Made and Worn with Pride: Proud Mary


Proud Mary Harper Poe

With a passion for economic development and appreciation of global textiles, Harper Poe leaps around the world engaging disadvantaged communities and their indigenous talents for craft with a “pride, not pity” approach to partnership. Here, she shares some colorful anecdotes and words of wisdom from her journeys creating the Proud Mary products featured on Accompany.

>>Mali, West Africa

Through USAID’s West African Trade Hub, Poe connected with artisans and forged relationships with master craftsmen and superior textile workshops, but also encountered unexpected complications after arriving there in December 2011.
“There were some weird things going on in the North of the country.” says Poe. “For example, Timbuktu used to be an amazing city - there were tons of music festivals, and travelers from all over the world used to go there - it was the city once paved in gold. But people had stopped going, there were kidnappings, there was a lot of volatility. Something bad seemed to be around the corner.”
“Within three months, the Malian Army had staged a military coup, leading to widespread unrest and subsequent conflict with Al Qaeda”  Harper Poe
“The customs office literally had one stamp in the country and one list of companies registered for exporting, and no one could find either.” Poe explains. Fortunately, she was able to keep business operating - one of just two companies able to get goods out of Mali and into foreign countries.
“Along the ancient trade routes in the sahara desert, people have been trading for thousands of years and have a strong entrepreneurial spirit.”  Harper Poe


>> The Blue People

Proud Mary’s Malian products use dyes made from the country’s indigenous indigo plant, manipulated through generations-old techniques. The region’s deep ties to indigo hued fabrics are quite literally written on the bodies of the semi-nomadic Tuareg tribe.
“The Tuareg are master craftsmen in silver and leather craft, traditionally livestock breeders and traders of luxury goods who travel through the Sahara on the backs of horses and camels. They dress all in blue, and the indigo kind of dyes their skin, and so they’re actually called the Blue People”
To create pieces like Accompany’s caftan and tote bag, native indigo is harvested, then carefully maintained and applied to cotton fabric that is also locally grown and prepared. “It’s a crazy thing - it’s alive. The process of maintaining an indigo vat takes a lot of time. You have to constantly be tending to it.”

mali indigoproud mary shibori caftan



While the industry doesn't like to see existing craft techniques disrupted, Poe has a fresh perspective on  balancing the preservation of and respect for traditions with the market demand for fresh, relevant designs.

“These people are artisans. To tell them, we want you to it exactly this way, the same your mom did it, the same way your grandmother did it, we don't want you to change anything - that's kind of weird. You would never tell an artist here [in the U.S.] just keep doing something the same. In my experience, they welcome the opportunity to learn something new. Understanding how it’s made and [keeping] the technical aspects of the product the same, but then changing colors or designs without totally going away from what they do traditionally - i think it’s fairly easy to find that balance.”  Harper Poe


>>Moroccan Cobbler Diplomacy

“The idea of sustainability and capacity building in the developing world is difficult to understand: ‘If you do this now, you're going to make so much more in the future’”   Harper Poe

One of Proud Mary’s product success stories is set in Morocco, home to the shoemakers behind the brand’s best selling espadrilles. Poe started production in the coastal town of Essaouira, traditionally known for its raffia work,  but moved in order to meet rising demand. “It’s been abit of a transition. We are totally at capacity, which is great.” she says. The raffia uppers are now handwoven 20 women - more than double the original number - who live in villages just outside Marrakesh. The uppers are then passed to and finished by a family of cobblers (father, uncle, brother) who work in the souk, a local bazaar.

Poe has work diplomatically to convince her partners in Morocco that making strategic changes - such as bringing in additional weavers to handle peak orders - can help ramp up business in the long run. But, she says, “It’s hard. We often ask, can we get you guys to train a few more women? And they usually don't want to slow down to teach someone. That’s often the challenge in a lot of places. A lot of them are really poor, so they don't want to waste time, they don't want to miss out”


“We had to add a couple more weavers and they happened to live in the same village. One of the women happened to walk by this other woman's house and saw the shoes and was like “That’s my job, that's my customer!” We had to do damage control and let them know that we need all of you to do this, and we know that you can't handle this on your own. I guess the moral of that story is that women are the same everywhere!”  Harper Poe




In regions like Lesotho, Morocco and Mali, Poe sees where less industrial capacity means less familiarity with the rewards of scaling. “Costing and pricing is probably the biggest, most difficult part of this,” says Poe. When I’m first starting to work with people, if they have exported before and they understand that process, if they understand working with someone whos going to resell and they understand the idea of volume and wholesale in general, it’s a lot easier. But if you're dealing with someone who's only sold bags in the local tourist market, then they are going to try to get the absolute most for that product as possible. Trying to convince them that if they lower their price a little bit they can sell 500 instead of 5 is really difficult”


>>Next Up: Lesotho

Purposeful wanderlust had led Poe to her newest frontier, Lesotho, where the World Bank now funds projects that boost the local craft sector. The region, while abundant in natural resources, lacks infrastructure and market know-how.

“Lesotho has a great number of sheep and lots of wool, but no industrial cleaning system, so the material is sent to South Africa for cleaning and then brought back at a higher price,” explains Poe, noting that the potential for economic growth through some basic capacity building.

With the World Bank’s aid and development of local industry, Lesotho’s wool and mohair can become better priced, and thus more competitive on the global market - keeping more of the economic gains within the community.

Poe says that when she visits a country for the first time, she immerses herself to get familiar with the production methods and available materials and to spend time with the artisans who will become her partner. “I get to know them, they get to know me and my aesthetic sense” and it’s this experience that informs product design, sometimes in unexpected ways says Poe. “I’ll think I have an idea of what I want to do, then i get there and go, ‘Oh my gosh, I've never seen this kind of weaving before.’” Conversely, that time enables Poe to explain what she brings to the table. “[The artisans in Lesotho] don’t really know what’s possible. They don't know exactly what I do. Just trying to explain how the whole process works - it’s like, ‘What’s a trade show?’”

“It's really exciting to be on a project from the very start. When I started, I had more of a bleeding heart approach. And now I think, ‘This is business’ - treating them like business partners and being more matter-of-fact about it, like, ‘I really want you guys to make money!”  Harper Poe



>>What It All Means

Spending time with the artisans who produce Proud Mary’s products “makes me feel like I want to work harder,” says Poe. “I want to sell more for them because I know them, I’ve met their families. And I think that having those connections and having the world not feel so teeny - my world doesn't revolve around Charleston, South Carolina. I can talk to someone in Morocco in the morning, then skype someone in Mali.”

“The world is big and everyone’s not the same, and really living that is important to me”  Harper Poe

Market Mali


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