Where Artisans Meet Fashion

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

c.2014 New York Times News Service

NEW YORK — On a recent overcast Saturday morning, an eclectic group convened in an unassuming office within walking distance of the United Nations.

There was Kythzia Barrera, 39, from Oaxaca, Mexico, in a gauzy tunic and sandals, resembling nothing so much as an Instagram snapshot taken at a cafe on a south-of-the-border vacation.

And Jitendra Kumar, 30, from Varanasi, India, serious and focused, wearing formal leather lace-ups and carrying swatches of hand-loomed fabric. With him was Sara Otto, also 30, an American former Peace Corps member now living in India; she looked like a youthful backpacker, with an earring through one nostril.

Meanwhile, Petra Fitzgerald, 40, who is British but lives in Nairobi, Kenya, looked more like a New Yorker doing weekend errands than someone who had flown more than 7,000 miles to attend, in a T-shirt and jeans.

While more than half of the two dozen or so people were in New York for the first time, they were not here to ogle the Statue of Liberty but to get a crash course in the U.S. fashion industry. They were also trying to develop a path of communication, the better to bridge their cultures and Seventh Avenue.

They had been gathered together by Nest, an organization that acts as a matchmaker between artisans and companies in the fashion and home furnishings fields. Nest then oversees those business relationships, offering advice, training and often equipment like computers or looms.

In the mix at the meeting were artisans, their representatives and Nest employees living abroad, like Otto and Fitzgerald. Some participants, like Komarudin Kudiya from West Java, Indonesia, specialize in a skill passed down for generations (in his case, batik fabric making); others, like Swaziland-based Philippa Thorne, have relocated from countries like England to oversee indigenous craft artists (like her colleague Zinhle Vilataki, who accompanied her) and the production and sales of their wares.

“Nest brought together these artisans because they share the same challenges,” said Rebecca van Bergen, 32, the organization’s founder. “One of the largest is, How do you take largely home workers who have produced for local markets with different standards of quality and translate that to a fashion industry, particularly a luxury fashion industry, that has very stringent requirements in terms of quality and replicability?”

Answering the question is increasingly important as “artisan” has become a fashionable word, adding perceived value, both moral and aesthetic, to established brands. Over the past few years, designer labels like Vivienne Westwood, Stella McCartney and Marni have worked with indigenous craft artists, raising the style stakes for items obtained from them.

As the appeal of such products grows, their manufacturing remains challenging; fashion companies are accustomed to the reliability of factory-made goods and usually do not have to deal with obstacles like a monsoon season.

“It’s not ‘How do you make artisans work with luxury fashion in Europe and New York?’ it’s ‘How do you make it work for both parties?'” van Bergen said.

To address the issue, Nest created what it dubbed its Artisan Summit, bringing employees from American brands like Public School, Nanette Lepore and West Elm to the Nest offices to offer guidance in everything from production to accounting.

Like an actual school, there was a field trip: a visit to ABC Carpet & Home, the Manhattan store that sells products like beaded necklaces from Nepal and Tunisian fouta towels.

“My team were fascinated,” said LanVy Nguyen, who works with craft workers in Hue, Vietnam, and who arrived with two colleagues. To them, she said, the class demonstrated, “Wow, out of some mountainous region we can be in one of the biggest markets in the world.”

The buoyant van Bergen, who brings to mind Sally Field in the 1960s television show “Gidget,” founded Nest in 2006. After earning a master’s degree in social work from Washington University in her hometown, St. Louis, she entered a contest to create the business plan for a startup company; her concept for Nest won the $25,000 grand prize.

The organization began by microbartering — lending artisans money to produce goods, then selling the products to recoup those loans — but eventually eliminated sales to become a nonprofit. It has been involved in the production of Trina Turk glass-beaded necklaces in Tiruchirappalli, India; nubby cotton separates in Nairobi for the Elder Statesman; and handwoven Ikat FEED tote bags in Guatemala City. Nest has also worked since 2011 with Maiyet, a New York firm with artisan alliances whose clothing and accessories are sold at stores like Barneys New York and Galeries Lafayette.

On the summit’s final two days, Nest set up a makeshift showroom at a Manhattan hotel, its product-laden tables resembling a church fair. Representatives from brands like Sophie Theallet, Rag & Bone and Calypso St. Barth took a look.

At the end of the trip, a 50-person fundraising dinner was held at the hotel. At one long table, interior designer Tamara Magel chatted with Thorne about making custom place mats to sell on Magel’s website, and with Barrera from Mexico about shipping costs; at another, Meredith Melling, a fashion consultant, was in deep conversation with a representative from the Clinton Global Initiative. The evening prompted one donor to sign up for a fundraising trip to Swaziland in the fall.

“It’s strange and surreal,” van Bergen said of moving between the worlds of developing economies and urban fashion. “I was a social worker. I never imagined being a consumer of luxury fashion. To see the process from design to rack, I mean, it’s art. Honestly, it’s given me a whole new respect for it.”