Embroidery, embellishments and prints, the details that once gave garments their individuality, are produced and consumed en masse today, and while this so-called democratization of fashion has largely been welcomed, many of us are now increasingly wanting something more unique for our wardrobes.
The growing backlash against homogenization, which extends to homewares too, has been one of the reasons behind certain brands now putting craftsmanship at the forefront of their thinking. But for others, tapping the talents of artisans in developing countries comes from a more philanthropic starting point.
Here we profile three companies who through their support of local communities are able to provide workers with a steady income to support their families and foster new businesses, as well as protect often-ancient craft and design traditions.
The Little Market
The Little Market was founded by former reality TV star Lauren Conrad and her long-time friend Hannah Skvarla, who met while studying at California’s Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising (FIDM). Launched in 2013, the Fair Trade accredited non-profit now works with more than 40 artisan partners in over 20 countries, connecting them with customers worldwide through a dedicated online marketplace.
Showcasing handmade goods that have been crafted by local artisans using traditional skills and techniques, The Little Market’s mission is to empower women from disadvantaged communities to rise above poverty. Customers have the opportunity to purchase ethically sourced one-of-a-kind pieces, while artisans earn a fair wage and generate a means to support their families. And working through cooperatives and social enterprises, the organization also offers their artisans access to adult literacy classes, business training and micro loan programs, and family healthcare.
It was during trips to Bali in 2010 and El Salvador in 2011 that Conrad and Skvarla first witnessed the lack of financial stability and independence local women were experiencing. But it was the following year when the seed for The Little Market was firmly sewn. "We had the incredible opportunity to visit organizations in Tanzania and Uganda that were working with female artisans and entrepreneurs who were struggling to make ends meet,” Skvarla told Forbes. “It was in the midst of these travels that we were inspired to create The Little Market," she went on to explain, and with an extensive background working in human rights Skvarla runs the business side of the company, while Conrad focuses on design and marketing.
The site sells everything from one-of-a-kind woven purses by Mayan women in Guatemala, to throws handmade in El Salvador and ceramics crafted in Morocco. The website also serves as a platform to tell the stories of the artisans, and provides an insight into their home countries.
Founders Jessica Macias and Ana Caufman spent almost three years working on their concept to make artisan crafts more accessible before finally launching Maison Numen in 2016. The pair now travel the world seeking out art and objects from highly skilled makers and innovative designers to not only showcase their work on their website, but the cultural stories behind the pieces too. And it’s this authenticity and transparency that is crucial to the Maison Numen brand.
It was when Macias began collecting her own art and objects, prompted by a change in career from international finance to interior design, that provided the inspiration for Maison Numen. “I saw so many beautiful pieces being created, and always with such interesting stories to tell, and I wanted to share this with the world,” she told The Telegraph. And joining forces with friend and fellow Venezuelan Caufman, who was a well-travelled curator in her own right, the duo set about realizing their idea.
Their inaugural collection focused on Latin America. Entitled ‘Latin Animae Vol 1’ it featured 193 pieces, including textiles, woodwork and ceramics, from 35 designers and artisans hand crafted in Venezuela, Mexico, Guatemala, Peru and Colombia. The co-founders met all the makers in person and spent time with them as they worked. “Direct human contact makes all the difference here, and it’s very important to us that they match with our concept and values,” said Caufman, with sustainability being at the core.
The Latin American-themed collection was swiftly followed by a second, 'Latin Animae Vol 2', but today the site carries objects from artisans across Asia, Europe and North Africa, in a celebration of cultural differences through craft.
Figue is the creation of former Parsons School of Design graduate Stephanie von Watzdorf. The New York-based brand fuses luxury fashion with a bohemian lifestyle, and is known for its one-of-a-kind pieces that capture the spirit of global travel and celebrate the talents of local artisans.
Launched in 2012, Figue reflects its founder’s heritage and is a natural extension of her personal style and passion for travel. Born on the outskirts of Paris to a German-French father and Russian mother, von Watzdorf spent time in New York during school term times and her summers in Europe, particularly the Isola dei Galli, an Italian island off the Amalfi coast between Positano and Capri. And with its international ‘gypsy-meets-jet-set’ spirit, Figue’s unique pieces recreate that treasured experience of stumbling across special finds on one’s travels.
Cultivating local crafts and respecting time-honored traditions are causes close to van Watzdorf’s heart. Figue works with artisans from around the world to produce the original prints, embroideries and hand-embellishments that define the brand, as well as the accessories and jewelry that complete its season-less, luxe-boho look. And Figue’s Chelsea studio is a testament to its global outlook as it’s filled with books, artwork and objets that the founder has sourced on her travels.