Meeting this demand is Susan Easton, an entrepreneur, designer, avid world traveler and founder of From the Road, a luxury handwoven accessories and lifestyle brand launched in 2011. Easton’s passions for threatened cultures, fashion and travel inspired From the Road, which amalgamates local manufacturing, storytelling and the preservation of ancient, dying techniques to create handmade products woven by artisans located in Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Ecuador, Kenya, Mali, Peru, Kyrgyzstan and Nepal. From the Road’s products are sold at Barneys New York, Urban Zen, Turpan, Reliquary, Isetan and One Fifteen, among other retailers.
Earlier in her career, Easton worked for Milton Glaser, Pentagram, led studios in New York and Los Angeles, and founded a separate studio centered on branding and design for boutique luxury hotels and global retail. She has taught at The New School’s Parsons School of Design and was recently selected as a participant in the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Design Entrepreneurs program. Easton resides in New York and has also lived in L.A., Shanghai, and São Paulo.
Here, Easton talks to WWD about her passion for craftsmanship and the importance of local manufacturing.
WWD: What inspired the formation of From the Road?
Susan Easton: I was formally trained in graphic design and photography, and I worked in New York and L.A. for many years in a wide range of design arenas. I did editorial design under the iconic Polly Mellen, online brand and experience design with brands like Hulu and The New York Times, and brand strategy and design for luxury boutique hotels in Africa, Asia and South America.
Throughout my life, I’ve traveled extensively for both work and pleasure, and found that I really enjoyed digging deep and really getting to know the different cultures I visited. I spent time exploring remote destinations from Uzbekistan to Tibet to Bolivia, among many others, and lived for extended periods in Brazil, China, Kenya and Nepal. Wherever I went, I made a point of meeting with local master artisans to see what each culture had in the way of traditional art or indigenous craft techniques. Inevitably I would find something that I loved and would ask the artisan to collaborate on making custom items. The resulting pieces were things that neither of us could have made on our own — a blending of my design aesthetic and their traditional artistry.
After realizing that many of the hand arts I held so dear were disappearing all around me, I decided to make a dramatic career change. I wanted to do something to help preserve and grow these precious techniques and in 2011 founded From the Road. It brought together all of my passions — off-the-grid travel, culturally inspired fashion and design, artisanal craftsmanship, and visual and verbal storytelling. It allowed me to formally focus my energies on creating fashion and home accessories with artisans, and to celebrate their art forms and give new life to their craft.
WWD: What specifically drew you into the handworking sector?
S.E.: I have always found beauty and soul within handmade objects. For me, the mark of the maker is true luxury. There is nothing more special or unique than a textile handwoven by a master artisan. I love that by commissioning heritage weaving techniques that have been passed down through generations of a family, we are preserving and invigorating what would be dying art forms.
WWD: How has cultural immersion and travel influenced From the Road’s business model and product offerings?
S.E.: Our business model and product assortment are a direct result of our unique approach. I don’t arrive at a destination with designs prepared. I see the master artisans that I work with as collaborators, so I begin each trip with an open mind and an eagerness to be influenced by my surroundings. I spend time immersing myself in their culture — taking part in their daily routines and learning about their ancient customs, rituals and techniques. It is out of these experiences that our partnerships are formed and the inspiration for the products emerge. It’s really fulfilling to see someone wearing one of our scarves or sitting with one of our throws and knowing the beautiful story behind what goes into making each piece.
WWD: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in creating From the Road?
S.E.: Our approach is certainly not the fastest or easiest way to make a scarf or to build a company. We face many daily challenges from shipping logistics to language barriers to weather issues — even earthquakes. But all that disappears when we see the finished products in Barneys or Isetan or Matches Fashion — giving our artisans a global presence next to the world’s finest luxury brands. We see the impact we are making helping artisans preserve their way of life and keep their crafts alive. We are constantly looking for ways to raise awareness around the importance of supporting the hand arts and are heartened that brands like Calvin Klein Home, Vivienne Westwood, Monocle and Donna Karan’s Urban Zen have collaborated with us.
WWD: Would you elaborate on your passion for threatened cultures?
S.E.: Our world is made up of amazing people, cultures and traditions that are losing ground to “fast” living. We are forgetting our history, our connection to the earth and to each other. We are trading in what makes us unique in our heritage, and what gives us soul, for the next new gadget or fashion trend or “fill-in-the-blank.” We call this progress. I prefer to spend time in slower, wiser cultures. Ones that respect the environment and value traditional skills and standards for quality.
Take our approach to hand spinning, for example. This heritage art form is in serious decline, so I am working with a weaving group that has a women’s “spinning circle” where the village elders are literally training the next generation through our production. It feels great to know that each piece I make with them has a direct impact on reviving this beautiful process. In addition, we are communicating with our customers about what goes into creating each textile and helping them understand the tangible contributions they’re making when they buy an object that is authentically handmade.
WWD: How does sustainability tie into the manufacturing of handwoven fabrics?
S.E.: Unfortunately, we live in a culture where mechanized production allows us to indiscriminately create items of low quality that are worn for one season and then tossed. There isn’t a connection to those who produce them, how they are made, or the environmental impact of quickly discarding them.
Our pieces by contrast are made in a slow, conscious and considered way. We work with the finest natural materials and craft them with artisans using time-honored techniques. This approach yields textiles that can be treasured for years, while also helping preserve the artisan way of life. We are honored to have partnered with the United Nations’ Ethical Fashion Initiative so we can continually look at how to better support artisans as they do what they love.
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