Monday, August 1, 2011

Week with Marcella: Day 1

While Marcella had sent us a basic idea of inspiration and design shapes for Aklala’s intended product development well ahead of time, it was clear that the week and the process couldn’t possibly start without first establishing a dialogue with Chantal, la fondatrice et creatice. So at 10 a.m. on Monday morning, the four of us convened around Ashley’s coffee table—me, loan facilitator Ashley, Marcella, Chantal, and baby Ashley—and began to share and discuss how to fuse Nest and Aklala’s design aesthetics, Chantal as a traditional Togolese artisan, and Nest as an American organization working with both women artisans from the developing world and western consumers.  Nest’s goal is to create an overall homogeneous collection of product that still respects and preserves the cultural particularities and identities of the artisans with which they work. To highlight what she meant Marcella brought out a large, standard tote bag from China that featured distinct handmade details.  Marcella explained to Chantal that this was an example of a modern bag designed and inspired by influences from Chinese culture.  The shape and colors were simple, respecting functionality and aesthetic preferences of western consumers, but the handmade details gave the bag its identity by allowing the artisans to express their culture through their craft.  That was what we want to do here; we’re going to start out with a simple and modern bag, but then let Chantal infuse it with her own perspective and creativity as a Togolese artisan.  Aklala’s new product line would be simple but relevant, because the last thing the western market and consumers need is another trivial factory product.   The goal is to create products that have intrinsic value in their design, that then become all the more noteworthy and competitive due to the meaning and significance behind them.
After the introduction to the process, Marcella began to show Chantal the shapes of various bags Nest would like to create, each simple and basic, so that the focus of the product is not on the design, as that’s not what’s significant about Chantal’s work, but rather in the details. For it’s in the details, in the batik, the beads and the wood accents that allow Chantal to express her own artistic identity; the shape of the bag can only set the stage for the main actors to come out and tell their story. Marcella then began to show Chantal some visual inspiration for design elements that could be adapted to reflect Chantal’s own preferences and artistic qualities. Using inspiration from Marcella’s suggestions, Chantal began sketching and taking down dimensions of the products that most interested her so that she could start sample production. Marcella told her that the goal is to get some product samples to take back with her to New York, but she didn’t want to rush Chantal or pressure her to complete more than she was capable of.  Quality, not quantity is so much more important, especially when you are dealing with developing artisans, and not factories.
This introduced another crucial element of Aklala’s product development: environmental sustainability.  It’s not solely about improving the physical look of the bags; making the entire production process more organic and environmentally friendly is just as important.  Artisans in the developing world are already extremely disadvantaged in western markets, so it is our job to help them be competitive by making their products and their processes as valuable as possible given their circumstances.  Marcella was very excited by the prospect of using local and organic vegetable dyes rather than chemical reactive ones.  While Chantal already knew the basic compositions of the dyes and colorings, she doesn’t currently have access to many of the necessary raw materials, and so for the moment she could only buy them from a supplier on Mount Kuma. In time, Chantal could train women in her community how to obtain the materials and make the dye, thus giving productive employment to non-seamstresses without other economic opportunities. The next step was coming up with more creative and interesting ways to recycle leftover batik scraps. Chantal currently uses scraps to make batik beads for jewelry and has experimented with using scraps to stuff stuffed animals, but she hasn’t had the time to develop many other alternatives.  Marcella showed her basic examples of interesting ways to manipulate scraps, and Chantal immediately began throwing out ideas of her own, she was especially intrigued by making floral motifs and patchwork shapes as product accents. I could see how excited Chantal had been about the whole process, even with baby Ashley fussing for most of the morning and some basic communication difficulties, Chantal left Ashley’s that morning confident and motivated for the week ahead. After lunch, we would meet up again in the afternoon with plans to show Marcella around Aklala’s workshop and start constructing a sample bag. 
The recent rain has pretty much destroyed the dirt ground of Chantal’s workshop, and she is still waiting for the men to come and lay the cement, so for the time being efficient and effective work is difficult. But that’s the unfortunate reality of working in the developing world, conditions are never perfect, and it just means that you have to work even harder and become more dedicated to succeed. Marcella wanted to start by looking at all of the raw materials and finished products, and meeting all of the women of Aklala. After basic introductions, Marcella asked Chantal to give the women a basic overview of what we had done this morning, and what our goals for the week and product development were. Chantal understood and explained everything Marcella wanted her to capture, even in Ewe, we could understand what she was saying when she held up the bag Marcella had used as an example earlier and said, “This is a bag we’re going to do, but we’re not going to do China, we’re going to do Togo.”  The women looked around and smiled; they got it too.
 Most of Chantal’s batik is bright and colorful, reflecting the vitality of Togolese life and culture, but she sometimes struggles to sell to western consumers due to their preference for functionality, practicality, and occasional blandness.  So while there is time and a place for this vibrant and beautiful batik, a practical everyday bag is not necessarily one of them. So we spoke with Chantal about ways to use the bright batik as accents, or for smaller specialty products such as cosmetic and computer cases.  Marcella was also very interested in other raw materials that Chantal had available to her such as leather, flour and cocoa sacks, beads, and wood pieces.  She assembled all of the product “ingredients” and then asked Chantal to pick what she liked and start creating something with them.  This was such an exciting process for Chantal, her eyes lit up and a smile took over her face, because previously, the creation process had been structured by following order requirements and specifications from the client. While following specific client demands is valuable practice in dealing with the exigencies of western consumers, it leaves little place for the development of artistic creativity. Marcella was very adamant that we let Chantal take control of the design development process, we would guide her in the right direction with initial inspirations, but we must let her express herself entirely without editing until the end, because editing too early stifles artisan creativity.  Even if Chantal got a little carried away, didn’t fully plan out all of the details before she started cutting, messed up one of the flour sacks, Marcella didn’t say anything, she just let Chantal work naturally so that she could understand her production process.
 The goal is not to change and revolutionize Chantal’s process of production to emulate western factory standards, but rather to refine it so that her products are of the highest possible quality given the handmade tradition.  We don’t want to tell her that what she’s doing is wrong, but that there are ways that she can be better and more effective with strategic planning, organization, and communication. We had initially asked Chantal if she would have been able to finish a sample bag tonight and she thought she could, but after realizing that she didn’t have all the materials she wanted, she had cut one of the bags wrong, and she still needed to work out the design, she said no. She said she wanted to take her time to make sure that the finished product was perfect.  Marcella was thrilled with this response because it reflects both Chantal’s better understanding of quality control and her empowerment to say no. Chantal has always had a very difficult time saying no to consumers, as she sees every consumer as an opportunity to help grow her business. While this planning for the future and a desire for expansion is positive, she wasn’t working with a knowledge of her own limitations, she would agree to do orders that were beyond her production capacity, and the customer would end up being disappointed in the long term, far offsetting the immediate benefit from the order. The process of product development is so instrumental that it needs its own budget, that provides that Chantal can design ahead of time, start to perfect these processes, and then build up an inventory stock so she can sell to larger organizations that can market and distribute her products on a greater scale.
That night over Awoyoos and Grenadine, an adult Shirley temple, Ashley, Marcella and I reflected on the entire process that we had started today. We all agreed how important this organic, reciprocal process is when working for the development of artisans worldwide. It must also be ensured that the input of the artisan holds equal currency as do western consumer preferences.  We can’t impose our own ideas and designs without Chantal’s input, for if that’s what we were looking for we might as well go to a factory, which could do it much more efficiently and effectively than she could. We need to combine our knowledge of western consumer preferences with her unique and cultural design aesthetic to provide a product that is not only modern and relevant, but that also holds significance for the empowerment of women and for the environment. In this way we are going beyond functionality and embracing cultural meaning and value. The cultural identity must be the starting point, so we can determine what resonates with Chantal and how she can express it with products intended for western consumption.
            Most people in the western world haven’t even heard of Togo, but Chantal wants to put it on the map with a handcrafted cultural story and expression. In this way more consumers will have an appreciation for small developing countries with a vibrant craft sector, and maybe some of the asymmetries of access and information will moderate. As consumers purchasing products from the developing world, it must be remembered that we are paying for the creativity process more than for the product itself. The purchase is paying for the development of women and the respect for their traditional artisan craft, not just for a tote bag.  

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