BREAK THE CYCLE OF POVERTY WITH YOUR PURCHASING POWER

“I could have just as easily been born in any of these countries with any of these outcomes. I happened to be born in the States. I happened to have a supportive family. I happened to be able to have education. It’s the luck of the draw—it’s where I ended up, and it could absolutely have been me.”

Jen with Seamstresses Cata (left) & Silvia (right), “after laughing at how ridiculously tall Jen is.”

Purse & Clutch Executive Director Jen Lewis has always felt a sense of global responsibility. Her father was born and raised in Nigeria. Growing up, Jen heard stories of uncles that lived there and in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. As a high schooler, Jen completed service trips to Mexico and Bolivia, and then lived in Honduras for a year after graduating college working as a chemistry teacher and spent time in Guatemala City and Antigua as well. Despite the vast differences between these cultures, Jen noticed a common thread: time-honored craftsmanship of exquisite textile products. Her “business mind”–she earned a Master’s degree in leadership and ethics from John Brown University–began working: she could connect these artisans to a wider market to sell their wares. And thus, Purse & Clutch was born.

“It was genius; it just made so much sense,” Jen says. “They’re already making their own pieces… all that was missing was the opportunity and the connection to a market and that, for whatever reason, felt really doable.” Purse & Clutch started out in 2011 as a boutique, working with existing fair trade brands and “really just curating [its] style, which is a little bit more classic, a little bit more clean lines,” Jen adds. For five-and-a-half years, Purse & Clutch grew as Jen learned more about the lives of the artisans she worked with: living in developing countries, “once they were offered a job they were able to completely transform their own lives.” She saw “what worked and what didn’t in terms of really sustainable development for communities and artisan groups,” and wanted to take that knowledge a step further by working with these artisan groups more directly and making a deeper impact. So when, almost a year ago, a woman named Eden connected with Jen to offer a partnership with her Ethiopian-based non-profit leatherworking artisan group, Jen enthusiastically accepted. Then, a few months later when the designer of One Loom Design, a brand Purse & Clutch had already been working with, asked Jen to acquire the company, she agreed to that too. Purse & Clutch now exclusively sells its own brand, designed in collaboration with and produced solely by Ethiopian leatherworkers and Guatemalan weavers.

Before Purse & Clutch, Jen says, “I actually didn’t know anything about the fashion industry. I didn’t know how corrupt it was, I didn’t know how dirty it was, I didn’t understand the environmental impact.” High fashion and ethical, environmentally friendly manufacturing are often opposites, but Purse & Clutch seamlessly merges them: “The ways [the artisans] are working are natural and are so much better for the environment… For example, the indigenous way that the Mayan women of Guatemala dye their fabrics is completely natural. There’s nothing in it besides different botanical items. The brand works then to “synthesize things, and make them easier and faster”; to “return back to working the traditional artisanal methods and then add that design component so it makes sense for someone in the States… who likes design and beautiful colors and whatever’s on trend right now.”

While Purse & Clutch has seen immense success, the business does encounter unique difficulties. “The first thing an investor will ask about your business is how will it scale,” Jen says. “But we’re working with weavers who each have different individual needs: a lot of them need to work at home, because they’re single moms with school-age children or younger. So it’s working and adapting to what they need, and that’s not scalable. We can’t insert any weaver into this business model we’ve created.”

We’re working with weavers who each have different individual needs. It’s working and adapting to that.

But to create its own business model is exactly how Jen and Purse & Clutch have solved these issues. Jen speaks about getting to know the individual workers personally and gradually adding more weavers or leatherworkers in a flexible system. “We’re able to change our business model a little bit and say, ‘Sure, if you can weave mainly solids we’d be happy to have you in.’ We find ways that fit whatever the specific needs are.” Other issues could arise in cross-culture communication, or through obstacles unique to the natural production methods. But Purse & Clutch’s mission, and the artisans it employs prevent Jen from becoming discouraged when she encounters a difficulty. She says, “We have to keep going as a company. We have twenty artisans that are relying on us. I just have to figure it out.”

Guatemalan Craftswoman Rosario hand-botanically-dyeing cotton thread to be woven into fabric.

Another issue emerges when bringing the product to the Western market, and the lack of information about indigenous fabrics and their production. “It’s really easy to dilute the art and to not really understand what goes into it,” Jen explains. “Maybe people weren’t even aware of what Guatemalan fabric looks like. Or it’s easy to get knock-offs at Urban Outfitters that are really screen-printed… We tell that story: this is why this is a $70 clutch. There are eight steps that go into it, everyone is paid fairly, it’s all natural. It takes that education piece as well.

But upon hearing this information, “people immediately get excited,” says Jen. “It immediately makes sense. They say, ‘Of course we want these things done better, of course we want more transparency.’ And I knew that—it was nice to hear that, although it can be complicated, people get it. It’s that awareness piece. Because once you know, you can’t un-know or un-see it. It’s something that sticks with you, and it should. It’s important. It’s people’s lives. It’s seeing people as human.”

Purse & Clutch will be participating in Fashion Revolution Day on April 24th in Austin, Texas. Buy your ticket here.

Shop the Purse & Clutch inaugural Spring collection here.

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Photos © Jen Lewis, Purse & Clutch. All Rights Reserved.