INTERVIEW: KESTREL JENKINS (AWEAR WORLD/CONSCIOUS CHATTER)

I met Kestrel at an event in NY in 2011. She was working as editor for ethical fashion blog, Ecouterre. She's been around the ethical fashion block, is super knowledgeable, and passionate about conscious consumerism and the impact of global fashion inustry. She is founder AWEAR World,  a platform that inspires us to think about where our clothes are made and community of mindful consumers and change makers. Her podcast,  Conscious Chatter is great and I see from Insta she has a new project up her sleeve. Here's what she has to say about that...

"There are so many brands doing inspiring things today, and I have had the opportunity to watch a lot of that evolution. But this has also helped me realize that as much as I grapple with the question of bringing another "product" into the world, I believe we need more conscious options. My business parter Holly and I are in the process of building a product that doesn't compromise on fit or quality, style or ethics. For more on this project, and to watch our development, you can check out LEFT EDIT"

It's ALL about marketing. I know it's really important to let products speak for themselves without relying too much on story telling or risk of exploiting the producers BUT the artisan sector has become a crowded space and it's important to tell your story in order to differentiate your brand and build community. Can you touch on this in general?
I know many have been saying this for years, but I am still a firm believer in the fact that the product has to speak above the conscious chatter. The product needs to be built on quality and aesthetic, and it needs to be functional. If I buy something "ethical" and then never wear it, what's the point? So, for me - the product comes first. Now, when it comes to telling the story, I think this is equally as important, but it's not the #1 link to the consumer. We love understanding the "lifestyle" behind a brand, or the people behind the company or the curation of a brand's look. I find that these pillars are key to reaching a broader audience, which is something that is always on my mind - how do we bring more people into the sustainable fashion conversation faster? 

You've been involved in ethical fashion for a long time. What the different sub-groups of ethical clothing? Which do you think are currently the most prominent?
Honestly, I think there are so many sub-groups to ethical clothing today. The reality is there are so many "layers" behind the garment supply chain, and the "sub-groups" of ethical fashion today are a clear reflection of this complicated system.  Today, you could shop for: organic, made in USA, fair trade, naturally-dyed pieces, styles made from recycled materials, upcycled/repurposed garments, handmade, vegan, products with a transparent supply chain, and more. When it comes to prominence, I feel like the most utilized words to describe it is "sustainable" - which is exceptionally broad, and doesn't necessarily pain a clear picture. But, it's becoming a larger part of the mainstream conversation, and that's powerful to me.  Also, I think with the help of bigger publications and documentaries like The True Cost, consumers are a lot more tuned into the idea of "fast fashion".

Loom to Luxury via Awear Instagram

Loom to Luxury via Awear Instagram

Do you think the general consumer is interested in knowing the impact of their purchases? 
I think the general consumer wants to look good. They want what they buy to make them feel good, and they want to emit a specific look - a part of their personality - when they wear something. At the same time, the millennial shopper wants to also support brands and products that they believe in. So, when something looks good and also has a rad story behind it, they're even further inclined to get onboard. I truly believe that people crave connect with other people that live in an entirely different place in the world, who have an entirely different way of life. When someone realizes that what they are buying could help support someone in a community across the world, as cliche as it sounds, it inevitably strikes a heart chord. Now, exploiting this natural human response is where it gets tricky from my perspective. There is a fine and tricky line between telling the story, empowering the producers, and stroking the ego of the shopper.

What kind of products would you like to see more of?  Which products are you tired of?
It may seem ridiculous, but I still search for staple pieces. I tend to be the shopper who buys outlandish, random, crazy, print-centric pieces on the regular. At the same time, I am always wishing for more basics that can be mixed, matched and layered. I think there are too many brands in the ethical space that are trying to say something in an over-the-top way, whereas to appeal to more people and bring more people in, I feel like the industry needs classic pieces that can be worn by multiple age groups and body types. Pieces that make you feel good when you put them on, and pieces that fit exceptionally well

Do you think there should be a distinction between artisan made and ethical factory production? 
I absolutely think these are 2 completely different stories to tell. One involves connecting to a craft that has a history associated with it; it involved cultural preservation and the future of global art. The other is more reflective of the push to shift the health, safety, and livelihood standards of factory manufacturing.

Mara Hoffman featured on Kestrel's podcast, Conscious Chatter

Mara Hoffman featured on Kestrel's podcast, Conscious Chatter

Can 100% handmade, artisan produced collections compete with factory produced clothing and accessories given the supply chain and pricing parameters (capacity caps and fair wages)?
Honestly, because of brands like Soko, I think they absolutely can. There are ways to build virtual supply chains today, and this can open the door to competition with larger producing factories. Also, while I think it's not going to happen tomorrow, the movement for quality over quantity has begun. We have the minimalist rage where people are reducing what they have, and we have a lot of people who are sick of their garments falling apart after 1 or 2 wears. Consumers are part of this shift, and while we have a long way to go, they are voting with their dollars more than ever today.

Who are some of your favorite ethical fashion brands? 
In all reality, the majority of my shopping is secondhand / thrifted. I also can't help but go to Reformation when I need something funky or fancy. I'm a massive fan of Tradlands, and their menswear-inspired shirting for women. Also, I am swooning over your new Kingston stripe; I'm going to have to bring one of those new pieces into my wardrobe.

INTERVIEW: HARPER POE (OWNER/PROUD MARY)

Dye yard in Bamako

Dye yard in Bamako

Proud Mary is a lifestyle brand owned and operated by textile enthusiast, Harper Poe. Proud Mary collaborates with artisans around the world to construct a beautiful collection of clothing and home accessories using handcrafted textiles. Harper’s knowledge about the artisan sector has allowed her to create a sustainable business for herself and her artisan partners, while among her abundant passions, first and foremost is keeping this growing industry authentic. (All words by Dain Silvestri)

Backstrap weaving wool for Proud Mary's AW16 clutches in Chiapas, Mexico

Backstrap weaving wool for Proud Mary's AW16 clutches in Chiapas, Mexico

For new followers, how would you explain the work that you do? What do you want people to know about you and your work?                                                                                                                                   
I would say that I am the owner/designer of a lifestyle brand started in 2008 and made in collaboration with artisans in Latin America and Africa. Our collection consists of clothing, shoes, accessories, and home goods… 75% designed by us and made by our artisan partners and the remaining 25% picked up in markets during our travels. I want people to know that I'm extremely passionate about the artisan sector and want to see more artisans grow to the point where they are export ready.

What are some things in the business that you are passionate about?
As more and more businesses enter into the artisan sector I see a lot of buzz words being thrown around just as a marketing tool. I am really passionate about being as transparent and authentic as possible because we are working with humans. I want to tell the correct story, not overly tell a story, or leave things out. I don't want to be the police but I think the consumer has a right to know what these products are, where they originate, who makes them, and what the true cost is.

Preview Image from Proud Mary's SS17 collection!

Preview Image from Proud Mary's SS17 collection!

Explain the style of Proud Mary and how you learned about different styles and techniques.                                                                                                                                             
I think the Proud Mary aesthetic has always been a simple, pared down version of ethnic handmade. I call it "ethnic-modern". By understanding in depth the techniques and available materials we can strip down the sometimes overly complicated traditional designs to something clean, simple, and modern. I've totally learned by observing in the different countries where Proud Mary works. I have no training, but have learned along the way the various techniques and weaving styles and what is possible when developing a handcrafted textile based collection.

Where are some of your favorite places and memories from the last 9 years?                                       
My favorite place is Mali. The people, smells, textiles, color, and dry desert is magical. I've only been able to go once but it's stuck with me and I still work there. My favorite memories are sourcing/product development trips. Being around people from other cultures and backgrounds speaking different languages feels so right to me. I love being immersed in diversity.

Harper with Boubacar Doumbia at Ndomo in Segou, Mali

Harper with Boubacar Doumbia at Ndomo in Segou, Mali

How do you start a new project and what are you drawn to when finding places and people to work with?                                                                                                                                                     
Sometimes things fall in my lap and sometimes I seek out groups that are working in certain geographic areas I am interested in or are working with certain techniques that I am interested in exploring. I do a lot of research about traditional textiles and craft and the origin of techniques and materials so I can go as direct to the source as possible. For example I would only work with mud cloth producers in Mali as that is where mud cloth originates from. I have producers come to me or I have reached out to non-profits and NGO's working on the ground to connect me with artisans. I tend to want to work with artisans that are not export ready… the potential is there but they need some hand holding to get to the point where they are capable of producing quality goods on time for export. It can be risky and a lot of work but when the projects take off it's so rewarding!

What are your goals for artisan partners when doing business with them?                                    
To create something together that my customers will get really excited about and to create long lasting partnerships with our artisan partners. We don't want to just work with an artisan group for one season. It takes time to learn other's work styles and it takes ample resources to start a new project, on both ends, so it makes the most sense to invest in the long game.

Raffia workshop in Essaouira, Morocco

Raffia workshop in Essaouira, Morocco

Explain your company motto "pride not pity".                                                                               
Using the business of handicrafts as a tool to alleviate poverty and grant greater opportunities for the artisans we are working with. They make beautiful things and we want to share and celebrate those things to help them advance. 

How did you come up with the name Proud Mary?                                                                                                              
I started Proud Mary with my friend Molly when I was living in NY.  Her first name is Mary as is mine so we knew we wanted Mary to be in the name somehow.  Also, Mary is a strong female name in most cultures so it works on different levels.

Name a few brands working in collaboration with global artisans that you admire and why.
Heather Taylor Home, she produce her line of handwoven table linens, home decor, and accessories in collaboration with artisans in Chiapas, Mexico.  I really admire that she let's the products speak for themselves and doesn't over do it talking about the artisans and their situation.   Tigra Tigra is a new'ish clothing line that collaborates with artisans in India, South Africa, and Namibia.  I'm obsessed with this line, it's such a breath of fresh air.

Herder boys in Lesotho

Herder boys in Lesotho

Where has been your favorite place to travel and where are you dying to go? (because let's be honest we do this in part so we can see the world!)
So far Mali has been my favorite country I've visited. I'm dying to go on a surf/yoga retreat in Sri Lanka, textile hunting in Laos/Cambodia, and a hike around Patagonia.

COUNTRY PROFILE: JESS BERCOVICI'S GUATEMALA

stela 9_1.png

For our first country profile we turned to have Jess Bercovici; archaelogist turned ethical fashion designer, Angelino turned Antigua resident and overall inspiring lady share her passion for her adopted country, Guatemala. If you don't know her brand Stela 9 check it out here.  If you're into the business of craft, at the end we talk about her recent decision to switch to a direct to consumer sales model. So admire this approach, thanks for opening up about your business Jess!

What makes Guatemala so special?
Guatemala is an insanely diverse and vibrant country. Its people are ranked amongst the happiest in the world and its geography boasts microclimates of tropical coasts, humid lowland jungles and ruggest volcanic peaks. This is why, while banana plantations clutter the coasts; there are also pockets of wool production in the highlands of Totonicapan amongst pine trees and cold mountain temperatures.

This region is also quite famous for the hundreds of Mayan and other pre-Columbian ruins that lie beneath the surface. A few have been uncovered and reconstructed, like Tikal but many are yet to be unearthed.

One of the special things about Guatemala is that most indigenous communities still wear their traje. While mostly women wear their huipil (back-strap loomed textile blouse) and corte (foot-loomed textile skirt), there are still a few places where the men represent their dress (which is typically a loose fitting collared work shirt and pants with cinched in belts). The traje each person dons is indicative to where they’re from. So for example if a woman is wearing a huipil with purple and white stripes with birds embroidered into the neckline, 99 times out of a 100, she’s from Santiago de Atitlan.

Which handicrafts are prevelant in Guatemala?
Handicrafts that thrive in Guatemala are carpentry, wood working (masks), weaving (both backstrap and footloom), leather work, and pottery. 

Backstrap loom weaving

Backstrap loom weaving

Which textile techniques/raw materials are available and used in Guatemala?
Natural fibers like cotton and wool are the most commonly used threads in weaving. Acrylic threads were introduced to the country in the late 20th century and have taken over much of the marketplace because of their low cost.  Fortunately, there has been a strong resurgence and focus on working with natural dyes over the past few decades, especially in San Juan de Atitlan.

Traditionally men operate the foot-loom while women weave on the backstrap loom. This is because the backstrap is more mobile and one can watch over a household and weave from any location that has a place to hang the loom. The footloom on the other hand is very large and location specific.

Can you give an overview of the indigenous population and how they are affected by the handicrafts industry?
60% of Guatemala’s population is made up of indigenous people, which is more than 6 million people. In addition to that, there are 25+ different indigenous populations within that grouping and 25+ different dialects of indigenous language.
 
Because of the extreme unequal distribution of wealth in Guatemala more than 75% of the population lives below the population line and as I’m sure you guessed, 60% of that is the indigenous population. For the most part, living below the poverty line in Guatemala simply means that they live in a more rural environment and have communities that are more self-sufficient. However, these people do not have access to the same education that an individual from a more urban area would have. This applies to health-care and clean drinking water as well. There is a stronger focus on crafts because they are learned traditions passed on through generations. Weaving thrives in these small, rural communities. For as long as there is a market and general interest in the production of crafts, there will be work for these individuals and these incredible forms of art will continue to be preserved. In an idealistic world, it would be wonderful to get to a point where the communities have access to higher education and also continue to pass on these crafts. According to recent statistics, the indigenous participation in Guatemala’s economy is at a 62% output. Most of this relates directly to the craft sector.

Market

Market

Craft Markets: Where and what can you find?
Antigua
The Antigua market is mostly condensed to the west side of town, near the bus station. It is picturesque little storefronts amongst multiple courtyards and fountains. You can find vintage textiles, jade jewelry and woodwork. Most of these shop owners are simply that. They are not artisans and they resell these products (this is why many of them have set prices and are a little more difficult to haggle with). There are a few people that really stand out here. Amongst them are Dona Petronela and her niece, Gladys who own two booths side by side that are covered in huipil (you’ll know it when you see it). They are collectors and have an incredible wealth of knowledge about their products. They won’t sell you the cheapest huipil, but it will probably be the most beautiful and highest quality one you’ll find on your whole trip.
 
Lake Atitlan
I like to think of the Panajachel market as Antigua’s hippie sister. Most storefronts are along Calle Santander and wind through little alleyways. There is definitely more variety and it’s easier to haggle (which doesn’t always make it right – when buying textiles think about the time and value of the item through your own eyes before trying to get the price down). I also think that the artisans are a little more innovative at the lake and most things that are made in the Solola region make their way down to the Pana market.
 
The Santa Catarina Palopo market is small, but if you adore textiles, it’s definitely worth visiting. Most sell textiles from their village, including the incredibly intricate men’s pants.
 
The Santiago market is known for its paintings. The naïve style is famous around the lake, and these oil paintings make up most of the stalls. There are also tons of textiles and woodwork. If you have time, make sure to pay homage to Maximon (the patron saint of debauchery). A local kid will show you were he’s currently housed for around $3 USD.
 
Chichicastenago
If the Pana market is Antigua’s hippie sister, then Chichi is their Great Aunt who has spent her lifetime traveling and collecting the most beautiful pieces of ancient jade and textiles. It is the largest artisan market in all of Central America and a must if you’re after something truly special.
 

Food/Drink: Traditional dishes and/or drinks and a few favorite spots!
Guatemala is famous for its caldos which are basically stews. My favorite of these actually comes from the Caribbean coast and is called Tapado. It’s a coconut and tomato based seafood soup with plantains, crab, shrimp, fish (usually a whole one) and conch or snail.
Ceviche is pretty huge here as well, but very different to Peruvian ceviche. Guatemalan ceviche is usually a hangover cure and for the most part, sold out of an ice chest in the back of a pickup truck on the weekends. It’s covered in salsa inglesa (Worcestershire sauce) and ketchup. Almost always paired with a picosita, which is a spicy beer in a can that you must take a few sips out of before it’s made so that they can pour lime juice, onions, peppers, soy sauce and more salsa inglesa into. If that doesn’t sounds like something you’re after, Guatemala is also known for it’s delicious coffee and limonada con sodas (lemonade made with sparkling water).

Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan

Non artisan, crafts, textile activity; hiking? coffee tours? jungle? yoga retreats?  
You could spend months in Guatemala and not enjoy all of the beautiful things this country has to offer. If you only have a short time, Semuc Champey, Tikal, Lake Atitlan and Antigua must be on your list.
 
Quetzal Trekkers is a wonderful NGO based out of Xela that organizes treks around the country.  They use funds generated from their hikes to go back to educational systems here in Guatemala and work directly with a few school.
http://www.quetzaltrekkers.com/xela/
 
The Yoga Forest in San Marcos de Atitlan is one of the most serene retreats along the lake.
http://www.theyogaforest.org/
 

Finca Filadelfia outside of Antigua hosts a beautiful coffee plantation that you can tour and even zip-line at.
http://filadelfia.com.gt/guatemala/servicios/tours/
 
Maya Traditions is simply the best way to get a chance to interact directly with weaving cooperatives and indigenous communities.
http://www.mayatraditions.com/ethical-travel/

Jess with leather artisan

Jess with leather artisan

Biggest challenge working in Guatemala:
Patience is something I’ve learned as a producer in Guatemala. I’ve produced in Mexico and India in the past and for the most part, you submit your designs to a factory and there are a few phone calls and emails made throughout the production time line but you really don’t do anything more than that. In Guatemala I speak with my artisans at least 2-3 times a week, and visit with them at least once a week. We aren’t a factory and they, for the most part, are new entrepreneurs themselves, so there is a lot of work and time that goes into making new designs – which is essential to Stela 9. I could simplify and spit out the same bodies and textiles every season, but where’s the fun in that?
 

Top and Pants from Stela 9 Collection

Top and Pants from Stela 9 Collection

You recently made the decision to move to a direct sales model. Can you tell us what led you to that decision?
When Stela 9 first launched, almost all of my energy went into building a brand that I could cater to wholesale accounts. Specifically large retailers like Urban Outfitters, Free People and Anthropologie. This worked and for a long time 90% of our business was producing our designs for the wholesale market, which isn’t necessarily a bad things and it works for many other brands. However it was bad for Stela 9. We were putting so much time and money into spitting out collections that we weren’t actually making any money. And for a long time I thought that was okay or normal and that as long as the artisans were benefiting then it didn’t matter if I personally wasn’t making any money. This went on for a long time. I had to hire more people to help with the demands of the business, all along still not making money. So increasing my overhead to balance our growth but consistently unable to pay myself. I felt like a horse with blinders on. I was just trudging along until that one day that maybe we’d get one account or investor or partner that would help us better sustain our growth. But, then one thing happened that created a domino effect on my whole business; we didn’t get paid. A few accounts we were working with at the time filed for bankruptcy and we lost all of the product we had already delivered to them (typically accounts like these pay on net terms, meaning that they usually don’t even start to think about paying you until 30 days after you’ve delivered the product). Stela 9 has never had capital. There are a host of reasons for this, mostly being that I kind of didn’t really mean to start a business that grew as quickly as Stela 9 did. So when those accounts couldn’t pay us, I couldn’t pay our artisans and I couldn’t pay my employees. I thought I was going to lose everything. After letting all but one employee go, I still owed all of our artisans money. Quite a lot of money. The people I started my business to help were in danger of losing their own business and everything we had worked so hard to build together. I didn’t build a strong enough foundation for Stela 9 to support incidents like this. The best analogy I can think of is when you’re on a flight and the attendants are going through the safety manual with you and explain that in the case of an emergency, you must put your oxygen mask on first before you help your child. I never did that. I just gave all of our air to the artisans but then almost lost everything in the process. The bankruptcies in a weird way gave me time to stop and take the blinders off. I reevaluated everything we were doing and noticed that wholesale was completely detrimental to our financial growth. We spent too much money on sales commissions and financing these orders. It also put a lot of pressure on the artisans to create products quickly because we were essentially directly competing with fast fashion. So now with our capsule collections, we are not producing as much as we were before, we’re doing it a little smarter this time. We now have longer lead times for the artisans and smaller cycles. This helps us manage quality better than ever, gives the artisans consistent work and takes away a lot of the pressure of unreasonable deadlines. We are also able to significantly lower our prices because we no longer have to match the retail prices of our wholesale accounts. This means that our customers can now get the same products at lower prices, the only difference is that they can only buy them in our Antigua, Guatemala boutique or online.