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.”
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