If you’ve ever thought about starting your ethical fashion company, or if you’re curious about what it’s like to be the founder behind one of these brands, this is the interview for you! Adele, the founder of Fair Trade fashion brand, Abrazo, gets REAL.
She talks about what it’s like to build a fair fashion brand from the ground up, the step-by-step process of creating and launching a collection, the daily life of an entrepreneur running a clothing business, and the realities—both the challenges and joys—of working with artisans.
Alright so let’s dive in…
First off, can you share with us a bit about your background and how you came to found Abrazo?
My background and training is as an artist, and not as a designer. I actually founded Abrazo quite by accident!
My husband, daughter and myself wanted to spend some time abroad in Mexico. My daughter was nine and wasn’t very excited at the time, but we want her to have a more expanded view of the world.
One day, when I was driving in the area, I came across a young woman walking down the road, who looked like she was in need and offered her a ride. The woman, whose name was Martha, offered to sell me some embroidery work she had done. I declined the pieces she was selling, but offered her the possibility of some work and invited her to come to my house the next day. At the time, I had no idea what type of work I could find for her, but knew I wanted to help!
She showed up the next day at my front door with her mother-in-law. I had a couple of blouses from the market and asked them if they knew how to embroider or could help with alternations to make them fit a bit better. So, they started modifying the blouses and then went home for the day. The next week, more women showed up to my house to work on the blouses, and then the following week, more women, and it continued to grow from there.
By the time I went back to the States, I had so many embroidered market blouses and knew I had to find a way to sell them. So I did a Trunk Show… and they sold out!
The next time I went back to Mexico, though, I knew I had to figure out how to improve the fit and make nicer patterns. You know, your friends will buy once, but if it doesn’t fit well, they won’t buy again.
And so, we continued to improve the designs and more women continued to show up to my house. The people in the village were really open and warm, and they worked really hard. The fact that they showed me their commitment made me want to work really hard at this.
The next time I went back to the States, I did a full trade show and we did well enough to get a few wholesale customers. We also started calling people who we thought might want to buy our stuff. And before I knew it, Abrazo was born!
What was and is your criteria when choosing which artisans to work with in the Oaxaca and Chiapas communities?
At the beginning, the goal was to give employment to any woman who wanted to work. As we grew, though, our standards for quality rose and our need to form strong, committed groups also grew.
For example, we gave embroidery training workshops in the techniques we wanted to use and the most committed and talented women advanced, while the less committed either reduced the amount of work they did or decided to drop out. Now we have certain protocols for adding artisans into our groups.
They must pass a skills test for the craft we are hiring them for (embroidery or weaving) and they must meet a set deadline for delivery.
Also, in order to be part of the team, the artisans must be team players and be able to become a constructive member of the group. Which was actually a concept we had to teach, because at first the women were very competitive with each other. We worked on teaching this from the beginning, because it’s important for us that our artisans are committed to the success of Abrazo as a family of a people, and not as individuals.
Finally, the artisan must be flexible, willing to listen, and open to collaborating.
What does the process of producing a collection with Abrazo look like? Take us through the stages from design to production to selling these pieces.
Our collections require a lot of time for design and production—it takes approximately 3 – 6 months from concept to finished garment hanging in a store. I collaborate on the designs with my colleague, Sylvia Sova, who is very involved in day-to-day operations in the U.S. In addition to managing production and other structural parts of the business, she is integral in helping to craft the vision for our line. We start by mapping out a basic line-up of styles and fabrics for each season. The combinations we create are based upon contemporary trends and the embroidery is based upon traditional designs and techniques in the areas where we work in Mexico. I then create drawings of the embroidery designs and sets of colors that I think will work with that the fabrics for each style.
Then, I take that matrix to Mexico and spend about a month working directly with our artisans to discuss the combinations with the embroiders and finalize the specific designs and colors. I collaborate with the master embroiders to bring their ideas to life—it’s very much a team effort.
Once the designs are finalized and the samples are complete, I’ll run off to the shows with the pieces (which is invariably 10 minutes later!) and see how those garments are perceived there and which ones people order. Based on this, we’ll drop things out, or notice a hole in the collection and add something in.
By the time the Spring shows come around in January and February, we have our full line ready and then we roll out our collection for wholesale and retail on our website.
What makes this process different than traditional fashion brands?
Unlike a lot of apparel companies, we keep some pieces year-round, like the white blouses.
Another major difference is that we don’t have our full collections ready all at once. Since our product is handmade, doing 500 of one product just isn’t feasible. Generally we get 30-50 pieces in of any one design in order to launch the collection, and then depending on how popular the products are, we’ll go back to re-produce certain designs. We’re always going back to producing throughout the season, so it’s a bit more organic.
This process is more difficult than traditional companies who just have one bulk order shipped over from China, for example. But it’s the way we have to work, because with the nature of the product, it’s just not an overnight turnaround process.
You travel between two homes—Oaxaca, Mexico and Oregon— what are the challenges and benefits of living and working in two completely different communities?
It’s definitely great if you love to travel! But it really is like running two completely separate businesses. Each team has a very different set off needs—the issues in Oaxaca are very different then the ones we see in Oregon.
In Oaxaca, they’re constantly dealing with production problems, or natural disasters, or maybe there was a strike happening…that sort of thing. Overtime, we’re learning what their needs are and are adapting to that. I’ve been restructuring the business back in Mexico, and it’s going much smoother now.
Something that made a huge difference recently was letting go of the male, regional Mexico manager and hiring a female to manage the group. I’m proud to say we are now a completely women-owned and run business!
What I had initially perceived to be a high-maintenance center that needed my constant attention is gaining strength to be more independent and self-directed. Now, in this current situation, women feel empowered and I can really see them blossoming! They feel happier, more confident, and more positive about their future.
Another positive change with the team in Mexico is that we have a weekly site call now. They’re learning how to do the business down there—how to ship a package with FedEx, how to find who they need to call for an issue or situation, and other things like that.
We also had some difficulties with competitiveness between the artisans at first, but now we really are teaching teamwork and encouraging collaboration among them.
On this side of the border, we have our own set of situations and issues we come across. We’re dealing with customers, getting product delivered on time, and more operational things like that.
A critical part of owning a business in two countries is to have a person or few that act as the bridge between the different areas. And at Abrazo, that bridge person is me.
What does your typical day look like as the founder of a Fair Trade brand? Or is every day different?
Every day is an ascent of Mount Everest with the most spectacular view on top (most days at least!)
This job certainly requires a LOT of energy, resilience, and no small measure of stubbornness. There are daily cultural collisions and ever-so-many-moving parts…
I work long hours and the learning curve is always steep, as I have no traditional background in business.
And as for the day-to-day, every day is unique and rolls from highs to lows and back again.
For instance, today I had a shipment stuck at the border, and then was calling people trying to figure out why it was stuck. I’ve also been working on the list of things that needs to happen before the trade show we’ll be attending in New York. On top of that, we had problems with orders and since two of our US team were out on vacation, that also became my job.
But then, you get a really great email that just completely makes your day. Today I received an email from a passionate customer saying that she wanted to stop by to visit us in Oregon while she is traveling on vacation because she loves us and really believes in our mission… so that was nice!
Abrazo is kind of like the perform storm business. You’re dealing with a different country and you’re dealing with handmade product. On top of this, as an ethical fashion brand, we have much higher production standards than traditional brands. We also have really high standards for quality that our customers have come to expect.
Honestly, it’s really not the smartest way to do business in any sense! But I never do things the easy way. And in the end, it’s not about making a ton of money, it’s about creating beauty, encouraging these women, and giving these artisans a marketplace for their crafts.
Entrepreneurship certainly requires a significant time, financial, and emotional investment. Social entrepreneurship can be even more intense considering how deeply you care about the issues you’re solving. Do you think you’ve been able to find work-life balance as a social entrepreneur?
The short answer is: no, I don’t have much work-life balance.
I am very busy and I travel all the time, I used to ride my horse, paint… have friends (ha!)
Thankfully, I love what I do and my family and (most of) my friends are very understanding. I think this is true of many entrepreneurs building a business. It just requires constant attention.
Thankfully, I am so fortunate to work with great people. This past year has been much easier for me than the past ones, but it’s still a lot of work. And I don’t think anyone owning a business would tell you any different.
What kind of difference do you believe that Fair Trade and ethical fashion can make for these artisans and for the world?
I don’t have lofty goals of this—I believe change is generational.
If moms can teach their children the idea that people are capable of great things even if they don’t have the education or the means, then that kid will become that kind of person. Then, they will hopefully teach their children to be a better, more understanding person. And I think it continues to go like this through the generations.
At Abrazo, we really push education and empowerment. I’ve seen the difference in the women we work with.
Most of the women that started with me are still with us. When we started, they wouldn’t even look me in the eye or speak in a full voice. Now, they laugh, they joke, and they have a sense of calmness.
Now, they have their own money they pay for their children’s school and you can see the pride they have from that.
And I can see, that after they start bringing in this good income, they suddenly have more power and more equality in the household with their husbands. They have more say in how things are run and the decisions made.
What is the unique value that artisan-made goods provide to the consumer?
Our customers know that a woman made this piece, and that income she made from that blouse helps to improve her life.
To some people, how the product was made doesn’t matter, but to most, it absolutely does. Our customers are definitely the ones that care about where their clothes and products are made.
I just had a customer say the other day “ I love the clothes, I love the story, and I feel good when I wear them because I know they’re helping other women.”
Really, that’s the benefit—that our pieces have the back story that they have.
Why do you believe that fashion can be an avenue to empower women and/or these communities around the world?
Well, one basic fact is that the unique talent that many of these disadvantaged women bring to the table can be appreciated on a commercial level.
The level of sophistication and master craftsmanship is unprecedented in many of these communities. However, these artisans can’t always sew. So you have this opportunity to harness that skill and honor these women for the talents that they do have. The sense of self-esteem of many of these artisans is very much connected to what they’re creating.
And then when you can translate something that unique to the general population for consumption, it’s really incredible. Everybody here is like “Oh my god, I’ve never seen anything like this!” People can’t believe that these pieces were embroidered by hand.
So suddenly there’s this double validation—the artisans are immensely proud of what they’re creating, and the consumers are really impressed with the beauty and quality of the product.
For us, fashion is a great area, and a great medium for us to work in. There’s a clear distinction with handmade products and people are really willing to pay more for this sort of handicraft and speciality.
Abrazo’s mission is adapting these crafts to the American aesthetic while having the owners of those styles do the embroidery. We need our clothes to appeal more to the American market, so it’s important for the designer to harness those skills of the artisans.
A huge part of what we’re trying to do is honor their traditions. We want to share their work with consumers, while keeping the money flowing to the communities that these traditions came from.
Where do see Abrazo going next, and what do you hope for the future of Abrazo?
Well, I’ve been super committed to the success of this business and we’re standing on much stronger legs now than when we started. It remains challenging, but our capacity and skills have grown immensely with our very talented team and we are now ready to grow more quickly.
I’d love for Abrazo to outlast me and become a strong entity of it’s own. And I’d like to continue to employ more women, and for it to gain the recognition that all the people who built it deserve. I really hope to keep it growing and to keep positively influencing the people that are working with it. Additionally, I’d love to establish a fund for girl’s education in Mexico.
I am so inspired by the women and that’s really what keeps me going. The woman I picked up on the road who essentially started this whole thing, Martha, really gained her confidence. One day, when I was visiting her home, (a tiny house made from sheet metal and dirt floors), her husband showed me the new room that they built. And although he took the credit for this expansion, she was the one who paid for it and I could sense her pride that she had built this new room in her house.
And eventually, after earning enough money working with Abrazo, she was able to support herself and her children so that she could leave her husband that abused her.
After many years with Abrazo (unofficially 8 years and officially, about 6 years) we now have a really amazing team of people who thrived when given the opportunity.
Where do you see the future of Fair Trade and the ethical fashion industry going?
I think ethical fashion will continue to grow. The 20 and 30-somethings are the most socially conscious generation ever! As this group continues to have more purchasing power, they’ll continue to steer it in the right direction.
While we definitely live in difficult times now, these are the kind of businesses that give hope to people. Our society can evolve into something that does have a more a global concern for others and for humanity. And the change can be really powerful.
Hope you all enjoyed reading all the insights and stories from Adele of Abrazo! I really appreciated her delving into her fascinating journey and being transparent about the real struggles and triumphs of running a social enterprise day in and day out.
You can discover more about Abrazo and shop their unique pieces on AbrazoStyle.com.