HP: I grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina. I had a very nice, suburban upbringing- so nice that it bored me. I was always very restless and until I studied abroad in college I didn’t know how to fix it. I just knew there was more to life than my little bubble growing up and once I starting exploring the world I knew that that is what I wanted my life to be, exploring. So, after school I moved around a lot…Costa Rica, France, Colorado, LA, and then NY. I loved NY. I started Proud Mary while living in NY in 2007 with a good friend of mine, Molly Purnell. Molly and I used to get together multiple times a week and brainstorm about how we could combine our love of travel, textiles, design, and economic development. I was really into the idea (and still am) of economic development and how we could use consumerism to create sustainable jobs for artisans in the 3rd world. This was the catalyst to start Proud Mary. We launched our first small collection, handmade in Guatemala, in late 2008. Soon after that, I moved down to Charleston and Molly left Proud Mary to go back to school. For the next few years I put Proud Mary on the back burner to work on some other projects and really picked it up again in 2011. Since 2011 I’ve been full time at my perfect job. Proud Mary is now working in 5 countries; Guatemala, Morocco, Mali, Niger, and Peru and selling to about 40 retail shops around the world.
W + C: Explain the idea behind “pride not pity”, your company’s motto.
HP: My mentor always stressed to me to treat all of our relationships with our artisan partners as a business-to-business relationship. By holding them accountable for timely, quality work and in return providing a fair wage and access to broader markets they are empowered and can take pride in their work and themselves. In my mind taking pity means giving hand outs and exceptions for not keeping up their end of the bargain. The artisans we work with are exceptionally talented men and women and by celebrating the beauty in their products we can keep the conversation positive.
W + C: Can you tell us about your time in South America with Habitat for Humanity and how it influenced your ideas about running a business with artisans from other countries?
HP: This was my first glimpse into traditional craft. I was in Chile so they are not necessarily known for their textiles like Bolivia or Peru, but of course textiles cross borders and the Mapuche ones are really amazing. I think I fell in love with the people as much or more than the textiles. I loved working day to day with people from a different culture and that really inspired me to make that part of my career. Being able to email with someone in Mali in the morning (via Google translate, my French is awful), then Skype with my shoe producer in Morocco, and finish the day with a phone call to Guatemala makes my world feel really big which makes me incredibly happy.
W + C: Would you recommend the Habitat for Humanity experience for others?
HP: Absolutely. It’s travel with a purpose and you meet the most amazing people!
W + C: In which countries have you found the work of artisans particularly inspiring? What are you generally drawn to when choosing someone to work with?
HP: There are so many amazing traditional textiles in the world. I’m really drawn to African textiles for their color (or lack of) and simple geometric shapes and stripes. Some of my current favorites are Kuba Cloth (from Congo), Aso Oke which is Nigerian strip weaving, and of course mud cloth from Mali. My goal for Proud Mary is for it to be a global exploration of textiles and work with cultures/countries that are known for having a strong textile tradition. When I first start working in a new country I will do the research, see whats possible and learn about their techniques. From there I will take their techniques and put my own spin on them. I’ll come up with an idea sometimes and they look at me like I’m crazy because it’s not traditionally what they do aesthetically, but that combination between my ideas and how the producer sees the project is what makes the products special. I love that Proud Mary products are not so obviously ethnic and that you can’t always tell where it’s made.
When I’m looking to expand into a new country I will go through non profits and/or NGO’s that are working on the ground and know the situation with the different artisan groups. There are a lot of organizations that do artisan capacity building, meaning they work with artisan groups and get them to a point that they are export ready. They make sure the artisans have the capacity to produce in volume, have a bank account, can email, and properly pack and ship orders. Proud Mary is so small and doesn’t have the resources to do this work ourselves so I have to depend on folks on the ground to act as a facilitator and connect the dots.
W + C: Are there any artisans/ cultures that you haven’t had a chance to work with but hope to in the future?
HP:I’m dying to work in South East Asia. Something is drawing me to the Phlippines. There is obviously a need there in terms of economic development and their traditional textiles are stunning and fairly unknown which is exciting.
W + C: If you could go anywhere tomorrow, where would you go and why?
HP: Mali. It has my heart.
W + C: What are your go-to travel items- what is always in your bag?
HP: A camera, scarf, notebook, and weleda chapstick.
W + C: Who or what defines your idea of true style?
HP: The most stylish people I know seem to have a uniform. They know what works, what they feel good in, and own it with little regard to trends.
W + C: THANK YOU Harper!