What isn’t made by artisans these days? Shoes, pajamas, hamburgers, chocolates — practically nothing is left untouched by marketers in the quest to stand out in competitive fields and reach consumers’ wallets.
In the fashion industry, artisans are stepping from out of the background to the forefront. One could argue that artisans are responsible for creating couture, which is intricately stitched, embroidered and embellished by hand. After the Great Recession, the doors opened wider for the artisanal trend to seep into the mainstream.
“People were able to buy smaller quantities,” said Karen Gibbs, president of Boulder, Colo.-based By Hand Consulting, who advises companies, governments and international organizations on creating programs with artisan enterprises. “Also, people were interested in a story.”
A growing number of emerging designers realize that an artisanal touch can add something special to their product. Last year, only two years after its founding, Brother Vellies scooped up a CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award, among other accolades like WWD’s 10 of Tomorrow, for its traditional African footwear made by artisans in Ethiopia, South Africa, Kenya and Morocco. Despite challenges in working with artisans — language barriers, higher prices, longer lead times for development and production — the movement isn’t slowing down. Between 2012 and 2015, an artisan-centric trade fair organized by New York Now and By Hand Consulting saw the number of exhibitors balloon from 30 to 175. Moreover, entrepreneurs benefit from duty-free trade between the U.S. and countries such as Kenya.
Last year, Jennifer Evans relaunched her then-10-year-old namesake development and manufacturing business as TEG International, shifting from a Made-in-USA mandate to a global model that supports a leather shoe and bag maker in Senegal, a custom fabric printer in Vietnam and other artisan factories. “We get a lot of customers who want a social mission behind the product,” Evans said.
Here’s a glimpse at some apparel and accessories brands that are weaving artisanal work into their collections.
Brand: Francesco Russo
Location of artisans: Italy
Retailers: Net-a-porter.com, The Webster in Miami, 10 Corso Como in Milan and My Theresa in Munich.
Without artisans, Francesco Russo’s three-year-old business would be nothing. Considering himself an architect of shoes, he relies on the craftsmen to be the engineers who build his designs, often with towering heels and colorful waves of crocodile leather that wrap around the ankle and crest toward the sky. Each pair requires the handiwork of four artisans.
“I’ve never been interested in simply designing an object for the sake of itself,” said Russo. “I’ve always been interested in making shoes with a specific function, meaning to sustain the woman’s body, to make a woman happy when she is wearing the shoes. To achieve that, the artisan’s expertise on shoes is crucial.”
Russo makes weekly trips from his home in Lugano, Switzerland, to the cobblers in Italy. Last month, he erected a workshop in Just One Eye for shoes that retailed between $2,200 and $10,000. “It’s like having a piece of the shoe factory inside Just One Eye,” Russo said.
No matter how proud he is of his artisans, it’s unlikely that the designer will sit down to work on the shoes himself. “I’m too frenetic,” he said. “You have to be very patient to be an artisan.”
Brand: Raven + Lily
Location of artisans: Pakistan
Retailers: Free People, National Geographic, Toms’ Marketplace and 300 specialty stores.
Although Austin, Tex.-based Raven + Lily works with 272 women living in eight refugee camps located across the border from Afghanistan, the company’s representatives have not been able to visit them. The volatile politics in the area have prevented Raven + Lily founder Kirsten Dickerson and her team from obtaining visas to travel there. Instead, she’s hired undercover photographers to trek a day out of Pakistan’s Peshawar frontier and document the women’s living and working conditions. Versed in three embroidery styles they originally learned to decorate for traditional caftans, the women add a flair to Raven + Lily’s ankle-grazing skirts, collarless button-down shirts and minidresses with fluttering sleeves and hems.
The other artisan communities Dickerson works with are in the U.S., Guatemala, Ethiopia, Kenya, India, Malaysia and Cambodia, where more than 1,500 women are employed. She’s initiating projects in Haiti and Peru for her fall collection. Having grown at a rate of 1,000 percent since the clothing business’ launch in 2011, the company’s annual sales are still less than $10 million. She plans to open her second store in Austin this spring and expand to L.A., New York and up to 10 other cities in the next five years.
“We could have grown a lot of faster if we weren’t committed to slow fashion and working with artisans,” Dickerson said.
Brand: Ashley Pittman
Location of artisans: Kenya
Retailers: Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus and Stanley Korshak in Dallas.
In 2006, after quitting her job at a private-equity firm in Los Angeles, Ashley Pittman made her first trip to Africa as a volunteer with the Clinton Foundation’s HIV initiative in Rwanda. Three years later, she started her namesake jewelry line, which promotes a “trade not aid” philosophy among artisans in Kenya. Nowadays, between regular Skype sessions with her employees, she logs a minimum of four trips each year to Kenya.
Starting with a template drawn on and cut out of a cereal box, she works with more than 100 people who polish Ankole cow horn, hammer bronze and set semiprecious stones such as onyx, tourmaline and garnet. Her most popular item is a $425 set of 10 bangles, and annual sales total less than $5 million. Aside from being able to provide steady employment, she also cherishes the opportunities to collaborate with the artisans over the years.
“I’ve evolved so much since then as have they with their skills,” she said. “Tons of my design ideas and improvements come from the artisans themselves.”
Location of artisans: India
Retailers: BellJar in San Francisco and Los Angeles; Holiday in Boston, J Nivas in Laguna Beach, Calif., and Palace in Portland, Ore.
Kopal’s spring collection marks its first collaboration with the Delhi chapter of the Self-Employed Women’s Association, or SEWA. Most of them being illiterate, the women have few opportunities to make a living when they’re not taking care of their children. They learned to embroider by hand from their mothers, who were taught by their own mothers.
For New York-based Kopal, the artisans spent at least six hours doing the handiwork to adorn the front of one dress retailing for $287. They also taught the designer, Kopal Kopal, how to make art, especially when she was tempted to quickly finish one of their designs on her computer. “They wouldn’t let me,” she said, recalling their response was: “No, have some patience. Art takes time. This takes time.”
Still, she finds it easier to sway consumers, than retailers, to buying artisanal work. “It’s not machine-fed, which is the beauty of this,” she said. “It’s almost one of a kind. Only a conscious consumer can understand it and respect it. This is a lifestyle choice for people.”
Brand: Mi Golondrina
Location of artisans: Mexico
Retailers: Stanley Korshak in Dallas and Biscuit Home in Houston.
Cristina Lynch is merging the best of two worlds into her Dallas-based brand. Through her mom, who is from Torreón, Mexico, she grew up going to her grandfather’s ranch in Mexico, visiting Oaxaca and Chapas and meeting various artisans. Later, she interned with designer Narciso Rodriguez and handled sales for brands including McQ and Oscar de la Renta. In June 2013, she launched Mi Golondrina, which means “my swallow” in Spanish.
Artisans in Guatemala weave and embroider some of the blouses, but workers in central and southern Mexico make 90 percent of the merchandise. While the community in Oaxaca focuses on floral embroidery, the group in central Mexico creates a delicate lace out of white cotton by pulling the fine thread out of the fabric, which is then sewn into the garments.
Lynch modernizes the centuries-old crafting techniques with chambray, stripes inspired by men’s suiting and bold colors like gold, plum and purple. Sales are approaching the $1 million mark, and Lynch hopes the artisanal trend continues to support the craftspeople and allow a new generation to wear hand-made things. “It’s something that should be appreciated,” she said. “We should keep these cultures representing their art.”
Location of artisans: Bolivia and U.S.
Retailers: Canary in Dallas, Lessage in Tokyo, Plum in Beirut, Lebanon.
While Rie Yamagata employs an artisan in New York to handle some macramé for her ready-to-wear line, she relies on a women’s workshop in La Paz, Bolivia, to create the more intricate and expansive pieces of handiwork. In addition to macramé, the South American specialists also crochet and knit by hand. Emphasizing texture and natural fabrics in her spring line, the New York-based designer found that the crafting propelled her designs toward retailers who, despite the lofty price tags, favor novelty items, like her $1,125 mariner-style pullover with macramé fringe and $1,395 column dress accented with a striking crocheted bib, both from her spring collection. She’s also using crochet to enhance her forthcoming fall lineup.
“The market is very saturated with things that are common,” said Yamagata, who graduated from Central Saint Martins and worked for Tsumori Chisato in Tokyo and 3.1 Phillip Lim in New York before launching Rhié in 2011. “I like offering something that is not very common and not everybody can do.”
Location of artisans: Japan
Created in 2005 with a mission to layer style over social responsibility, Apolis has teamed with an array of artisans, including cashmere sweater knitters in Nepal and Bangladeshi women’s cooperatives that have produced about 100,000 jute bags. The Los Angeles-based company went to Japan for its latest artisan project. In Japan’s Fukushima region, where a devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor accident ruined local farmland in 2011, Apolis is working with farmers who have switched from growing produce to raising organic cotton. The textile is sewn and hand-dyed by locals who were affected by the tsunami.
Although conceived in 2013, the debut collection of indigo-dyed jackets, tees, shift dresses and swim trunks was released this past spring in 28 Freaks stores. While Raan Parton, cofounder and creative director of Apolis, is charged by the focus and energy around social entrepreneurship, he hopes the trend works to benefit the communities.
“There needs to be a sensitivity,” he said. “A lot of people can find small supply chains in any part of the world and not put those supply chains’ best interests forward. I hope people really look at how to develop those relationships to work for them. There is not a lot of margin for error.”