Building a Fair-Trade Fashion Line Out of ‘Pride, Not Pity’

In a international of rapid fashion, sustainable-fashion manufacturers tout their determination to transparent and ethical production. While items from those organizations can be luxurious, the purpose is to pay producers a living salary at the same time as developing stylish, exceptional garb.

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As resistance to fast style was picking up, Harper Poe graduated from university and began a daily activity that didn’t encourage her. She gave up, and with a chum, went on to located Proud Mary Global Textiles, a company that sells honest exchange accessories, domestic goods, and apparel. She companions with artisans in nations that include Mali and Mexico, recognized for pleasant handcrafts. Before Poe launched Proud Mary’s first collection in 2008, she had no actual experience within the subject other than running in brief in indoors design. She says that she’s sought out steering alongside the manner that’s helped her balance her enterprise’s task with its bottom line.

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For The Atlantic’s collection on mentorship, “On the Shoulder of Giants,” I spoke with the Charleston, South Carolina-primarily based clothier approximately the promise and pitfalls of social entrepreneurship, as well as how she patterned her winding profession path on an in-demand mentor’s. The communique that follows has been edited for length and clarity.

Harper Poe: The concept is that Proud Mary is a enterprise-to-business courting. A lot of people are like, “We’re empowering girls.” That’s outstanding, but there’s something wrong with that. When you are saying you’re empowering someone else, that’s insinuating which you have the electricity, and you’re announcing, “Oh, I’ll come up with a number of my electricity.” But the artisans who are making these products—I can’t weave like that, I can’t make that embroidery—they already have a number of electricity. We wouldn’t be in the commercial enterprise if it wasn’t for these artists.

Poe: I become dwelling in New York City a yr prior to launching Proud Mary. I studied creation control in college, and I turned into working for a trendy contractor in the town. I simply burned out on running nine-to-5 in New York City, so I gave up my process, went to South America, and volunteered with Habitat for Humanity. For the primary time, I noticed women weaving textiles, and the cultural significance of it virtually struck a chord with me. I got again to New York, and I started taking training in international affairs due to the fact I became additionally interested in international development and lowering poverty.

It changed into a super typhoon of various passions coming together at one time. A pal and I started Proud Mary together, and we launched our first collection of purses, pillows, and small accessories made in Guatemala at the stop of 2008.

Brown: Who has guided you as you’ve found out approximately the moral-style motion?

Poe: Starting out, I had no concept of what I became doing and possibly didn’t ask for enough assistance. I just knew this turned into my calling, and I was going to form a enterprise and discern it out. I met Elaine Bellezza. When she was 40, she became dwelling in San Francisco as a private chef and artist. She ended ones and joined the Peace Corps in Cameroon and ended up living in Mali for 15 years. She had a gallery and started out working with artisans there. She’s been developing handcrafts all across West Africa and did a few paintings with the World Bank.

She turned into constantly outstanding encouraging of me. Whenever there was an opportunity to bring a dressmaker on some of those improvement journeys, she would encourage me to apply for it. I assume that she, in reality, challenged me and nonetheless does. She simply continually told me to no longer having a bleeding heart approximately this work. I certainly found that challenging every so often. She’s like, “This is business. Go do the paintings. The right will pop out of those business relationships.” I consider that lots.

Brown: How did you land up operating with women in Syria and Mali?

Poe: I think Mali is the country that’s likely the nearest to my heart. I went there in 2011, and fell in love with the textiles and the humans and the track. I went with Elaine, who had lived there for 15 years. I commenced speakme along with her, telling her I desired to paintings with textiles in Ghana. She said, “You must go to Mali—they have stunning stuff.”

I had listened to the information, but knowing human beings in a place, knowledge their point of view and why things are happening, modified the sport for me. Some of our artisans’ spouses have been killed in the warfare. Since then, the safety scenario has deteriorated. A lot of artisans we have been running with there don’t really have an outlet for his or her merchandise anymore.

I additionally desired to do some thing with the refugee crisis in Syria. I located a Syrian-American woman via the Ethical Fashion Initiative. She started a workshop with approximately six ladies who, a number of them, ISIS had taken over their villages. Some have been double refugees from Palestine, and now had been internally displaced in Syria. They make purses and jewellery. They’re looking to grow and scale to 75 women inside the subsequent six months.

Poe: We hit a tipping factor with [the 2013 garment-factory collapse] in Bangladesh. Conscious consumerism has come a protracted manner, however there may be a protracted way to move. We’re vulnerable to exploiting a number of the producers and some of the artisans, from a advertising standpoint. I fear that terms like “ethical style,” “artisan-made,” “empowering women,” all those buzzwords, human beings are not going to reflect consideration of the women—which might be a chunk dangerous. The brands which are doing this painting should be sincere and informative, now not overzealous in the use of any other character’s story to promote their merchandise.

Brown: Have people reached out to you for recommendation or mentorship because you started out Proud Mary?

Poe: Yeah, I’ve had some humans wanting to begin sustainable businesses. And I even have one assistant/studio supervisor. She graduated final year, so she’s looking to parent out what she desires to do. I try to loop her in as tons as possible, tell her approximately my route and how very nonlinear it was. I allow her to know it’s okay to make mistakes—it’s k to try to have 5 one of a kind careers until you figure out what you want to do.

Jessica J. Underwood
Subtly charming explorer. Pop culture practitioner. Creator. Web guru. Food advocate. Typical travel maven. Zombie fanatic. Problem solver. Was quite successful at developing wooden tops in the aftermarket. A real dynamo when it comes to exporting glucose in Bethesda, MD. Had moderate success managing action figures in New York, NY. Set new standards for selling crayon art in Salisbury, MD. In 2009 I was getting my feet wet with sock monkeys for the underprivileged. Spoke at an international conference about merchandising toy elephants in Nigeria.