. It’s an important part knowing where your food comes from and being connected to nature.” She was recruited to play softball for Charleston Southern in 1995 and ended up staying in the South. “Charleston just felt like home,” she said. “It’s a great place to connect with people. Being a port city it keeps interesting people coming here. I feel very lucky.”
In 2011, she married her husband, Ben, and he took her to Namibia, Botswana and South Africa for their honeymoon. Ben’s uncle had purchased a cattle ranch and spent years transforming it into a nature preserve. “He released native and endangered species there and they thrived. It’s a little oasis tucked into the Otavi Mountains.” He developed a high-protein feed from the invasive acacia bush that would help animals survive droughts.
“Africa just grabs you,” Suzette said, echoing the sentiment of generations of naturalists and travelers. “There’s this incredible connection to the land and the animals. I was so moved by the experience that I wanted to have that feeling with me all the time. That’s how the brand started — how do I capture this experience, this feeling?
Statement pieces from Norton and Hodges including the Sylvie Crocodile Pendant and the Ebony Bracelet from West Africa.
“What you eat over there is zebra, giraffe, native species, and they don’t throw anything away, so there was this shed full of animal hides.” She designed her first purse made out of zebra skin and went to a leather store for help. “I didn’t know how to sew leather; all I had was this sketch and these beautiful materials.” The result was a purse, a “wearable piece of art” that was a conversation starter to let people know about her incredible experience. She took some designs to the Dallas Safari Club and made her first sale. The next several years were spent operating as a hobby. By 2018, Suzette decided she was obsessed and made the transition to a full-time business.
She named the company Norton and Hodges after her Grammy Norton and Ben’s grandmother Ruby Hodges. “My grandmother was always very artistic and was a big reason I pursued art at all, and Ben’s grandmother was always extremely stylish. We have a picture of her in a grand hat and fur coat. They were two huge influences on us.” Some of the one-of-a-kind products Norton and Hodges offers are a vintage fox fur collar, crocodile-toe boots and a four-knot safari bracelet in silver or 14-karat gold. Silk scarves, jewelry and hats and handbags featuring lynx, zebra, springbok, and of course, zebra, round out the collection.
“I see how I can make a difference. You can bury these products in the ground, and they are not going to release any microplastics. I know that there are consequences to what I put out there. If you watch nature, everything has a purpose and an effect on everything else, so it’s my responsibility to understand the life cycle of my products. Using natural leathers and making sure the tanneries aren’t poisoning the waters is really important. I know that if someone threw out my purse it would eventually turn back into natural materials.”
She learned about the agricultural term “permaculture,” a holistic, closed-loop integration of land, resources and people that mimics the no-waste system of nature, and has been applying it to Norton and Hodges. When she does use non-biodegradable materials, such as Riptech canvas, which is used in safari tents that need to withstand the elements, her intention is to create heirloom pieces that will be handed down throughout generations — such as her Bush Blanket. She also upcycles vintage furs. “We reimagine them as collars, earmuffs. And I do custom work. If you have your grandmother’s fur and it’s sentimental but you won’t wear it, let’s make it into something you will wear, so you have that memory and that feeling.
Ground zero for Norton and Hodges: Suzette on her honeymoon in Tambuti Wilderness of Namibia.
“We use a lot of random stuff. We just bought a vintage ocelot coat. It’s all under the umbrella of making something beautiful and useful again, not creating something from the beginning. And when women feel beautiful and more confident, that helps the larger community too. When someone puts on a collar or a purse and they just light up, that’s important because that will impact their day and how they go about things. My general philosophy is that happy, satisfied people don’t hurt other people.”
This is also borne out in the artisans and suppliers she works with. “I try to work with 80 percent female-owned or -led artisans. Women need as many opportunities as we can give them.” She works with a team of female artisans in Savannah, Georgia, and with family farms in Texas, South Africa and Namibia. “I rely on people who have a passion for their skill. It’s important for me to have relationships with all my artisans or at least the people leading them so I know what’s going on. It’s about the people, from the artisans to the customers. A purse is just not a purse; a person has to make it and wear it.”
Finding inspiration in suffering
Although Suzette has always painted and sculpted, she has no formal background in fashion, and most of her inspiration for new designs comes from instinct. “I really try to create a feeling or an experience,” she said. In 2020 she ended a successful round of chemotherapy and surgery for breast cancer. “The first line I developed after that I wanted to be all about light and luminescence.”
A friend who had also been through treatment had told her, “This is a mental game; the strength of your mindset will equal your results.” Being a hunter and outdoorswoman, she pictured Diana, the goddess of the hunt, fighting her cancer during chemotherapy treatments. “I got the good news there was no cancer when they went into surgery in March 2020,” she said. “After that experience, which was so heavy and dark, it was this moment of coming out into the light. I could exhale just a little bit — not 100 percent because you still don’t know what’s going to happen, but I had the best possible outcome.”
That moment reminded her of the first light of dawn over the ridge in Africa, and many of her spring 2022 pieces were born out of this inspiration. “We developed the Artemis necklace, which I can’t keep in stock, made of two warthog teeth and this beautiful bone jewelry that the Himba women in Namibia make. When I wore it, it felt almost like armor. It was about picturing this warrior coming out of the darkness into the light.”
The Artemis Necklace.
She says nature is her number-one inspiration. Recently she’s been experimenting with indigo grown by Ellie Davis, a South Carolina farmer we featured in July 2021. “The indigo color I really was inspired by because you see these dark blue-purples in the first moments before sunrise in Namibia. Those colors are seared into my brain. I wanted to tie these two worlds together, Africa and the Lowcountry, something we can do sustainably instead of using fake dyes. There’s so much behind the story of indigo, so many layers — how do we turn it into something farmers can make money off of and change the history of that plant? So we’re still developing it.”
She added, “Not everyone can get to Africa or experience it the way I did. If I can tell that story, there’s a chance I can get them to understand why it’s so important that we focus on conservation and on preserving the land and culture of places they might never go to. And it also applies at home.”
She’s always learning new things in pursuit of sustainability. “We’ve been toying with the idea of buying back a product when someone is finished with it, redesigning it for them or reusing the materials. You see a lot of issues with fashion waste. It blows my mind. Massive mounds of things that will not disintegrate for 400 years and then degrade into microplastics and are tainting the food system.
“It’s really trying to understand how I operate within my values in a holistic way that makes sense not only from a business aspect. I want to be able to say that I operated in a way that I was proud of.”
Norton and Hodges will present the Birds of a Feather Ladies Brunch event at SEWE 2022 on February 19 from 10-2 at the Hotel Emmeline. Proceeds directly support Rhino Momma Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting and regrowing the rhino population. Norton and Hodges accessories will be exhibited for sale at Charleston Place during the SEWE festival.