Textile Importer Defends Artisan's Rights

by - Monday, August 16, 2010

From the Maiwa Archive. This story was originally published in the Vancouver Sun ten years ago on May 1, 2000. We are proud to say that we are still dealing with artisans the same way. The text of the article is reprinted here or click on the images for a PDF version.

by Alan Daniels
Sun Business Reporter, Vancouver Sun

[Photo caption] THREADS of HOPE: Charllotte Kwon works tirelessly to improve the lot in life for Indian workers who make cloth such as this.

Charllotte Kwon spent $250,000 buying textiles in India last year for her Granville Island stores, but could have paid 30-40 per cent less if she hadn’t been so determined to drive prices higher.

In a complete reversal of conventional wisdom, she thinks globally and acts locally, and her business philosophy is the antithesis of the traditional bottom-line mantra to buy low and sell high.

Instead, she believes in paying above the going rate for the complex weaves, botanical dyes and collector-quality embroidery that she purchases.

On buying missions to remote Third World villages, she convinces artisans to raise their prices, because she believes they should be paid more like professionals than subsistence workers.

Traditional textiles are her passion, she says and she believes improving living standards of people who produce them is the only way they will survive.

“It appalled me how much was disappearing at a fast pace,” she says. “I love being part of this age of technological advances, but I can’t bear to see what the world is losing in the collective, creative energy of cultures and all of their history.”

She says the first time she tried to get artisans in India to raise their prices, they reacted with amazement and distrust.

“’She’s going the wrong way. She’s bidding up. She doesn’t know how to negotiate.’”

She deals with that by showing local people the actual price stickers from her store, translating Canadian dollars into rupees.

“I tell them. ‘This is what I sell for. This is what it costs me to move it from your village to Mumbai. This is what it costs to ship it to Vancouver. This is how much I pay Canada Customs. This is what I pay my employees, this is my rent on the store, this is what I pay in tax and this is what I can pay you.”

In most cases it is substantially more that the artisans previously were getting.

“They have been stepped on so much under the Indian system,” she says. “Crafts people are really low on the respectability totem pole, yet society places art at a high level. They need to see themselves that way.”

Dismissing any suggestion that she is a charitable institution, Kwon says she operates a profitable business, employing a dozen people in Vancouver.

Maiwa Handprints, which includes two retail stores selling clothing and bedding with a production studio in East Vancouver, and an office and warehouse in Mumbai grosses $1 million last year.

“I’m doing this because I want to prove to myself it’s possible,” she says. I am not going to pay minimum wage, I am going to see where my maximum is. I live okay. I don’t need anything more.”

Kwon insists she is a business woman, not a benefactor, although she concedes that whole families – even villages – in India depend on her orders.

“We don’t just drop in somewhere and say, ‘Do you weave? Anything happening here?,’” she says. “Careful research happens first. We will visit and area, get a feeling for it, talk to people, see if there’s a market, assess whether we would upset the balance.

“Only then do we get product samples done. Once we have established a working relationship as professionals – say two or three orders a year – we will not leave them. They will make the decision that they want us to leave.”

When she started her business a decade ago, Kwon, a weaver and silk-screen artist, travelled widely in Asia to learn about her art and find materials – in China, Thailand, Japan, Indonesia – but India became her passion.

“I am a high-energy person; I have incredible drive,” she says. “India was the first country that used all my energy and creativity. I was really exhausted there.”

She goes four times a year, usually travelling by jeep to villages in which she deals directly with the artisans.

“I won’t deal with co-operatives run by the Indian government and I don’t deal with governments here,” she says. I am very single-minded about that.

“I have hired a local man and his mother in Mumbai. We have established an export company and we have an export number that crafts people can use.”

Kwon refuses to deal with agents, because that’s where the corruption begins. Dealing directly with the artisans guarantees they get full payment and ensures continuity of supply.

In a village called Ntuma, in the northeastern state of Nagaland, production for Maiwa has grown from three weavers to 30. Yet it took three years before any product reached her store because initially it didn’t meet her standards.

Kwon says she persevered because she could see the potential and she paid for every shipment she rejected.

Finally she was rewarded with what she describes as “absolutely perfect product” a complex weaving produced on a backstrap loom with supplemental weft, which she uses for pillow covers, place mats, table runners and bedding.

In some cases, she has taken photographs of traditional weavings from London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, or the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C and persuaded artisans in the areas in which it originated to recreate it.

“It eats at you when you love certain things the way I do,” she says.

In Vancouver, Susanne Summersgill, owner of Some Piece of Work, a store which sells naturally-dyed clothing for children, and is a teacher in the textile department at Capilano College, says Kwon is a frequent guest-lecturer.

“She talks not only on the technical side of weaving, but also about her business, which is inspirational,” Summersgill says. “The students are just in awe of her at the end.

“It’s about ethical business. It’s about making a difference in the world. It’s about stepping lightly and it’s about fulfilling her passion. She is an amazing person.”

Kwon, of British background, married to a Chinese, notes that originally she had no ambition to open a retail store. She applied to open a studio in Granville Island and found she had space for both. Soon the retail side took over.

“When I realized there was an extraordinary number of talented people in the world who couldn’t continue because they couldn’t find a market in their country, my business started to have an identity beyond my own work,” she says.

It was a huge realization when I realized I could be quite happy creatively in ways that didn’t require me to produce anything. I could be a link or bridge to people that were producing work that just astonished me.”

Kwon says she has great respect for the artisans she works with to the point of paying for all product that was destroyed in a recent cyclone in the state of Orissa on the Bay of Bengal. In return, she expects loyalty and quality.

“There has to be a responsibility an liability on both sides,” she says. “I am not going to put a product in my store that isn’t going to show its worth as absolutely the best.”

Kwon credits teamwork and the enthusiasm of her staff for Maiwa’s success and for spreading it’s credo.

“I truly believe there’s a need for economic trade in the way that Maiwa trades. There can be different ways of trading. It can still happen in a global economy. There isn’t just one model. There can be lots of different ways and lots of people can make a living from it.

She says she is sure there are others who share her philosophy.

“I would love to have a conference of this type of business,” she says. “We could all get together and see how each other is doing. There’s definitely room for that.

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