West meets East: Bridging local artisans with Western markets

Social Enterprise

West meets East: Bridging local artisans with Western markets

Women gathered in Ethiopia. Photo: Joni Kabana/Mercy Corps.

Hammered silver jewelry, handmade journals and woven bags are connecting people from all corners of the world.

Three businesses are finding success by blending fashion with social enterprise, providing artisans with the security of a safe job, dependable income, health care and education.

But styles and miles separate Western consumers from the Eastern artisans, so the companies also are developing ways to appeal to their target customers while integrating the artisans into the larger picture of the company.

Raven + Lily, Yvel, and Yu Handcraft each developed its own approach to the challenge. In email interviews with Global Envision, they described how they learned to reach out to their artisans and create supportive partnerships.

Developing the business
Raven + Lily sells high-fashion jewelry pieces, handmade journals, bags and apparel crafted by at-risk women in Ethiopia, India, Cambodia, Kenya and the United States. The company initially found artisans through its earlier work with micro-enterprise programs in Africa and India that had trained women in design skills. Once Raven + Lily was established and successful, it was flooded by hopeful artisans. The company now keeps a wait list.

Jerusalem-based Yvel sells jewelry created by Ethiopian immigrants in Israel. The company also established a school, Megemeria, to teach students the art of jewelry making to help them gain skills for future employment. Yvel first found employees at temporary housing centers for new refugees. Like Raven + Lily’s experience, word of mouth quickly spread and Yvel soon had artisans knocking at its door.

“By the second year, the reputation of the school and its project had already spread, and we had to decline more than 200 people because we had room for only 21 of them,” said Isaac Levy, a co-founder of Yvel.

Three-month-old Yu Handcraft sells traditional mochila bags made by Wayuu women, from the La Guajira Peninsula of northern Colombia and northwest Venezuela. Co-founder Madeleine Furuvald started selling some of the women’s bags while she was traveling in the area in 2011. The response was so strong that Furuvald and two Colombian friends decided to start a company to buy, sell and promote the colorful bags.

Appealing to Western consumers
Raven + Lily co-founders Sophia Lin and Kirsten Dickerson have a background in fashion and design and wanted to create products that would both alleviate poverty and interest consumers.

“The goal was to create designs that had a modern aesthetic but also reflected the beauty and culture of the women,” Dickerson said.

To accomplish this, artists for the Austin, Texas-based company sketch out jewelry designs that artisans then follow, using their traditional jewelry-making techniques and natural, handmade, and eco-friendly materials.  

Conversely, Yvel and Yu Handcraft maintain the style and craft of their independent artisans, and then market the products on consumer-friendly websites.

At Yvel's Megemeria jewelry school, students are taught how to make and sell their own jewelry designs. Students receive stipends, and profits go back to finance the school.

Yu Handcraft products are bought directly from artisans and then re-sold on the company’s website.                                                                              

Communicating the broader image of the company                                                           
Without access to computers and Internet service, artisans would have no way of knowing how consumers respond to their handiwork. So Raven + Lily employees visit sites with lookbooks, videos, and printed materials that demonstrate the popularity and success of the company. Dickerson also uses maps to share stories about women in other countries with whom Raven + Lily partner.

“When the artisans in Cambodia heard the stories of hope about the women in India and Ethiopia, they felt connected to the women in our other partnerships and were amazed to know they have had similar struggles as them,” Dickerson said.

Yvel can communicate its mission and the image of its company to its artisan employees, Levy said, because they live in Israel and generally have access to the internet and other forms of media.

Yu Handcraft’s Furuvald admitted that sharing online products and feedback with artisans is still a challenge, since the company is so young.

“At this moment we haven’t promised much to them as we are a newly found company, and we are just trying to create a demand,” she said. “Once we are sure we can have the volume needed for empowering them, we will be able to share our thoughts.”

The three companies prove that blending fashion and social enterprise can work. They provide employment, income and independence to underrepresented communities, who have often never before profited from their traditional craft or art.

The artists who pound out the silver and weave the bags will never meet the Western shoppers who buy their handicrafts with the click of a mouse. But Raven + Lily, Yvel and Yu Handcraft are finding ways to bridge the distance between very different worlds, bonding artisans and consumers through the beauty of jewelry and the cultures it represents.

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