Supporting Artisans: Santa Fe Edition

This I Wear | Santa Fe

Santa Fe, New Mexico has been on my bucket list since I first became interested in artisan-made crafts years ago. Each year, the city hosts the International Folk Arts Market, drawing hundreds of artisans from around the world to this little historic city to display their wares and grow their businesses.

While I missed the festival this year, I did not pass up the opportunity to shop for local crafts during a recent 24-hour stopover in the city. But after I stopped into a few shops, I began to wonder how to tell what was really artisan-made and what was an imported version of the local designs. I wasn’t familiar enough with the local culture, especially the Native American cultures, to pick up on this difference.

So how do you tell what is authentic and what is not?

Before I dive into how to tell what’s really made by a local artisan and what it not, I think it’s important to clarify why you should even care. Shouldn’t you just buy any souvenir that looks good? Isn’t that its own way of supporting the local economy? Well, yes, you’re supporting that local shop owner, but there’s a lot more to consider.

Here’s my quick list of why you should buy artisan-made when possible:

  • You’re supporting the community more deeply when you make sure the artisan (who often created the designs being knocked off) is paid fairly.
  • You’re telling the local community that this is a traditional craft that has high value and is worth preserving, so that more generations continue to want to learn these skills.
  • You are showing respect for an artisan’s mastery and heritage. These days, so much design is ripped off and produced more cheaply. Honor the maker by making sure you are only supporting local businesses that respect the maker too.
  • You get a chance to get to know the maker.
  • It’s a smaller environmental footprint if the item wasn’t shipped from far away.
  • You are getting something truly special and handmade rather than something mass-produced.

(There are so many more reasons to add to this list – I hope you’ll share yours in the Comments below.)

So now, how do you know if something was really made by a local craftsperson or if it’s imported? My recommendation is to start asking questions from the seller. I like to start off with “I love this design, can you tell me more about it?” And then I get more specific with questions such as:

  • Who made this?
  • Where do you make it?
  • What is it made of and where do the materials come from?
  • How do you (or the artisan) make it?
  • Who taught you this craft?

Hopefully, these questions will help you engage in a memorable conversation with an artisan as much as they will help you clarify if an item is truly handmade or an imposter.

If you’re in a store that is supposedly selling local crafts, a great indicator is if the artisan has signed his or her pieces or if there is information about the maker next to a piece. Even better, sometimes stores will share photos of where and how it is made to give you more context about the craft itself. You may also want to ask shop owners if they buy directly from artisans, and if so, who sets the price for the goods.

In Santa Fe, I was extremely fortunate. I asked my authenticity question to a staff member at Bahti Indian Arts, mostly because his store provided clear markers of its authenticity: certifications from local councils, information on how designs were made, and the names of the artisans. Bahti Indian Arts is beautiful and a must-see, and the store associate kindly gave me a few other recommendations to help me make sure I was purchasing from stores that truly want to support local makers and craft:

1. Sun County Traders
2. Keshi The Zuni Collection (My favorite and the store makes it clear that the artisan sets the price to ensure fair wages!)
3. Rainbow Man
4. Shiprock Santa Fe (see rug photos above)

In addition to these shops, you can visit the Plaza where artisans daily enter a lottery to display their wares in the approximately 70 spots under the portico. Each vendor must prove that he/she makes the goods, so you can shop here with confidence knowing that you are buying directly from the maker. Go early for the best selection and take your time to learn from the maker how each item was made.

Want to learn more about artisans? A few of my favorite resources are UNESCO, Alliance for Artisan Enterprise, and HAND/EYE Magazine. Still have questions about how to tell the difference? Share your questions in the Comments or email me.

Style Story: Angela & Made-to-Order by Mumbi

This I Wear | Angela + Made-to-Order by Mumbi

Welcome back from summer! We’re kicking off the season with a story from my friend Angela. After seeing her Facebook posts of the beautiful dresses she had made in Nairobi where she lives, I asked her if there was a story behind the dresses and, of course, there was. Angela and I met when I was her RA in her freshman year of college. It didn’t take long before I felt like she was a member of my family, but anyone who meets Angela could be similarly lucky. Angela happens to be open to the world in a way that I’ve rarely encountered and because of that, she has a way of making deep friendships wherever she goes. (Did I mention that she is also an award-winning jazz singer?). So from Angela, here’s the story of the dresses and how she came to make the switch from discount shopping to made-to-order clothing. – Rebecca

My 62-year-old mother is more stylish than I am. In primary school, I was known as “Gap Girl” because my mom bought all my clothes (from the sales rack) at Gap Kids. Somehow she managed to pull together a great wardrobe at a bargain price. By the time I was in high school, Mom had discovered discount stores like Ross. My family nicknamed her “Ross Pro” because she would dig through the store’s overwhelming clothes racks and always triumphantly pull out the best designer pieces going for about 10% of the original retail price. In short, I never had to shop for myself until college when I moved out of my parent’s house in Honolulu to Washington, DC. Even once I moved out, I barely found time to go shopping between studying, studying, and studying. My biggest clothes purchases still occurred when Mom was visiting and escorted me to Ross or her new favorite, Marshalls.

But after graduation, when I moved from Washington, DC to Nairobi, Kenya on a research fellowship, my shopping habits changed and I had to wean myself off of Mom’s help. No longer could she send me pieces from a recent snag at her discount favorites (Not only because it usually takes months or even a year to arrive, but the postal system in Nairobi also has a way of losing things…).

So when I first arrived in 2010, I checked out Nairobi’s shopping malls but quickly realized they are full of imported, over-priced and poor quality products from the Middle East and China. Next, I tried the second- and third-hand clothing markets. Those were better and reminded me a little of the discount store experience – digging through bins of clothes and never seeing the same thing twice. But eventually I tired of that too and resigned to wearing the same clothes until my annual trip home when Mom would take me shopping.

Fortunately, on one fateful day in March last year, my clothes shopping habits changed forever. I met Mumbi. Mumbi is a talkative, hard-working Kenyan lady always up for a design challenge. She’s probably in her late forties/early fifties with an energy and joy for her job that’s rare to find anywhere in the world. Mumbi has been in the same cozy studio for the past 30 years, tucked away on the fourth floor of an old building in Nairobi’s Central Business District in the bustling heart of the capital city.

I was first escorted to Mumbi’s studio by one of my AirBnB guests who loved fabric and had been recommended to Mumbi by the owner of a nearby fabric shop. “She’s really great!” my guest gushed. After previous lukewarm attempts to have clothes made by fundis (tailors), I was skeptical. “Alright, well, let’s try.” I acquiesced. Before we left, we sketched out some ideas. I look for inspiration online as I am not the kind of person who wakes up dreaming of the ideal dress I want. Then, we stopped at Biashara Street (Swahili for “Business Street”) where Indian-owned shops boasting all types of fabrics are conveniently located next to one another. After picking through vibrant shades of blues, greens, oranges, we settle on a few that fit our design ideas.

“I love a challenge,” Mumbi always tells me. Once I asked her why she didn’t save the drawings or photos of her past work in a portfolio so future clients could peruse through and choose what designs they wanted. “That’s boring! I never like doing the same design twice. I want to have new challenges,” she exclaimed. That’s why Mumbi and I get along, I guess – I keep her on her toes with my ‘new-fangled’ designs and Pinterest-inspired photos. My clothes hang next to children’s Dalmatian costumes, traditional African attire, curtains and pillowcases. I’ve learned to never be surprised at what I might find Mumbi working on when I visit her.

Mom still picks up clothes for me periodically, when she finds a deal is just too good to refuse. She saves them for me until my annual visit home to Hawaii. My husband is now also the lucky recipient of such clothing purchases by Mom and looks forward to her latest finds. That said, nowadays, it’s a reciprocal exchange: I also bring home custom-designed and tailor-made clothes by Mumbi (with some design input from yours truly), with love from Nairobi to Hawaii.

Angela Crandall Okune is making the jump from Nairobi back to the States to begin grad school. Follow her adventures on Twitter @Honoluluskye.

**If you are in Nairobi and need a new outfit, you can contact Mumbi directly at +254 724306117.

August Break

This I Wear | August Break

Dear readers, though it feels as though summer just began yesterday, we are nearing the end of July already! It is time for play, being outside, eating watermelon, and doing nothing but sitting still when the heat is just too much. And that is exactly what I do each August when I take a little break from writing here to enjoy the warm weather.

While I strongly advocate that you too take some time away from your screen, I have a few ideas if you are looking for entertainment in the meantime:

01. Listen to the podcast “A Few Things with Claire and Erica”, the two friends behind the amazing site, Of A Kind. Their newsletter filled with spot-on recommendations was so wildly successfully that they’ve turned it into a weekly radio show with special guests. I love last week’s episode with tips on how to not just “throw away” your stuff if you’ve been inspired by the Marie Kondo craze. I also love love the episode on your 20s vs your 30s – it’s just too good.

02. Sign up for the Tradlands newsletter. I love a good, curated article list as much as I love an ethically made button down shirt. Sadie at Tradlands offers both to her email subscribers, and I currently can’t get enough.

03. Join me in counting down the days until Matt & Nat’s Fall ’15 handbags are released, and we finally get the beautiful red (vegan, ethically made) handbag of our dreams. See the sneak peek on Pinterest!

04. Find a hammock and settle in to read these two stunning articles that will have you questioning if any of us really know what we’re buying when we shop: “Online Grocery Shopping” via NYTimes and “The Myth of the Ethical Shopper” via HuffPo.

05. Revisit some oldies-but-goodies from the THIS I WEAR archives. Here are a few of my favorites:
I’m not a Fashion Omnivore
The Myth of Dry Cleaning
Sashiko: Finding Beauty in Mending
3 tips for recognizing quality clothing
Style Story: Yvette (my epic interview with my mom!)
The Black Silk Tunic & My Alter Ego

I also have a small favor to ask of you. I’d love to hear from you by email or in the Comments section below to know what you’d like more of here once I’m back next month. Are you wanting more style interviews, ethical brand recommendations, natural/organic beauty products, ethical home décor, tips on mending and investing in your clothes, sustainability career advice, or just good old stories of what I’m up to? Perhaps you are just hoping for a hit list of other bloggers, brands and communities to learn more about responsible fashion? Let me know.

See you in September!

Lipstick & Loss

This I Wear | Style Lessons from My Grandma

Just two weeks ago, my grandmother passed away unexpectedly (and not the same grandmother who was unwell earlier this year). When I got the news, it was as if all of my memories of her suddenly filled a book in my mind that slammed shut. It felt as though only the strongest memories were inscribed in the half-a-second it took me to understand what had happened, and the little details that I remembered of her started to slip away. To capture them, I started writing.

I wanted to remember the taste of her stuffed bell peppers and macaroni and cheese, her insatiable appetite for ice cream and all things sweet, her stubbornness and sense of independence, her love of camellias and roses, how she’d chase me with $20 when I visited just to say “thank you” for spending time with her, and how proud she was of me. She introduced me to Martha Stewart and the idea of always having things look “just so” and offered her own example of somehow being able to make things perfect effortlessly. How she did it and raised seven children, I will never really know, though I will say that except in her later years, I rarely saw her sit down.

Mere, as we called her, means “mother” in French, the heritage of my mother’s side of the family. And she did all of the motherly things you can imagine – feed us until we nearly burst, rub our backs and hug us tight, and make sure we knew she appreciated her time with us.

On the way to the airport to fly back to New York after my visit with family for the funeral, we stopped at my grandfather’s home. My aunt offered my mom some of Mere’s makeup. My mom said she’d take the lipsticks.

When I discovered these in the car as we continued on our way to the airport, I told my mom I had to photograph them and asked her to pick a parking spot with good natural light. I think my mom thought I was crazy but was willing to humor me as we dug in the trunk of her car for props to create a makeshift backdrop. Lipsticks, as any woman knows, are incredibly personal. Each of us leaves our signature mark and shape on our lipsticks through use. My grandmother, it turns out, was a rounded, yet slightly angled lipstick shape. (I, on the other hand, am a very sharp angle…)

The lipsticks reminded me of all of her fashion rules, of which she had many. She truly took as much pride in her appearance as she did in her home and in her family. Here are just a few of her rules, almost all of which I must admit I break frequently:

1. Your shoes and bag must always match. Never, heaven forbid, should you wear black shoes with a brown bag or even brown pants. This is strictly prohibited. Black with black, brown with brown, and navy with navy.

2. Never leave your house without looking your best. You never know whom you will run into! Make sure to pass this sense of pride on to the people around you.

3. Know what looks good on you and stick with it. In the years I knew her, she almost exclusively wore separates, especially structured jackets, rather than dresses. Know what works on you and own it.

4. Get the fit right. Find a good tailor (such as your daughters) and make it fit your body type.

5. If you love something, buy multiples. In fact, you can never have enough ¾ sleeved white boat neck shirts, even if your stuffed closet tells you otherwise.

I agree with each of these rules to varying degrees, but they undoubtedly play a significant part in my memories of her. I think she would have been very proud to see how well we all looked as we came together to celebrate her.

Indigo in Brooklyn

This I Wear | Indigo Dyeing

My only critique of the indigo dyeing class that I took this past Saturday was that the soundtrack to the class was not Miles Davis “Kind of Blue”, which I am listening to now as I write this. Otherwise, my class at Buaisou Brooklyn was perfect.

Even if you aren’t familiar with natural dyes, chances are you know indigo. It is the original source of the color of your denim. It can be found across cultures and regions of the world. But the truth today is that most of the indigo color that we see is from synthetic (petroleum-based) indigo dye, which was invented just to keep up with our insatiable demand for the deep blue hue.

Indigo is a pretty special plant. While I mistakenly thought it was the root that is used for the dye, it’s actually the leaves, which are fermented. Unlike other natural dyes, indigo also requires no mordant, i.e. a substance added to fix the dye so it doesn’t come out in the wash. It’s no wonder that there is a unique culture that surrounds this plant and its age-old history.

Buaisou is a relative newcomer in the indigo world, created to preserve the indigo culture in Japan and its historic cultivation on an island in the south of the archipelago. They now own a farm in a region that used to be overflowing with indigo farmers, and they travel the world leading dyeing workshops.

In Brooklyn, though, workshops are available weekly, and I joined one after my boyfriend signed us up (he’s awesome like that). Even with a pizza-induced food coma from nearby Roberta’s, the class was so much fun. After a brief intro, each student is given two pieces of plain cloth to dye and total artistic freedom. If that sounds intimidating, it’s not. You literally cannot mess up, so it’s perfect for beginners and more experienced creatives. The only other choice you have to make is if you want to wear gloves when you submerge your pieces in the dye vat or whether you want the street cred of blue hands.

Natural dyes are a tricky subject when it comes to sustainability. The critics would caution that because they are natural does not mean they are organic and free from pesticides, and that devoting good farmland to cultivation of plants grown for dyeing isn’t sustainable because we need to produce food on that land to feed a growing world population. Natural dye advocates argue that natural dyestuffs can be byproducts of food production (example, onion skins and other vegetable waste) and lessen our dependence on petroleum-based dyes. Both sides have their merits.

Indigo is a special story and many of its advocates, including Buaisou, focus on cultural preservation as the art dies away with aging farmers and master dyers.

I believe that indigo production and use at this small artisan level can be sustainable and is most definitely worth saving. Perhaps you’ll try it for yourself to learn more and decide.

Check out Buasiou’s Brooklyn class schedule here. You can also check the site to see if they are hosting a workshop in your city. And as you can probably guess, their Instagram accounts are stunningly beautiful – follow @buaisou_japan and @buaisou_brooklyn.

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