Harper Poe, owner and founder of Proud Mary, began the company in 2008 after spending time in South America working with Habitat for Humanity. It was there that she fell in love with the culture, people, and brightly colored textiles she encountered. Proud Mary is the culmination of Harper’s ever-growing commitment to exploration, partnership and the preservation of traditional craft to create greater impact in the communities with which she works.
Harper has a unique and varied background – one that spans interior design, project management and international development. From that diverse experience she has brought to market a modern and beautiful collection of home décor, personal accessories and wearables that share the core of the craft of the artisan community from where they originate.
Harper connected with AOW recently to discuss design, development and how she has managed to incorporate “artisan” into the mainstream market.
Please tell us how Proud Mary is a sustainable / ethical brand. These words get tossed around quite a bit, so I’m curious to know what it means to you.
When I think of sustainable, my mind goes to the environment which is not our core focus so I tend not to use this word so much. But sustainability can also be used when talking about economic growth, which is our main focus – to create long term economic opportunity for our artisan partners. We are an ethical brand because first and foremost we consider how we can positively change lives through design. We aim to find the products, designs and strategies that have the maximum positive impact on the men and women we are working with around the world.
I’m impressed by the strong retail partnerships Proud Mary has created, including collaborations with Madewell and Urban Outfitters. How do you navigate incorporating artisan-made products when working in collaboration with mass retail chains? I can imagine it's been a frustrating process at times…always struggling to get the price low enough. What have been some of your biggest challenges? Where is the sweet spot, which works for both sides?
We have been lucky to have had the opportunity to collaborate with some awesome, large retailers. They have such strong buying power that, when put to good use, can be extremely impactful. We haven't had huge issues with pricing. Most of the retailers have understood the value of the cost of artisan-made goods.
The issues have been in production time and quantities. Because everything is handmade, when a large order comes in we will sit down with our artisans and talk about the schedule and overall feasibility. They will always say, "Yes, we can do it" – always. I now know that that means, “We’ll do our best but if we can't meet a deadline we can't meet the deadline”. So we always have to add padding to lead times and have had to find additional producers to help on certain projects. This is a problem because these big orders can force groups to scale up fast and then when the project is finished it leaves people without a job. It can be a bit of a tease unless it's a long-term project. We want to be able to commit to working with a group long-term and are committed to scaling up responsibly, not fast and furiously.
Retail chains are definitely not our target market. Our target market is the end consumer. We’re currently making the switch to a direct-to-consumer sales model. We want to be able to control the story, control the design and keep our prices at an accessible point. We never set out to be a luxury brand and don't believe that all artisan products need to be put in the luxury category. Artisan-made products have a much higher price – that is a given – but end retail prices have to be so high because of the traditional wholesale/retail markups.
Working within this field for quite some time, I imagine you have seen many changes over the years. Artisan is “on trend” so to speak. What are some of the dangers that you foresee? Do you think “artisan” has a place in the mass market? Or, will it always be seen as a luxury product?
I think just like the green-washing campaign in the mid-2000's, when 'organic' was all the rage and the terms were used and misused like crazy, there is definitely a danger of this happening with "artisan" made. I think it's awesome that artisan-made products are reaching a larger market and that consumers genuinely care about who makes their products and how. The danger lies in not being 100% transparent about what this means for the company that is using the label. Are they sourcing artisan made textiles and then making their garments in New York? Are they sourcing artisan-made and making their garments in Asia? Artisan-made is used for products that are bought in tourist markets around the world and sold in stores and online. It's used for textiles that are produced in ethical factories. I think people are trying but there’s a lot of gray area and I think it’s up to consumers to demand that distinctions be made and processes be clarified.
I do think "artisan" has a place in the mass market but I don't think that will be as luxury products. I think companies will have to sell direct and forego the traditional wholesale/retail model in order to reach the masses at a more accessible price point.
I realize your passion lies in capacity building and preparing artisans to become export ready. How do you go about doing this while focusing on sales, marketing, design and being a dedicated mom?! What is your strategy for capacity building?
I love discovering the undiscovered and figuring out how to incorporate their skills into our supply chain. We recently started working with a group in the Dominican Republic making crocheted bags out of plastic trash bags. I found them at the Folk Art Market and they had never exported before. I went to visit them in April to work on developing a bit of a structure, worked on pricing and some product development and design work. A lot of it is pricing theory, getting them to think in bulk and not just selling one piece in a tourist market for the maximum dollar amount. In terms of building capacity, it's about starting small, developing a system and strategy and then growing slowly but steadily. It's a lot easier to do that when you’re not making thousands of units for large retailers. As far as doing sales, marketing, design and being a mom, I really like to be doing a million things at once so luckily it works for my personality!
What are some of the biggest 'ah-ha' moments you have had as a business owner while working within this field? Thoughts that may have changed the way you structure your business?
I think mine is happening now with realizing that in order to have a healthy bottom line while still making maximum impact we need to restructure our sales strategy.
Where do you think the artisan sector is moving? Specifically within the personal accessories and apparel market...
I think more designers on the African continent are going to become strong global brands. I think apparel companies are going to be incorporating more and more hand-woven textiles into their collections. Companies like Piece and Co. are playing a big part in this. I hope more companies really commit to entering the sector and working on the ground so they can develop unique pieces with interesting techniques and materials. From a purely aesthetic point of view...natural fibers seem to be taking off!
You mentioned that as the artisan sector grows, you find fashion brands are pulling from the same pool of artisans (high capacity, well organized). Can you tell me more about this?
There are not enough NGO's and non-profits to do the overall sector development. Governments don't take handicrafts as seriously as they do agriculture, etc. So the funding is not there to really build up the sector and train new artisans. I think it might be up to brands and companies to start laying the ground work themselves.
Any tips for those who are just starting out within the field?
Focus geographically and find a good agent on the ground.
Anything else you would like to add?
I feel so lucky every day to be able to do this work! It's a big, beautiful world with so many beautiful things to find and people to meet :)
For more info, please visit: www.proudmary.org