Harper Poe (how’s that for a southern name?) from South Carolina has created one of the most well-recognized ethical artisan brands out there with Proud Mary. A true boho chick, she wanders the globe looking for gorgeous textiles and handcrafts from traditional cultures to incorporate into chic throw pillows, bags, shoes, clutches and wraps, which grace real and virtual shelves of both conventional retailers and ethical retailers like Accompany.
“Being involved in these projects is for me a perfect balance,” Poe says. “I love the international development business, plus the craft aspect, history, culture, and then it’s just beautiful. Just purely aesthetic.”
I’ve been following her work for probably five years now. And I wanted to know more about her. Turns out Jason, founder of Accompany and probably one of the few people who’s more of a nerd about ethical fashion and design than I am, was five steps ahead of me and had already interviewed her on the topic.
So get to know how she handcrafted her own perfect career at the intersection of design, fashion, development and global travel.
1. Get to Know Your Country
“I’ve always had a major case of wanderlust and wanted to figure out a way to incorporate that into my job and life,” Poe says. “So I quit my job and did some volunteer work in South America for Habitat for Humanity.” As a former designer, she fell in love with textiles. But she also had an interest in international economic development. So she combined the two, founding Proud Mary in 2008 with a friend, starting in Guatemala.
“I wanted it primarily to be a global exploration of textiles, touching the regions or cultures that had strong textile traditions,” Poe says. “It’s easier to deliver a message if you’re working in one place, but it’s what differentiates Proud Mary from other companies.” So she identifies countries that have strong textile traditions, then seeks out non-profits or NGOs that are on the ground there doing artisan capacity building, identifying groups that are able to produce and export, have banks accounts, and have a representative that speaks English.
“When I first start working with a country, I like to go spend a little bit of time so I can see what materials they have available and get familiarized with their methods of production,” Poe says. “I’ll have an idea of what I think I want to do, and I’ll go there and see a type of weaving or dyes I’ve never seen before.
2. Get an Agent to Help You
I have a facilitator or agent in each country that’s on the ground. When it’s time to place orders with them after a trade show, I’ll go through my agent who will get the orders out to each artisan group, which makes it easier. There’s no way to do this work unless you have an agent or facilitator in the country,” Poe counsels. That is, unless you’re working in only one country and can afford to visit three times a year.
After working in Guatemala, she turned to Africa, linking up with a woman who works for West Africa Aid, a project that is funded by USAID that works to boost the private sector in West Africa. “She had headed up the handcraft sector for 25 years and spent 15 of those in Mali. I didn’t even know where Mali was, but she totally sold me on Mali. Their products are absolutely incredible.” Mali is also awash in organic cotton and indigo, the beautiful, deep blue dye. One nomadic tribe in Mali called the Tuareg rides the desert on their horses, trading silver and leather. They dress all in blue and the indigo dyes their skin. They’re called the Blue People.
Mali is located along a traditional trade route in the Sahara. You might have heard of the famous city of Timbuktu. “People have been trading there for thousands of years, so they have an entrepreneurial spirit,” Poe says. “They hustle and barter. But Mali is the eighth poorest country in the world, so it’s difficult to work there. The infrastructure is not there. Any sort of large scale production is out of the question.”
3. Stick Around Despite the Obstacles
Poe started working in the country in December of 2011, getting to know the artisans and coming up with samples. “There was already some weird things going on in the North of the country,” she says. “Timbuktu used to be an amazing city – there were tons of music festivals, travelers from all over the world used to go there. People had stopped going, there were kidnappings. There was an air of something bad being around the corner.”
The artisans she worked with were suffering, since they made their best income from the tourist market. Three months later in March, there was a military coup, and the country descended into war with Al Qaeda. “Trying to work and export products was really interesting,” Poe deadpans. “The coup happened exactly when I was trying to get my first round of products out. They ransacked the custom offices so all the paperwork and the stamps, everything was gone. They literally had one stamp in the country. They had one register that listed all the names of companies and who they were shipping to, and they couldn’t find that either.”
The master indigo dyer that does Proud Mary’s caftans lost her husband during the war, and disappeared into mourning for a month. But these challenges only brought home how important Poe’s work was. “Being in Mali for a month, going through their war, having that connection makes me feel like I want to work harder and sell more for them. During the war time, I was probably one of two companies they were exporting to, I felt that Proud Mary was impacting them. My goal when I work with people is to stick with them for the duration. I don’t like the idea of placing a huge order, they hire a bunch of people, and then I’m done.”
“That was a crazy year, but I ended up getting the product. They’ve been catching up since then.” Things have calmed down, and Poe hopes to go back this June. Meanwhile, she’s been ordering an assortment of indigo dyed items for Pround Mary: totes, embroidered pillows, and shibori-dyed caftans.
“Indigo is a crazy thing,” Poe says. “It’s alive. They harvest it as they go. The process of making an indigo vat, you have to move it around and oxidize it, and make sure it stays alive. You have to constantly be tending to it.” Once they’ve printed the fabric, called tagne, Poe has sewers and tailors in the capital city of Bamako sew the bags.
4. Try Out a New Country
Poe has witnessed the power of Fair Trade economic development. “A lot of the artists I work with in Guatemala are too busy,” she says. “They get orders from big importers like Pier 1. So I’m comfortable moving on to another country that has less going on where I can make more of an impact.”
That next country is Lesotho, a tiny country of 2 million that is completely surrounded by the more developed South Africa.
“The handcraft sector in Lesotho is relatively nonexistent. None of the groups I met with export at all. It was really exciting for me to help steer their product development and aesthetic sense from the beginning.”
Lesotho is at a very high elevation, so the cold climate lends itself to the production of wool and mohair, but the traditional craft is in danger of dying out. “The young people see their parents struggling and don’t want to do craftwork. In Lesotho I was talking to one of the artisans I’m working with, and was asking her about how we could preserve her craft. Her response was, ‘If they see us making money, they’ll be interested in this.'”
“Being able to afford to live your life the way you want is the goal for anyone, whether they are in Mali or New York City,” Poe says.
6. Make Something People Will Want, Out of the Skills The Artisans Have
Poe has given a lot of thought to the line balancing making a product the people will buy, and allowing the artisans the leeway to craft the way they always have. She’ll keep the technical aspects the same, but introduce new colors or designs.
“It’s a big argument in this industry, you don’t want to disrupt what they’ve always done and their traditions,” Poe says. “But these people are artists, and to tell them that they should do it exactly the way their mom did it and their grandmother did, and not to change anything, that’s kind of weird. You wouldn’t tell an artist here that. In my experience, they welcome the growth and the opportunity to learn something new.”
Poe admits it’s not always a smooth transition. “A lot of times they’re like, ‘This is the stupidest idea, it’s never going to work.’ And I’m like, ‘Just trust me! Try it!'”
7. Be Ready to Engage in Business Education
Proud Mary also commissions shoes from Morocco, working with women in villages outside Marrakech to weave the colorful raffia uppers and cobblers in Marrakech to put the soles on.
“We started with six women and more than doubled that. And they’re at capacity,” Poe says. She’s had to establish trust with the artisans to convince them to work with her needs on production. “We ask them if they can train a couple more women, but they don’t want to slow down to teach anyone. They’re poor, so they don’t want to waste time or miss out on the income. The idea of sustainability is difficult to get across in the developing world.”
Proud Mary hired a couple more women in the same village. “One woman walked past another woman making shoes and was like, ‘That’s my job!’ and got really mad. We had to do some damage control and tell them that we need all of them,” she says.
Despite these minor challenges, Poe is committed to the shoemakers. “The shoes are great. I would love to have my own little workshop there. It’s not possible right now. But in the future. I don’t see raffia shoes as a trendy thing, I think they’ll stick around.”
Some of the artisans that Poe works with don’t know what to expect, but they’re hopeful. “They have an attitude of, ‘We’re doing this together, we’re partners.’ They have this naive approach to everything, which is really nice. They have no idea what is possible. It’s a lot of responsibility to have someone count on you to help take their business to the next level.”
8. Price Generously but Efficiently
One of Proud Mary’s biggest challenges is pricing. How do you pay artisans what they are worth while still keeping goods affordable? “If they’ve exported before, and they understand the idea of volume and wholesale, then they understand,” Poe says. “If you’re talking to someone who has only sold in the local tourist market, they’re going to try to sell their goods at the highest price as possible. I try to convince them that if they lower the price, they can sell 500 of them instead of five of them.”
“When I started I had more of a bleeding heart approach, and now I approach them as partners, and I’m very matter of fact about it. I want them to make money, so we figure out what price should be. What do the materials cost? What is the overhead on this?”
Result: Improving Both Their Life and Yours
In the end, it makes for satisfying, adventurous, and beautiful work for Poe.
“My world doesn’t revolve around Charleston, South Carolina,” she says. “I can talk to someone in Morocco in the mornings, and Skype with someone in Mali. Because the world is big, and everyone is not the same. Living that is important to me.”