Tagged: artisan

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.

Inside Story: Design Ethics

This I Wear | Design Ethics

When we speak about ethical fashion, usually we refer to what went into the item – how it was made, who made it, and with what. But what about the ethics of design?

Not too long ago, a friend shared with me the story of how a New York-based designer, a true champion in the current “Save the Garment Center” initiative, had mistakenly labeled a fabric print as Aztec when in reality, it was a classic design from the South Pacific cultures including Fiji. I don’t have the full story and I don’t know if the matter has yet been resolved with an apology or a renaming of the product in order to give proper credit. However, as soon as this was brought to my attention, I realized how much of an issue this is today.

The “issue” is intellectual property, in this case patterns and designs, of indigenous peoples around the world. And as the fashion industry (as well as the home goods industry) increasingly expresses interest in “artisan” goods, it’s important to ask if the goods were actually made by artisans or just inspired by their designs. And if they were just inspired, the next question to ask is if the company paid the artisans for the licensing of the designs.

Because in reality, there is no shortage of examples of the fashion industry stealing from artisans, indigenous peoples, and small makers.

One of the most prominent cases is of the Maasai, a tribe in Africa known for their speed and agility as well as their beaded crafts. In 2011, The Maasai Intellectual Property Initiative was established to pursue legal action against companies that use their tribe name to describe their products without asking for permission or giving payment for the licensing. It truly is a sign of the times when the goals of the initiative include talk of a “cultural brand”, but at the very heart of the issue is that 80% of the Maasai are living in poverty, and major brands from Jaguar to Nike have been vastly profiting off of the reputation of the Maasai in branding their products.

The first time this struck me, though, was reading about artist Tanya Aguiniga’s interest in helping bring clarification to the distinction between Native American-inspired and Native American-designed and –made through her “Artists Helping Artisans” program. The distinction made headlines when Urban Outfitters used Navajo-inspired prints in their collections and labeled them as Navajo and then claimed they weren’t doing anything wrong. Unfortunately, at least at the time, the Navajo designs weren’t copyrighted, though they could press Urban Outfitters to remove their name from the offending products.

I think of this often when I see jewelry or other accessories commonly produced by artisans in bigger mainstream shops and wonder if they were actually made by artisans or if they were copied without any acknowledgment (or payment!) given to the original artist. You only have to watch a few episodes of “Man Shops Globe” following Anthropologie’s buyer Keith Johnson to see that there is a fine line between supporting global craftspeople and going home to mass produce something “inspired” by the designs seen during travels. But you can also see something on Etsy or at a local craft fair only to see it in replicated in a major retailer’s costume jewelry line the following season to know that this problem is not exclusive to the global handicraft market.

If major designers can sue for counterfeit handbags and designs stolen and produced by mass retailers like Forever21, it’s time to protect the little guys too.

With current trends in artisan goods skyrocketing, make sure you’re buying artisan made and not artisan inspired. When you see an ethnic print, ask questions about the origin. And let’s make ethical design, just as important as ethical production and trade.

My Closet: Strangers with Woven Handbags

Kenyan Woven Bag | This I Wear
I never felt comfortable engaging strangers in conversation when I was growing up. Living in the South, everyone inexplicably wants to talk to everyone. If you are shy, every stranger in the grocery store, every grandma in a restaurant, and even the mailman on the street become the enemy. I was always considered shy, especially in school, and somehow I believed it. During college, I became a resident assistant to alleviate the burdensome expenses of private education. It was a job that made me incredibly uncomfortable, but it also broke me of any habit of not opening my mouth when I had something to say.

Not too long ago, I spent a few days with a college friend who lived near Eastern Market, an historic farmers and craft market I had shockingly never visited while I lived in DC. It was a gorgeous day, and the market was full of locals stocking up on vegetables for the week and tourists shopping for crafts. As we strolled along, a tent overflowing with colorful woven handbags caught my eye. Unsure if I even could squeeze a souvenir into my luggage, I reasoned I’d at least keep the vendor company until another customer came along.

The bags and the salesman turned out to be from Kenya. At the time, I was considering a visit to friends in Nairobi, so my questions naturally poured out: When is a good time to visit? What is the weather like? What is your opinion of Nairobi? Where did you grow up? The man answered all of my questions willingly, though he seemed surprised by my interest. Then we talked about the bags. His mother, who still lived in Kenya, was his sourcing agent. She placed orders with a local women’s group that would weave the bags and decorate the leather, which she then shipped to him in DC. Each bag had a small hand-cut leather label, “Made in Kenya.” I chose a small bag in my favorite color, green, and asked if in future, he’d request the bags to be made in stripes too. I thanked him for the conversation and left.

Whenever I talk with strangers, I am extremely conscious of the conversation, as if I’ve just accepted a challenge: can I successfully balance asking questions with listening and avoiding awkward silences and perhaps even elicit a smile? It is practice for me, helping to make up for my younger years of letting others do the talking. Whenever the conversation is successful, I feel a small sense of accomplishment, as well as gratitude to that person for sharing a few words with me. I learned a lot about him, Kenya, and the bags in our 10-minute chat, yet I also got an added benefit. Had I not been willing to ask the questions I did, it would have just been another handbag. Luckily, the conversation and the person brought the bag to life, and now my bag is a conversation-starter in itself.

Have a story of getting to know the person behind the product? Share by tweeting @ThisIWear or email me at rebecca@thisiwear.com.

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