While in London for graduate school, two friends from New Jersey, US, fell in love with the Kantha embroidered fabric quilts of Bengal. “I wanted them with me everyday. I was obsessed with them,” says Virginia Dooley. So Dooley and Nicole Jones decided to turn the quilts into purses. Partnering with Sasha, a Kolkata cooperative of women weavers, the duo started Rising Tide Fair Trade, making bohemian purses that have since caught the eye of Oprah Winfrey and Freida Pinto. Before rushing off to her “real” job—Dooley works for an international development grant maker while Nicole is a buyer for a major US retailer—Dooley spoke to Lounge about the worth of the word “handmade” and how each purchase helps women in Bengal. Edited excerpts:
How did you find the Kantha artisans?
We found a cooperative that is really well trusted and respected in the fair trade world. I have been to India for a week, but with my other job (we both have full-time jobs). I haven’t been able to go see the artisans. The whole business is run by a lot of email, and patience and faith. It goes really slow. The nature of the product takes a long time to make and the nature of the business is not meant to be mass production. We’ve been in business for five years, but it’s only taken off this year.
What cachet do the words “handmade” and “fair trade” have on the international fashion scene?
The knowledge about fair trade is limited in the US, but it’s growing. Sales have been declining in the mainstream market, but sales in fair trade have been growing.
Fair trade products are still expensive products. It’s still sort of an elite (purchase). But shopper values are changing. Those words—handmade and fair trade—definitely are a selling point. The whole green craze has taken over, so it’s definitely helped us.
Can you describe your look and how you would wear the bag?
The hobo bag is a slouchy carry-all, with more of a relaxed bohemian look. The weekender bag is more of a structured look. The weekender bag is great for a post-wedding getaway. It’s a popular wedding gift.
What has the response been like?
Randomly, we’re a hit in Canada. People get really personal about their purchase. They’re so touched by the business model and they feel like they’re doing something amazing by buying it.
You have some celebrity fans already, Freida Pinto being one of them .
Actress Maria Bello saw the bags in Oprah magazine and contacted us. Her agent helped put us in touch with other actresses and we sent a bag to Freida Pinto, who wrote us a letter saying how much she loved it. We thought it would mean so much to the weavers that someone from their country was enjoying their product.
How does the purchase of the bag help the weavers?
When you buy a bag, you’re supporting demand for more work. These people are getting paid; it’s a business; and you’re supporting their economy. We don’t take a salary. It’s not to be pious; it’s just the way it is. And we donate a percentage of our profits to programmes that encourage young women to get involved in business and teach them entrepreneurial skills. By nature, women are entrepreneurial, but the environment sometimes doesn’t necessarily let them. Kantha stitch can be done at home, lending itself to raising children.
Have you researched any other Indian fabrics or weaves? Any plans to branch out into them?
The idea was to go to different countries and do different textiles. We’re looking at Thailand next. Then, maybe Bolivia and Sudan and Mali. But that’ll take a really, really long time.
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