This month, AOW connects with product designer Mimi Robinson, founder of a multi-disciplinary design consultancy and studio committed to social and environmental responsibility. Mimi was one of those designers who first inspired me to get into this field back in 2004. Read more to learn about her approach to design, her creative process along with some lessons and tips she’s picked up along the way.Read More
AOW Insider | Interview: Hedvig Alexander of Far & Wide Collective
Lessons Learned from Launching, Growing and Closing a Social Enterprise in the Craft Sector
This month, AOW connects with Hedvig Alexander, founder of Far & Wide Collective, a social enterprise and leading global artisan brand that brought a new approach to the craft sector. F & W partnered with artisans around the world, empowering them to share their talents and products. This past month, F & W sadly closed its doors. As a way to share lessons learned about launching, growing, and closing a social enterprise, we asked Hedvig to reflect on the experience and provide his insights on what needs to be done to strengthen the craft sector.
“We launched Far + Wide Collective five years ago with an ambitious goal: to build a global brand in a competitive market that would take a new approach to the craft sector. The goal was for Far + Wide to have close relationships with artisan partners around the world, empowering them to share their talent and products with customers everywhere. I truly believe in economic empowerment: it is the only reliable way to build strong economies. In this regard, the craft sector has enormous potential.
We successfully raised investment, sold online and forged partnerships with a number of large retailers who showed, through strong sales, that there was demand for the kind of high quality, beautiful and well-designed products our artists produce. However, we were still lacking one important element – public sector involvement. Despite growth fueled by the private sector, we were unable to generate enough support from governments, foundations or donors with an interest in the craft businesses with which we worked. That investment was needed to train, elevate and position craft businesses on the ground for global success. Most of the businesses we worked with had trouble scaling their production; as a result, we could not grow either. My observation is that there is now very little financing – private or public – available for the craft sector. There is a very important segment of financing missing between micro-finance and larger loans around $100,000. There is also a critical lack of real interest in or attention to exploring new and more effective models for partnership and investment to achieve development and business results.
The underlying challenge that inspired me to create Far + Wide Collective remains unresolved. Craft production and the handmade economy represent (after agriculture) the second largest income opportunity in most low-income countries. The sector is dominated by women, most of whom work in the informal economy with limited production, income or potential for growth. To help these women truly realize their potential, in some of the poorest communities in the world, we need viable, sustainable solutions. It is frustrating for our team to see women in advanced economies breaking barriers by speaking out against discrimination, harassment, and outdated social constructions, while women in poorer countries remain invisible.
In the craft sector I have met some of the most incredible people, with unique talents, who richly deserve support on a much larger scale. Eighty percent of our partners are women; very few have received loans, grants, training or support in any form. Far + Wide Collective had hoped to help these producers by building a stronger market. I still believe we can reach our goal. When one considers how much investment the fair-trade coffee industry has received over the past 15 years, it confounds me that the craft sector has received virtually none. I sometimes wonder if this is because the sector is dominated by women and easy to ignore.
It strikes me as both logical and inevitable that this imbalance will one day be redressed.
To this end, I remain extremely committed to the same beliefs that led me to launch Far + Wide Collective in the first place. By connecting local artisans with the global marketplace, we have shown that such empowerment has the power to transform lives, lifting some of the most vulnerable people in the world out of isolation and poverty. Success for the craft sector has enormous impact, helps us achieve the Global Goals, and is in every respect the right thing to do. Together with a number of proven partners and like-minded entrepreneurs, I am reflecting on how we can give promising artisans the right access to financing to create a strong supply chain and provide sustainable livelihoods for them, while making a new universe of beautiful products available to a growing range of consumers worldwide.
For the craft sector to function effectively it needs to be modernized, professionalized and regarded as a real business sector. The gap between producer and buyers has to significantly narrow. In our experience buyers want to buy but are held back by either quality, design, lack of certification, or ability to scale. A number of elements need to be in place to achieve significant change in the sector: market demand, strong supply chains with effective support to producers, as well as access to financing. In my view, a strong private-public hybrid funding model will be crucial to elevate the sector and make it truly sustainable, as was the case for fair-trade agricultural products starting 15-20 years ago.
In the case of coffee, significant investments were made in the supply chain in the form of loans, grants for technical assistance and equipment leasing programs. These investments raised the capacity of local coffee producers, making it easier and less risky for large businesses, notably Starbucks and later Nestle, to buy from them. Today it is the craft sector that needs the right combination of financial and technical tools to narrow the gap between producers and buyers.
The fair-trade coffee sector had champions like the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, alongside great implementers such as Root Capital and others. Who will now champion the craft industry? No matter who takes up this opportunity for partnership, it will be vital to ensure genuine collaboration among all players who care about poverty reduction, market access (particularly for women), and growing businesses in the field. This will allow enterprises such as Far + Wide to use their revenues and private funds raised to invest properly in building their brands, marketing their products and establishing strong sales channels. In today’s marketplace, all products – even ethical and sustainably produced ones – have to be well-designed, beautifully-packaged and presented to customers through a strong brand offering and with all the conveniences other major brands feature. With the right partnerships, financing and commitment, the craft sector can drive a new wave of business success and consumer satisfaction, while lifting vast numbers of people out of poverty and into new lives as dynamic entrepreneurs and exporters, designers and educators.
Yes, we can do this. But we need a more business-oriented approach to both selling handmade products and investing in the people that produce them.”
- Hedvig Alexander, Far & Wide Collective.
AOW connects with Marcella Echavarria, Mexico City-based lifestyle specialist, to chat about her work and involvement in the artisan sector. Marcella consults with artisans and design entrepreneurs worldwide, offering her expertise on branding through a unique methodology that merges traditional brand development with the principles of sustainability. Her work gives small brands and enterprises much-needed access to the currency and codes of developed markets.
AOW: Please tell us a bit about your experience and background.
ME: I have always been interested in folk art, in the handmade and in people whose life journey consists in working with their hands. I studied history and literature at Brown University. When I returned to Colombia I wanted to write about this but unfortunately no one was interested. So I started working for book publishing companies and international publications such as Wall Paper, Elle Decoration UK, Marie Claire Maison etc. And I found that these international outlets were far more interested in the stories I wanted to tell. I published stories with them and that's when the local magazines followed. In time I received a UNESCO award for promoting crafts.
I quickly realized that the only way these traditions would survive would be to sell their products. I launched SURevolution 15 years ago with the help of Donna Karan. This was at a time when nobody else was talking about the handmade. It was groundbreaking in that by placing these handmade products in stores on Madison Avenue and at other traditional luxury retailers, the whole concept was redefined. SURevolution was one of the first companies to do artisan-made projects with Anthropologie, Tory Burch, Potter Barn…
Now I have a consulting company focused on branding and communications.
AOW: You've mentioned that "the missing link within the handmade sector is branding." Can you explain your reasoning?
ME: I believe that what is not communicated, does not exist. There is so much richness and content that needs to become visible in order to reclaim its value.
AOW: If branding is the missing link, how do you suggest artisan enterprises tackle this challenge? Do you suggest an enterprise hire a branding consultant?
ME: My advice is to first define a strategy. Branding is the visual manifestation of a solid strategy. So in five steps, my advice would be to ask yourself the following questions:
- What is your brand doing?
- How is it doing it differently than other brands?
- Where is it and why is this location relevant? What’s special about it?
- Why are you doing this? What are your motivations?
- Who are you doing it with?
Some people can do it very well on their own but in general I think it's best to work with experts. After all, one cannot be his or her own doctor!
AOW: What are your favorite Instagram accounts or industry related sites to follow?
Also, here are a few websites from clients:
For more info, please visit:
I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and working with Tahira Afridi, director at Zardozi (now called Artisan Links)– Markets for Afghan Artisans in Pakistan, for well over 8 years now. During that time, I’ve worked with her on a variety of design and development projects as a way to create market opportunities and buyer linkages for the beautiful embroidery produced by the women who make up this enterprise.
Zardozi works with hundreds of refugee artisans throughout Pakistan and will soon be working in Jalabad, Afghanistan. Earlier this year, the NGO partnered with textile designer Jacky Garretsen to develop a line of wall décor that beautifully showcases the level of craftsmanship these women are capable of. From table linens to pillows to stockings, they can do it all.
If you’re a wholesaler or retailer and would like me to make an introduction to this talented group, please let me know. They’re set up to develop custom designs, with reasonable minimums. It would be my pleasure to help expand their buyer connections as they currently have limited access to market.
Tahira was nice enough to take the time to share more about her work and the women behind Zardozi’s products.
Tell me about who made these beautiful embroidered textiles…
These embroidered pieces are made in a town called Mansera in the Khayber Pakhtunwa province of Pakistan by Afghan refugee women. All of them work from home. Artisan Links has a mobile team who visit them regularly to give them work and later collect it. The semi-finished pieces they create are brought back to the main office in Peshawar city where another group of Afghan refugees stitch them into finished products.
Is embroidery work still a part of the women’s everyday lives?
Hand embroidery work is slowly dying out as machine embroidery takes over. Artisan Links aims to keep this art alive. By giving them orders of embroidery pieces we’re doing just that. But there are still many women who embroider their home furnishings (runners, pillows, dresses, etc.) and gifts like scarves and wallets for personal use.
How have you seen craft impact and/or improve the lives of the artisans that you work with?
We’ve witnessed that the women we work with have become more confident. They are considered important for the earnings they bring in for their family. They’ve become decision makers whereas before they didn’t have much say in family issues. And they now have spending money to use on health and basic items for themselves and their children.
What are the biggest challenges you face on a day-to-day basis?
Our biggest challenge has always been finding work for the artisans. Many depend financially on the funds they earn from Artisan Links.
You have been working within this field for quite some time. Please tell me what you enjoy most about it.
Their creativity! It amazes me how easily they create beautiful pieces and the pride they take in their work.
Anything else you would like to add? Something special about this project that might surprise readers?
This project has become a secure part of the artisans’ lives. They forget their worries when they attend the office and have a safe space to talk about personal issues with their colleagues. In many ways it keeps their minds away from the worries of life. It’s a refuge for all of us.
Thanks to Raven & Lily for the beautiful images of the artisans!
For more information, please visit: artisanlinks.com
Becky Moore and Eszter Rabin of Sidai Designs sit down with AOW to share their insight on overcoming key challenges to build and manage a successful artisan brand.
I have been watching your business grow over the past eight years and am continuously impressed with everything you've been able to accomplish. Looking back now, what do you think has led to your continued growth and success?
I believe a couple of different reasons made it all possible. One is building an incredibly devoted and talented team and the other is the ability to continuously come up with new designs as well as refinements to our existing collections.
What have been some of the biggest challenges for Sidai and how have you overcome these challenges?
Our biggest challenge was finding the financing for the growth of the company. We were reluctant to take investment or a loan, so we invested personal money, which allowed us to move to the next level. The second biggest challenge was gaining the trust of the artisans, making them understand that we weren't just here for the short term. Once they understood that we are not abandoning them, they were a lot more willing to put in the time and effort needed to grow the company.
How do you navigate where to spend your marketing dollars?
Our marketing budget is so tiny that there isn’t much to decide on. We produce some printed collateral material around international trade shows and have some assistance with sales in Tanzania, but we don’t pay for any advertising. We do pay for professional photography, which we believe is important for brand development.
I realize you attend Artisan Resource @ NY NOW and Maison & Objet. What are your thoughts on trade shows and do you find them to be key when growing your business? Do you think you will continue to attend these two shows or explore other sales avenues?
Yes, I think these shows are very beneficial to us in giving us a platform to capture a large audience and build an international customer base. We will continue our participation in both of these shows. We do try one additional show each season, some are more successful than others, but it’s really helpful to see trends and understand the markets.
What percentage of your sales is online versus wholesale? Many seem to be veering away from wholesale (due to the slim profit margin) and striving to create a strong direct to consumer online model. What are your thoughts on this?
Our online sales are a small percentage of our wholesale business. As we produce our goods in Tanzania, we face several challenges in growing our online platform, such as fulfillment, inventory housing, shipping, export/import. It’s definitely something that we would love to grow, but at the moment it is not our priority. In addition providing a continuous stream of workload to our ever-growing number of artisans, wholesale is an essential part of the business. It would be nearly impossible to find the online sales figures to match the quantity of work needed to sustain our artisans at a livable wage.
What are your tips for success for others looking to start an online or wholesale business working with artisans?
I think the most important part is understanding your market. Who is your customer, what do they want, how much they are willing to pay for it. Logistics are hugely important. If, for example, shipping your product is more expensive then your product itself, you may need to reevaluate your model. I would also recommend getting a finance person to look at your numbers early on to see if you're building a sustainable model from the beginning.
Any other tips you would like to share?
You can try to do everything yourself, but the reality is that it’s impossible to know everything. So my advice would be to hire the right people for the right positions. But choose your team wisely.
For more info, please visit: www.sidaidesigns.com
Here are some snapshots from my recent trip to Maison & Objet, Paris. This beautiful city was home base for a few weeks this past month so I thought I’d also share some pics with you. I can't wait to get back – the Parisian way of life is contagious and oh so good for the soul. Want additional recommendations? Or, did something catch your eye? If so, be in touch!
A few key trends I noticed while walking Maison & Objet:
Texture was a hot topic
Primarily displayed within sea-worn woods, luxurious velvets, soft cashmere, linen, silks, tactile sheepskin, elegant marbles, woven leather and continual play when it comes to mixed materials.
Mix and match is in
Play with metallic yarns and details. Returning to mid-century modern, featuring rich materials and graphic patterns.
Lighting continues to be a strong category
Created with all kinds of materials including glass, metals, ceramic, wood and natural fibers.
Colors such as terracotta, navy, white, emerald green, deep emeralds, mustards, purples and black seem to be mainstays.
Animal motifs are everywhere
Animal motifs were widely seen throughout the show – there was a lot of leopard print along with imagery of owls, fish and squirrels. Oh and lots of flamingos, monkeys and palm leaves!
AOW connects with Carol Campbell, a former furniture industry executive who decided to change direction and dedicate her life to artisan enterprises. Today she acts as a consultant to artisan-based businesses seeking to develop a market in the United States. AOW ask Carol for her five tips on how to be a successful artisan enterprise. See Carol's response below:
"The US market has changed a lot over the past ten years. While the level of consumer interest in artisan-made goods has never been greater, the path to reaching that market has never been more challenging. With the decline of independent retailers and boutiques, the type of buyer who is willing to foster a long-term relationship with a smaller artisan producer has nearly disappeared. Ten years ago, I took an artisan product's wholesale business from $15,000 to $1,000,000 in 18 months. Today, the customers who made that possible are no longer around.
Artisan businesses who want to succeed need to be much more strategic about how they approach the US market. That means understanding the market including distribution channels, then planning and budgeting for success. I recommend taking the following steps before coming to the US:
1. Make a Plan.
Decide what you want to do and how you want to do it. Be specific. “I want to sell my products” is not a plan, it’s a pipe dream. The US market, like any market anywhere in the world, is competitive. Who do you want to sell to, what do you want to sell them, and how much do you need to sell to make your efforts worthwhile? How will you reach new clients and get them to notice you? What are their needs, including packaging, shipping and payment? How are you going to address those needs? Are you prepared for their questions?
2. Know Your Target Customer.
The first question to ask yourself is always “Who is the customer?” Do you want to sell wholesale, direct to retail or direct to consumer? All these channels are reached in different ways, require different strategies and, most importantly, differentiated budgets. Focus on one channel initially. Within that channel, what is the design and market profile that fits your product line? If you make traditional, culturally specific products, it may not be realistic to target a contemporary retailer. Try to understand who will respond to your products and anticipate their needs.
3. Price Appropriately.
Pricing isn’t one of the things, it’s the only thing. Fortunately, it’s never been easier to do pricing research. Just pick an online retailer that is either on your target list or has the design/market profile you have decided on. Take the retail list price of a product that is similar to your product and divide by 5. Repeat. After you’ve done this a dozen or so times, you should have a target FOB price point range.
For a good sense of “better” pricing, I recommend going to West Elm at www.westelm.com. Find products in your category – it doesn’t matter if they look like your products or not. For example, if you sell pillows, analyze the pricing of other pillows whether they are printed, woven or embroidered. No matter how special your products are, they still need to fit into the buyers’ price point range. Buyers rarely buy outside their price point range!
4. Understand Categories.
Big-store buyers buy by product category. For example, a wall décor buyer will only be able to buy wall décor. These are, for the most part, the only volume buyers – the only ones who will give you a big order. To interest that buyer, you need to communicate that you are committed to that category. Don’t think that you can put one mirror on the wall and attract a mirror buyer. You need to understand which categories are important and what kind of critical mass of products you need to offer to be considered as a resource. Or be content with selling one or two mirrors instead of a container full of mirrors.
5. Have a Sales Strategy.
Whenever I’ve presented a business plan, I’ve noticed that potential investors focus on two things: the executive summary and the sales strategy. It’s not enough to have a product, you have to know how you are going to sell it. Online retail platforms, wholesale trade shows, sales representatives, showrooms – they all have different requirements and different associated costs that need to be budgeted for. It’s not all design and flowers. You should have a plan to get your products into the market and be prepared to pay for it.
Keep in mind that the days when you could show up at a trade show and expect to sell a lot are over. A trade show is not a sales strategy. Today, you need to treat your trade show booth as a clubhouse, not a storefront. In other words, a place to meet the clients and potential clients that you have already reached out to via marketing and sales representatives.
So be thoughtful and be successful! Good luck!"
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