Friday, August 5, 2011

Week with Marcella: Day 4

I’m fairly certain that Chantal worked from sunrise to sundown to finish the collection.  We ended up with around 10 products, and they all look amazing. It’s such a cohesive, fresh start that is going to be instrumental for Aklala’s development going forward. We did a photo shoot of the products and then had the women model them for us. At first they were a little shy but after a little encouragement and some cheering, they started strutting on the catwalk, swinging their hips and striking poses.  It was obvious that they liked the products and were having fun with it.
            Before we left, Marcella asked all of the women to tell us about the things they had learned throughout the week and what they would take away from this whole process.  Besides Chantal, Liza seemed like she made most understood the transformation and was the most pleased with the results.  It was written all over her face when she was looking at the pillow. I think she surprised herself at how beautiful something could turn out with the right concept and the right materials. She also told us that she really liked the natural quality of the vegetable dyes, and she said it felt much safer, and smelled a lot better, than the chemical reactive ones she is used to working with. Akou told us that she was really impressed by the pleating on the drawstring pouch, as before she had only seen it on fancy dresses, and liked the idea of reworking formerly exclusive design elements in new and accessible ways.  As for Chantal, she said that she liked finding beauty in simplicity because it allows her to be more creative rather than just relying on bright batiks to be the main element of her products.  She can find value in unexpected sources, such as the environment, recycled grain and cocoa bags, and different techniques to adorn and construct her bags. She liked that the collection still incorporated printed fabric and designs, which reflects her Togolese culture and context, but the use of more subdued colors makes the products more appealing and relevant for western markets. We can’t get too ahead of ourselves, she’s not ready to completely denounce all of her old processes and batik work, as she hasn’t seen any tangible success from her newline. How it is perceived amongst western markets will be the true test of its success, even though Chantal admits she thinks it has a better chance of selling. She’s going to conduct an experiment at the next Peace Corps trade show in November by setting up two separate booths, one for her more traditional products, and one showcasing her new collection and see which is more successful. For now she will continue to make her traditional batik, but now incorporate the vegetable dyes alongside the traditional chemical ones.
            Next we asked her if she could talk about the differences between the two processes of production and design development, before and after Marcella’s arrival.  Chantal told us that the way her existing line came about was through essentially copying a bag of her daughter Beatrice’s. The bag had wooden handles which really interested Chantal, so she paired some wood made by her brother Ruben with pagne she found in the market and viola, the sac bateau was born.  With this as a starting point, she developed other products with the same general feel, made some bags that Megan specifically designed for her, and imitated others that they found in various catalogs.  This is the way the retail industry operates in Togo, mass-produced catalogs are disseminated throughout the country’s couture shops, and customers come in, choose their desired design and fabric, and then have a product made based upon an image hung up on the wall. The new process was about starting with an idea, not an example. The idea we were building off of was simplicity and finding value in more organic and natural sources.  All of the products we initially presented to her were so basic and simple in design that she would be forced to come up with more creative and personal ways to complicate them, without solely relying on the batik.  We wanted to focus on design elements that would resonate both with western consumers but also with Chantal.  We all shared ideas, realized not everything was possible the way we had envisioned, changed things as we went and let the process unfold organically rather than rigidly copying pre-existing blueprints. 
As we were getting ready to leave the workshop all together for the last time, we asked Chantal to devise a preliminary price quote of all raw materials she purchased, miscellaneous related expenditures, and final product costs that we could examine in the morning. When she held up the budget/price quote sheet we had made for her and said she would use it in order to do all of the pricing, Ashley and I were so excited that we high-fived. This was a baby step of improvement, but we’d take it.  This week had been about fast-track changes, and we realized that not everything would stick right away.  Chantal and Aklala still need better and more effective organization, more skilled employees, a renewed focus on her personal strengths and fortés, and a sustainable way to incorporate her signature batik in a more relevant and environmentally conscious way.  These changes aren’t going to happen over night, which we all understood, but setting the process in motion was the first, and biggest step.  Working against Chantal is the fact that development is slow while markets are fast.  The goal is to take our time to build up Chantal’s skill and production capacity and provide her with safe avenues of access to markets so she can handle their pace.  If Chantal rushes ahead before she is ready, the quality of her products will be compromised, she will have to hire more piecework workers and forego profits for Aklala, and her business will flounder.  

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