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Sep 19, 2017

Country Profile: Jess Bercovici's Guatemala

For our first country profile we turned to have Jess Bercovici; archaelogist turned ethical fashion designer and owner of Stela 9, Angelino turned Antigua resident and overall inspiring lady share her passion for her adopted country, Guatemala.

what makes guatemala so special?

Guatemala is an insanely diverse and vibrant country. Its people are ranked amongst the happiest in the world and its geography boasts microclimates of tropical coasts, humid lowland jungles and ruggest volcanic peaks. This is why, while banana plantations clutter the coasts; there are also pockets of wool production in the highlands of Totonicapan amongst pine trees and cold mountain temperatures.

This region is also quite famous for the hundreds of Mayan and other pre-Columbian ruins that lie beneath the surface. A few have been uncovered and reconstructed, like Tikal but many are yet to be unearthed.

One of the special things about Guatemala is that most indigenous communities still wear their traje. While mostly women wear their huipil (back-strap loomed textile blouse) and corte (foot-loomed textile skirt), there are still a few places where the men represent their dress (which is typically a loose fitting collared work shirt and pants with cinched in belts). The traje each person dons is indicative to where they’re from. So for example if a woman is wearing a huipil with purple and white stripes with birds embroidered into the neckline, 99 times out of a 100, she’s from Santiago de Atitlan.

which handicrafts are prevelant in guatemala?

Handicrafts that thrive in Guatemala are carpentry, wood working (masks), weaving (both backstrap and footloom), leather work, and pottery.

Which textile techniques/raw materials are available and used in Guatemala?

Natural fibers like cotton and wool are the most commonly used threads in weaving. Acrylic threads were introduced to the country in the late 20th century and have taken over much of the marketplace because of their low cost. Fortunately, there has been a strong resurgence and focus on working with natural dyes over the past few decades, especially in San Juan de Atitlan.

Traditionally men operate the foot-loom while women weave on the backstrap loom. This is because the backstrap is more mobile and one can watch over a household and weave from any location that has a place to hang the loom. The footloom on the other hand is very large and location specific.

Can you give an overview of the indigenous population and how they are affected by the handicrafts industry?

60% of Guatemala’s population is made up of indigenous people, which is more than 6 million people. In addition to that, there are 25+ different indigenous populations within that grouping and 25+ different dialects of indigenous language.

Because of the extreme unequal distribution of wealth in Guatemala more than 75% of the population lives below the population line and as I’m sure you guessed, 60% of that is the indigenous population. For the most part, living below the poverty line in Guatemala simply means that they live in a more rural environment and have communities that are more self-sufficient. However, these people do not have access to the same education that an individual from a more urban area would have. This applies to health-care and clean drinking water as well. There is a stronger focus on crafts because they are learned traditions passed on through generations. Weaving thrives in these small, rural communities. For as long as there is a market and general interest in the production of crafts, there will be work for these individuals and these incredible forms of art will continue to be preserved. In an idealistic world, it would be wonderful to get to a point where the communities have access to higher education and also continue to pass on these crafts. According to recent statistics, the indigenous participation in Guatemala’s economy is at a 62% output. Most of this relates directly to the craft sector.

You recently made the decision to move to a direct sales model. Can you tell us what led you to that decision?

When Stela 9 first launched, almost all of my energy went into building a brand that I could cater to wholesale accounts. Specifically large retailers like Urban Outfitters, Free People and Anthropologie. This worked and for a long time 90% of our business was producing our designs for the wholesale market, which isn’t necessarily a bad things and it works for many other brands. However it was bad for Stela 9. We were putting so much time and money into spitting out collections that we weren’t actually making any money. And for a long time I thought that was okay or normal and that as long as the artisans were benefiting then it didn’t matter if I personally wasn’t making any money. This went on for a long time. I had to hire more people to help with the demands of the business, all along still not making money. So increasing my overhead to balance our growth but consistently unable to pay myself. I felt like a horse with blinders on. I was just trudging along until that one day that maybe we’d get one account or investor or partner that would help us better sustain our growth. But, then one thing happened that created a domino effect on my whole business; we didn’t get paid. A few accounts we were working with at the time filed for bankruptcy and we lost all of the product we had already delivered to them (typically accounts like these pay on net terms, meaning that they usually don’t even start to think about paying you until 30 days after you’ve delivered the product). Stela 9 has never had capital. There are a host of reasons for this, mostly being that I kind of didn’t really mean to start a business that grew as quickly as Stela 9 did. So when those accounts couldn’t pay us, I couldn’t pay our artisans and I couldn’t pay my employees. I thought I was going to lose everything. After letting all but one employee go, I still owed all of our artisans money. Quite a lot of money. The people I started my business to help were in danger of losing their own business and everything we had worked so hard to build together. I didn’t build a strong enough foundation for Stela 9 to support incidents like this. The best analogy I can think of is when you’re on a flight and the attendants are going through the safety manual with you and explain that in the case of an emergency, you must put your oxygen mask on first before you help your child. I never did that. I just gave all of our air to the artisans but then almost lost everything in the process. The bankruptcies in a weird way gave me time to stop and take the blinders off. I reevaluated everything we were doing and noticed that wholesale was completely detrimental to our financial growth. We spent too much money on sales commissions and financing these orders. It also put a lot of pressure on the artisans to create products quickly because we were essentially directly competing with fast fashion. So now with our capsule collections, we are not producing as much as we were before, we’re doing it a little smarter this time. We now have longer lead times for the artisans and smaller cycles.

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