Guest post: Why I started Kakaw Designs, my own ethical brand

Mari Gray is the founder of an artisan-made ethical fashion company, Kakaw Designs, that designs and produces boots, bags, and accessories in Guatemala. Mari reached out to me to share her story, sponsor a giveaway (coming next week!), and share a discount code just in time for Mother's Day. Read on to learn more about Mari's journey, her approach to the weaving tradition, and her problem with the word "charity."

Mother's Day Sale
25% off Scarves and Accessories
*For orders over $50, valid until May 8th

Mari Gary, founder of Kakaw Deisgns

When I was little, I remember sleeping by my mother’s side surrounded, or even on top of, piles of yarn. She would be weaving, and I would be sleeping.  

This was halfway around the world from Guatemala, and the style of weaving entirely different, but it just shows that textiles have always been in my life from a very young age.  I grew up surrounded by fabrics, yarns, and threads. I never thought I would work in such a field, but here I am now, and I guess the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

Still, my mother and I are very different. She approaches weaving as an art. She’s an artist, and fiber art is her medium. But me? I was drawn to it from the artisan-made perspective, and the possibility to work with weavers and other artisans for sustainable, grassroots development in Guatemala.

After studying International Relations and Spanish at UC Davis, I took off to Latin America as fast as I could. I didn’t even go to my graduation. I backpacked a year, then started teaching English, and many random jobs and many more countries later, I was back in Guatemala, where I was born. Now, it’s been over three years since moving to Guatemala, and it has become my new home.

I was never set on starting my own ethical brand, or working with artisans. Not at all. The idea came to me only after being back in Guatemala for a while and realizing the great influx of non-profit organizations and different sorts of “charity” projects. Why so many in Guatemala? And why so protective of each group’s work, when the goal should be a common one, to assist and empower the Guatemalan locals? It didn’t make sense, and the more I learned, the more I realized how tricky sustainable development can be in this small but complex country.

On my website, I state clearly that Kakaw Designs “is not a ‘do-good’ charity project.” What I mean is that we are not giving away anything, or “helping” someone who may or may not deserve it. I feel like the word “charity” has that connotation: of helping the poor, hopeless people who cannot make it out on their own. That seems demeaning, and I have a hard time taking seriously any group that calls themselves a “charity.”  

At Kakaw Designs, we prefer to build solid partnerships with talented artisans, working together so that we can produce higher quality products and open up more possibilities, including access to a larger global market and ideas for creative design. The world is a big place and Guatemalan village-life can feel so far away from the rest of the world. Sometimes we all need help thinking outside of the box. I know I’ve been there.

Guatemala is small, but it can feel so big with 21 official Mayan languages still spoken today among the indigenous population. Certain Mayan traditions remain alive too, including weaving. Backstrap weaving is performed by women to make their huipil (wee-pill, traditional blouse), but there are less and less women wearing their traditional dress.  It is such a labor-intensive process, and it only makes sense for people to prefer the cheap thrift-store leftover clothes that get sent down to Guatemala from the US. Why would you spend weeks weaving one huipil if you can buy a used T-shirt for just a few quetzales?  

I won’t pretend that my little business will save the weaving and embroidery tradition of the Maya, or anything like that. But isn’t it important that the artisans know that they possess valuable skills, and that their skills are appreciated? I also consider it part of my mission to educate the consumers, the people so far removed from these traditions, exactly what it means when something is “woven on a backstrap loom” or “naturally-dyed” and such.  (And hey, if you don’t know these words, make sure to watch our video!)  

The weavers and embroiderers will continue with their craft as long as it makes sense to them. Financially, I help with that equation by paying above fair-trade wages for their work. But their kids? This is one of the dilemmas we face, a double-edged sword: the more money the rural artisans make, the more opportunities their children will have, and the more likely the children will be to leave their little villages and head out to a bigger city. We need to keep in mind that increased income means better nutrition, higher education, and overall more opportunities in life. Yes, it would be sad to see the next generation leave these beautiful traditions. But my hope is that with the increased income (because consumers understand and value their work), it might continue to make sense for artisans to keep living their artisan lives. Maybe even with the endless opportunities in life, there might be a few apples that don’t fall far from the tree. Maybe there might even be a few apples that are more innovative, and can transform the rural artisan life into something new. We won’t know until we get there, but the best we can do right now is to continue supporting these traditions.

Kakaw Designs is my little social enterprise. It’s not a charity; it’s a business. We care very much for the artisans and their future in Guatemala.  We believe that the best way to support these talented people is by creating beautiful things together, and spreading awareness of their traditional crafts. We hope you like what you see.


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