COUNTRY PROFILE: JESS BERCOVICI'S GUATEMALA

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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.