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.