Proud Mary: A Modern Sensibility

By Kathleen Nicholson Webber

Originally posted in HAND/EYE Magazine on December 15, 2016.

Harper Poe was living in New York City working in a job she hated when she decided to take some courses at NYU in global affairs. She traveled to South America to work for Habitat for Humanity and became more passionate about international development. With training in interior design, she combined her schooling with passions to start Proud Mary in 2008 and works with artisans from Mexico, Africa, and South America to help design everything from accessories to clothing and home goods for sale in the United States, Europe, and Japan.  How does she make artisan appealing? “I go into a place I am working and figure out a modern sensibility,” says Poe from her headquarters in Charleston, South Carolina.
She started her first collaboration with artisans in Guatemala making woven bags and pillows and moved to countries like Peru for woven scarves. In Africa each country brings a new craft. In Morocco she is designing raffia shoes, in Mali, there is mudcloth and indigo dyeing and in Lesotho there is shearling slippers and mohair accessories.
Her newest collaborations are in the Dominican Republic, Syria, and Lesotho.
The Moroccan collaboration came via a friend who was living on the country’s coast and came to visit her in South Carolina wearing the most perfect pair of raffia shoes. “They were the most amazing ankle tie shoes. We initally developed 2 new styles and have expanded from a small group of 8 raffia weavers to 18 in one group and an equal amount in a new workshop. It can take a day to make a pair of shoes from raffia that comes from Madagascar and East Africa. Some of the production is done in the coastal town of Essaouira where there is a workshop women go to work and some in Marrakech where the women work from home.  In the production process the raffia is dyed by hand, then the uppers are woven by the women and soles attached by male cobblers. Over three quarters of what she makes, she sells to stores like Madewell, Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, and high-end Japanese retailers. For spring she has sold 1,500 pairs of raffia shoes made by about 40 weavers. The women began making orders in September.
When working with new artisans, Poe first looks at their traditional designs and materials to understand what they can make. For the shoes, there are standard weaves and a more crochet like technique used. “The traditional raffia shoes we initially saw in the local markets were either an ankle tie, a traditional babouche, or a slight wedge heel both with a standard tight, woven raffia weave. The first shoe we developed was a d’orsay style slip on in the traditional weave and then incorporated a crochet style weaving technique that our artisans introduced to us. Each season we try to introduce a new style including new color combinations, technical sole details, and raffia weaving combinations,” she explains.  For the soles she works with a technical designer to ensure the best design for fit.
She has found that with something like weaving, skills aren’t always being passed down from generation to generation. “Often artisans want to advance beyond what their parents and grandparents have done but by giving them work and fair wages they start to think it is worth it. If their kids see that, they want to continue the craft. I am passionate about creating and maintaining jobs first and setting up the systems long term and then preserving the craft.”
For more information, visit

Arresting Design: Bringing a Creative Collaboration to Market

By Kathleen Nicholson Webber

Originally posted in HAND/EYE Magazine on November 30, 2016.

Susan Bibbings was never that enamored with fashion. In fact, she found it a little frivolous. She had spent most of her life working for charitable organizations and it was during a trip to Africa to help build a Montessori school that she changed her mind about fashion. A trip into Kilimanjaro to get a cup of coffee proved life changing. She stumbled upon a tiny shop selling beautiful beaded jewelry and learned from the owner the pieces were designed by Italian students and made by Maasai tribeswomen. She’d never seen the two cultures mixed before. The result was arresting Bibbings recalls. “I can’t be the only person who finds this interesting I thought.” She wanted to introduce this to the marketplace and asked if they were sold in North America. They were not. A lightbulb when on.
In 2011, Bibbings, who lives in Vancouver, Canada, joined Lotusland Imports (it had been around since 2006 but only selling in Italy and Africa) and began bringing this creative collaboration of ethical, sustainable and fair trade accessories to the North American market. The collection features modern, geometric shaped necklaces, bracelets, earrings and rings she sells to ten stores in Canada and 30 in the U.S. including museum and gallery stores.  Last fall she added a small collection of leather goods made from skins that are food supply sourced turning waste into something beautiful.
Before Bibbings came on board the idea to pair Italian and African Maasai culture came to a Swiss woman named Marina “Tati” Oliver who ran a safari company in the African rainforest and spoke Swahili.  Oliver saw the Maasai women cutting down trees to make charcoal to sell for their survival. It was backbreaking, dangerous work which kept them separated from their children. She wondered how she could help. Giving them a safer way to make a living while preserving their culture was part of business idea. She met Francesca Soldini at Istituto Europeo di Design in Milan through an organization called OIKOS.
The two thought about putting a course together at the design school where students learn about the Maasai culture and history of the beading techniques and they design a piece of jewelry for the collection for course credit. Some of the pieces have more of an Italian influence and some more African. The students learn to be culturally sensitive to the traditions of the tribe, learning what certain colors represent in Maasai. About 22 students a year create a piece that is sold in the collection.
To make the jewelry more appealing to the Western consumer, however, they first had to make it smaller in scale.  “Traditional Maasai jewelry is very large —  like the giant cuffs you see around their necks,” Bibbings explains. “The cuffs tell a story, like a map, of the compound in which they live. The women are very proud of their culture and are always dressed in traditional clothes,”says Bibbings.
The collaboration has given the women an opportunity to bead for others and to get paid a living wage. “Most of the women had only beaded for friends and family before. Now, they get the chance to be master craftspeople with the added benefit of more income.” They can also bead while they are with their families.
Francesca travels to Africa to meet with Tati to work on the new patterns and show the artisans how to do designs. “We encourage the women to get as involved in design and production as they want,” says Bibbings. “We have taken the fair trade model a step further. The women have ownership of the company. They are paid as employees and vote on everything including how the necklaces are priced and they are paid as employees.” They went from employing just five artisans 10 years ago to employing 200.
Right now Bibbings sells through her website, through her current list of high-end retailers, direct to consumer through social media, at trunk shows and fashion shows like the recent Seattle Eco fashion show. 
For more information, visit

Good Karma: Lumily’s Fashion Sense with Meaning

By Kathleen Nicholson Webber

Originally posted in HAND/EYE Magazine on November 25, 2016.

Eight years ago Giovanna Mantilla quit her corporate job in telecommunications and began to travel. She had plans to volunteer in Argentina but stopped in Guatemala first. Born in Mexico to Peruvian parents, the pit-stop proved life changing. “That was it, “she says. “I felt like I stepped back in time.” She met artisans who not only made jewelry but hand and loom-made embroidery for clothing and accessories. “The weaving and the looms were magical. I stayed in Guatemala for four months admiring the strength of the women I met, their culture, their family values and what they made.”
Mantilla spent all of her money buying up all of the artisan made things she could and brought them to California to sell at the State fair. She shared the story of the merchandise with buyers and the reaction was overwhelming. She decided to open Lumily, a company that partners with artisans to create handcrafted accessories, home décor, and apparel that would help preserve cultural traditions and craft making techniques passed on from generations.
Her company has grown from employing eight women to 150 in three countries (Guatemala, Mexico and Thailand) making 400 products with the purpose of providing economic opportunities in poor and destitute areas and follows Fair Trade Federation guidelines. “With fair trade pricing, we follow the guidelines and pay promptly and fairly.  Fair Trade empowers artisans to set prices within the framework of the true costs of labor, time, materials, sustainable growth, and related factors. Lumily exceeds local Fair Trade Minimum standards for our employees and producers. We seek to ensure that income is distributed equitably at all times, particularly equal pay for equal work by women.  We ensure prompt payment to all of our artisan partners. Artisans are offered access to interest-free advance payment for handmade goods,” said Mantilla.
The lion’s share of her accessories come from the highlands region of Guatemala where Mayan women have learned to embroider for hundreds of years from their mothers. Hand and loom embroidering techniques and pattern making is passed down from mother to daughter. 
Mantilla had the idea of making upcycled bags and accessories made from traditional, embroidered blouses (huipiles) made from the Mayan women who take their used hand or loom embroidered clothes to the market to re-sell. The company buys them at the market and has them made into totes, wallets, clutches and backpacks. Other accessories are original, colorful embroidered designs made by the women. Mantilla feels the repurposed textiles bring an energy from their previous life. “Women there still dress the way they did hundreds of years ago. Their wardrobe staples are the huipil or traditional shirt, the corte wrap skirt and a faja belt. Every village wears their own colors and designs on the clothing. “They are masterpieces,” says Mantilla. “Mostly hand embroidered, their designs tell the story of their education, the number of children they have, the dialect they speak, and the village they are from.” Women will wear the shirts for 2-4 yrs. The corte (skirt), made on a foot-powered treadle loom, is much wider, longer, and thinner than that of a huipil. The wrap-around skirt consists of a cut of cloth joined to form a tube which the woman steps into. Because no two of these items are alike, Lumily accessories are one of a kind. 
In the home mothers teach daughter how to embroider and use the looms. “When you ask about patterns, it’s all in their head. These patterns come from ancient times and they are mathematical,” Mantilla explains.
Mantilla travels there 2-3 times a year to work with her production manager and meet with the artisans. The company now sells to 1200 stores around the world.
The impact has been huge. She started working with one family and now it is 100.” To see the changes economically from what they are eating, where they are living — dirt floors and metal walls to a home with rooms and a garden is huge.”  Last year, the company even sent 17 children to school.  “I know these women and their children. I share photos of the trade show booths and of the stores to the artisans. It means a lot to them.” 
Mantilla credits the success and popularity of the product on a changing consumer who want to support artisan made with one-of-a-kind purchases. “There’s been a real shift in buying power in the past 3-4 years. People ask more questions—was it fairly made. It’s a shift of consciousness knowing where an item is made and its’ story it brings.” 
To learn more visit

Changing Demographic Pushes Philadelphia’s Retail Development

By Kathleen Nicholson Webber

Originally posted in Women’s Wear Daily on October 7, 2016.

In the past five years, Philadelphia has exploded with retail and residential development, so much so that it’s hard to keep track of the multitude of cranes that fill the Center City sky.

To the chief executive officer of one of the nation’s largest real estate firms, the booming population in Philadelphia can be explained in terms of sidewalk cafés: Cafés filled with young people, he contends, tell the tale of the changes in the City of Brotherly Love.

“In 2001, there were only a handful in the city,” said Joe Coradino, ceo of Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, or PREIT, which owns seven malls in Greater Philadelphia and 26 worldwide. “Today, there are 370. That’s a proxy for the growth of Millennials and other residents who want to live, work and play here.”

In the past five years, Philadelphia has exploded with retail and residential development, so much so that it’s hard to keep track of the multitude of cranes that fill the Center City sky. By 2018, more than 2.8 million square feet of retail will be added in the city.

Why is Philadelphia more appealing now?

“Most people have a frame of reference in Philadelphia that goes back a decade that includes Rittenhouse Square as the epicenter of wealth in the city,” said Coradino. “Now the wealthiest neighborhood is the Washington Square area. The money has shifted from west to east.”

Thank visionary developer Tony Goldman for that. He came to town at the end of the Nineties and saw potential in Washington Square, taking it from seedy to swanky. The area, called Midtown Village, is where the dollars are. Most recently, adjacent pockets near Washington Square and closer to historic Independence Mall are being snapped up by developers for mixed use. In walking distance from the square, there are seven major developments under way, adding more than 1.9 million square feet of retail and representing a $715 million investment east of Broad Street.

An influx of out-of-town investors are finding Philadelphia’s prices more approachable than New York or Washington, D.C. “The east side property values are lower, so the ROI rate is better now on the east side,” said Catherine Timko, retail consultant with the Riddle company, who helped the team at the Center City District position the city to investors.

According to investment firm CBRE, prime retail rents in Center City are pushing $225 a square foot for corner space. Rents on Walnut Street average $154 for inline space now, as compared to $80 to $100 five years ago for inline space. Chestnut Street is now averaging $60 to $75 a square foot west of Broad Street, as compared to $35 to $40 five years ago.

“The dramatic change in retail rents reflects a change in the quality and character of retailers locating in Center City,” said Paige Jaffe, first vice president at CBRE. “Larger-size retailers such as Target and Mom’s Organic Market are going east of Broad. Ath-leisure tenants like Under Armour, New Balance and Lululemon are paying the high rents of Walnut Street west of Broad.”

The other thing that made Philadelphia attractive was the growing and changing consumer. According to, of the 300,000 college students who study in the metropolitan area, 64 percent are now staying after graduation to live and work (companies with offices in the suburbs are looking to open satellite offices in the city to attract the best talent). Empty-nesters are also ditching the suburbs for this culturally rich, walkable city, and residential has had to keep pace. There are 4,100 units under construction in town. All of these factors have created the perfect storm for investors. “Center City skews twice the national average of Millennials. The missing link was retail,” explained Coradino.

Of the people who are now calling the city home, incomes are up. According to a report by CBRE, in the past 15 years there has been a 288 percent increase in households making more than $500,000. The average Center City household income is $111,034. “When we first started going to investors with these numbers, they said, ‘Why haven’t we looked here before?’” said Michelle Shannon, vice president of marketing and communications at the Center City District. “Investors and developers say Philadelphia is a bargain compared to other cities.”

Several national tenants who cater to Millennials are seeing some of the highest sales per square foot in Philadelphia out of their portfolio.

In 2014, Coradino, PREIT and California-based Macerich invested $325 million in the redevelopment of the Gallery mall, which dates back to 1977 and will be renamed the Fashion Outlets of Philadelphia (Market Street between Eighth and 11th). Its first anchor tenant, Century 21, has taken over in the former Strawbridge’s flagship adjacent to the mall. It was the first out-of-New-York location for the retailer. FOP will feature 125 retailers, including additional flagships, outlets, artisanal dining and entertainment, and will open in spring 2018. The new design opens up the old inward-facing Gallery to the outside. There will be more street-level entrances and lots of cafés. “We are thinking about the visitor walking from Independence Mall to the Convention Center. We want it to be inviting,” said Coradino. Flanking the new development is the Jefferson University train station, where 22 million commuters pass each year, and the Convention Center, which gets 10 million visitors and nearby office workers. Across the street, another development, East Market (11th and 12th streets on Market Street), will feature 325 apartments and retail. “There is $2 billion being invested in the neighborhood. In the next 24 months, it will be transformed to a very hot neighborhood.”

National Real Estate Development will expand the Market East retail district and connect it to the vibrant Midtown Village just south of the project. Dan Killinger worked for Tony Goldman in New York in the Nineties. National bought a rare, 4-acre site across the street from the Gallery in 2013 and has invested $250 million in it. East Market will feature two mixed-use towers, a warehouse space with 130,000 square feet of retail, apartments and 161,000 square feet of office space. One tower will open in the spring and will feature a 15,000-square-foot Design Within Reach flagship. The former warehouse next door will be redeveloped into modern office spaces above ground-floor retail that includes Mom’s Organic. The Marketplace Design Center will relocate to this space. “We were interested in investing here because Philadelphia hadn’t had overbuilding like other cities had,” said Killinger. “If you do it right, you create a place where people want to live and work.”

Also under construction is The Collins (11th and Chestnut streets, The Brickstone Group). Just blocks away, (Sixth and Walnut streets) the Curtis Center, the site of the former Curtis Publishing, is being redeveloped with an investment from Keystone Property Group, Mack-Cali Realty and Roseland into luxury apartments, office space and 50,000 square feet of retail space and will house a P.J. Clarke’s, which will overlook Washington Square.

Not to be left behind, Rittenhouse Square has also seen a revitalization and expansion of retail in the past two years from stores mainly on the square and Walnut Street northward to Chestnut. New independent tenants include Skirt, a designer shop with two other Philadelphia locations; indie boutiques Shop 65, ellelauri and Bela Shehu. “The local boutiques are even more important because it makes us different than a mall and makes us more of a regional destination, too,” said Shannon. Add to that Rag & Bone, Michael Kors, Theory and Under Armour. Veteran designer retailer Joan Shepp moved off Walnut to bigger digs on Chestnut Street.

Just off the square, a new $300 million development, 1911 Walnut, will feature residential and 55,000 square feet of retail. It is being spearheaded by Tennessee-based Southern Land Co. At 19th and Chestnut, Pearl Properties is building another residential tower with ground-floor retail including the city’s third Target.

“Developers aim to draw a young workforce to downtown offices using retail as a strategy,” said Casandra Dominguez, manager of business retention and retail attraction, Central Philadelphia Development Corp. This shopper is attracted to national as well as independent retailers. Just four years ago, before the hum of dump trucks permeated the city, the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator at Macy’s, or PFI, opened its design space at its flagship at 13th and Market. It, too, is looking to open a place in which graduates can share retail and office space. This is the next step for grads to have a space to sell from and do market research. “Michelle Shannon and I have wanted to do this for four years,” said executive director Elissa Bloom. “We always wanted to rebirth this fashion sector in the city. In Philadelphia, access for designers to enter the market is more feasible than other cities.”

Catherine Timko will complete a feasibility study and they hope to open this space next spring.


A short drive from the King of Prussia mall is the new King of Prussia Town Center by JBG Real Estate, the largest commercial real estate firm in Washington, D.C. The outdoor, upscale-lifestyle shopping and dining center, in the middle of the Main Line, features 260,000 square feet of shopping, dining and entertainment. It is intended to be a complementary destination to King of Prussia mall, according to Tom Sebastian, co-ceo of JBG. In the works for five years, it’s next to a 24-hour Wegmans and close to 10 million square feet of office space. “Workers are looking for a place to go. People are eating out more.”

JBG created a main street with 17 buildings that will include a Nordstrom Rack, REI and Ulta. Dining is local (Honeygrow, Davio’s and Cityworks) and from the D.C. area (Founding Farmers). “Many are buying online versus department stores,” he said. “People crave experiences to relax.”

The Town Square is a pavilion with live music, movies in the evenings and a wall of fire that illuminates the square at night. Twenty leases have been signed, but the company hopes to fill the remaining spaces with fashion, accessories and home retailers by next spring.

Fashion Brand Strategist Crafts a Chic, Socially Responsible E-commerce Site

By Kathleen Nicholson Webber

Originally posted in Triple Pundit on September 13, 2016.

Ace and Jig’s cotton woven Beatrice turnaround dress made in India, $340

Social entrepreneur Jason Keehn, CEO of Accompany, worked in fashion brand strategy for most of his life. Mid-career he felt he was missing a sense of purpose. He went back to graduate school to study global ethics but knew policy work and academia weren’t for him. How could he combine ethics and fashion in an entrepreneurial venture?

“I asked myself: Why wasn’t I currently an ethical fashion shopper? I shopped ethically for food,” he says.  In 2013, he set out to create a socially responsible brand that he calls a Barney’s-meets-Whole Foods e-commerce site selling curated high-end apparel, accessories and home goods from around the world.

Tadesse Cognac Bucket bag, $148, Made in Ethiopia, on

On Accompany, you can buy everything from a baby alpaca fringed poncho dress made in Peru or a windowpane woven dress from India, to a black horn inlay bracelet from Kenya, a beaded clutch from Guatemala, or a leather backpack from Ethiopia. The products are artisan made, fair trade and also serve a philanthropic or humanitarian need.

The traditional craft techniques used in making the products on the site are reflective of the cultural heritage of a community. “People are looking for brands that are sustainable and related to human values. We have 125 brands impacting 43 countries that are stylish and do the most good, “ Keehn explains. “The idea of supporting people and communities inspired the name Accompany.”

The Accompany design team comb the world looking for items for their shoppers who are fashion forward, words not normally reserved for eco/fair-trade. Some are contemporary fashion labels like Lemlem, an Ethiopian line of handwoven clothing found in high-end retailers like at Barney’s. “At Lemlem, for example, we are simply picking from their line of sheets, knowing they produce ethically and fit our conscious sourcing model,” Keehn explains. With other brands, his team works closely on creating exclusive designs for Accompany that are often a design shift or color change of an existing style.  “With other partners, we are creating products from scratch for the site.”

Everything Keehn and his team does comes back to human impact. Merchandise they choose on the site supports artisans with indigenous craft, often in remote regions without market access; or fair trade workshops focused on paying above-average wages, good working conditions, training in underprivileged areas and capacity building. Keehn believes consumers are looking for a “return to humanity” in their shopping choices.

“In our modern techy world, with so much digital impersonal communication, and faced with large, opaque corporations steering our lives — people are, in response, really appreciating things made by humans for humans — the maker, the artisan, cultural authenticity, handcrafted items that are special and not mass produced, but rather made with intention and with a unique personal touch.”

Symbology’s Cherry Blossom Print Maxi Wrap Kimono Dress, $168

In three years, Accompany tripled the number of brands it works with. When creating original items with artisans, it’s an interesting balance to make sure the company respects the craft and traditions of the “maker” community, while at the same time giving the products a modern twist to make them marketable.  “I think it’s in the intersection of modern trend and the timeless tradition of the crafts and ethnic influence — the tension between the two — where the products become truly compelling,” Keehn says.

“It’s a respectful collaboration and co-creation,” he continues.  “Many of the artisans appreciate the outside push to try new things, get them out of their comfort zone a bit more, shake things up artistically.  And at the same time, we don’t want to simply be commercializing their heritage of craftwork or appropriate their culture.  It’s a balance – respect and representation should always lead the exercise.”

While initial research shows visitors to the site are mostly from the New York metropolitan area, the company’s scope is expanding as consumers learn more about ethics and sustainability in fashion and hear about Accompany through social media and press.

“Consumers are now becoming educated, and therefore guilty, about making the wrong choices,” he says. “And at the same time, they love the positive stories of making a difference, knowing that something on your body was made intentionally by a person with local skills in an overlooked corner of the world, who is appreciative of the fair work and environment.  It feels nice to know that as you wear your clothes, and tell that story when you’re asked about it.”

For the same reason, gifting is a huge area for Accompany.  “It’s so great to give a special, unique item that has a positive impact,” Keehn says. “We are all aware that we have too much ‘stuff’ and overly commercial, mass-produced items don’t have the same meaning that they used to, compared to something made by hand, influenced by a remote local culture, and authentically different than everything else you see.”

profile shot of Jason Schott

Schott NYC: An Iconic Leather Brand

By Kathleen Nicholson Webber

Originally posted on New Jersey Monthly on March 22, 2016.

A leather shop in Union has been catering to celebs and stylish folk for over 100 years.

Jason Schott helms the business his great grandfather started in 1913. Right, a 100-year anniversary book chronicles the company's history.
Jason Schott helms the business his great grandfather started in 1913.
Photo by Anthony Lukas

Jason Schott, 42, spent his childhood sweeping the floors of his family’s New Jersey coat factory.  Now, as COO for the Union-based company, Schott NYC, he still loves the smell of leather as he walks the floor, managing day-to-day operations of the brand his great, grandfather Irving Schott started with his brother Jack in his Lower East Side apartment in 1913. Irving first made a raincoat; later, the brothers were commissioned by the Air Force to make bomber jackets and pea coats for soldiers in World War II. After the war,  the pair created a classic motorcycle jacket that landed on the back of Marlon Brando in The Wild One and became James Dean’s signature look. Both styles are still in the line today. In the ’70s and ’80s, the brand, known for its rebel look, became a favorite of rock and punk artists like Bruce Springsteen, the Ramones, Blondie, Joan Jett and the Sex Pistols. Today’s superstar fans include Jay-Z, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Rihanna.

But mere mortals have loved Schott’s jackets for years, and now a new legion of fans have discovered the collection. “For years people saw us as a jacket company. [We’re] now a lifestyle brand with sweaters, shirts, sweatshirts, hats and T-shirts,” says Schott. He’s even collaborated with designer Ralph Lauren, who visited Schott’s New York store one day and admired the vintage jackets on display.  Schott worked on a few styles with the designer under the Double RL label, which retailed in both companies’ stores.

The majority of Schott’s time is spent in Union at the offices and factory with his mother, the president, and his uncle, the CEO, and 100 employees. “We invite people to tour our factory, and they are amazed at the amount of work that goes into one jacket,” he explains. It takes about eight hours to complete one, and 40 to 50 hands touch it. Prices range from cloth coats at $175 to leathers that run as high as $1,300. When many companies moved production overseas for cheaper prices, Schott resisted.

“In places like Japan, they’ve appreciated made-in-America brands for a long time. In the last five years, I think Americans are doing the same. Through our website and social media, we have told the story of how the product is made, and customers are interested in that. I think the trend in fashion is supporting heritage brands, things that hold up over time.”

Women’s rust-brown leather jacket with asymmetrical zip; $720.
Courtesy of Schott NYC
A 100-year anniversary book chronicles the company’s history.
Courtesy of Schott NYC
Men’s cowhide Perfecto leather jacket with antique brass trim; $785.
Courtesy of Schott NYC