When dreaming up Shoo for Good, I knew I wanted to create something as beautiful and well-made as it was useful. I wanted to offer a practical solution to combat mosquitoes that did good in the world, giving back not just to the fight against malaria but also providing work in regions affected by the disease. There was more on my wish-list: could the scarves I envisioned also be made by hand, under ethical and sustainable conditions?
Annie O. Waterman, founder of AOW Handmade, had an answer for me: Yes, you can have it all. Annie introduced me to a possible partner in Ethiopia and, next thing I knew, I was placing my first order. I haven't looked back.
I'm thrilled to have met Annie and I think you will be, too:
Please describe your business and what you do:
AOW Handmade connects brands and retailers with artisan producers all across the world. Essentially, I am an artisan rep–I work with retailers and brands looking to develop custom collections or bring in new, unique artisanal goods to their shops. I am a matchmaker of sorts between buyers and artisan suppliers.
How/when did you get started? How has the company evolved?
I first started working in the artisan field back in 2004. After college, I worked for a brand called e bella. I wore many hats there, traveling to Latin America, sourcing, and working with artists to develop new lines. I was also managing sales and accounts. It was a great experience and it’s where all of my interest and love for the field began. This company was the first I had found that was working with artists and merging contemporary designs. I saw it as a win-win for both sides and never looked back.
From there, I worked for World of Good. I traveled throughout Latin America researching Fair Trade policies and what was and was not working. This was an amazing experience as I met many artisan groups and began to understand the common challenges and gaps in the sector.
After that I lived and worked in Nepal before joining ByHand Consulting about eight years ago, which was a dream job for me. I was with the team there for about 4 years and loved every minute of it. I traveled around the world, ran buyer trips, and helped build Artisan Resource at NY NOW [a tradeshow]. I built confidence in and an understanding for the sector, working with buyers and artists alike. About five years ago, I thought I was going to move to Ireland, so I was forced to end my time with ByHand and start my own business. That is when AOW began. I saw there was a gap in the sector. There weren’t many places companies could go to connect with artists one-on-one outside of a trade show setting.
What do you look for when researching artisans and collectives?
To start, it's usually a product that catches my eye. I see potential in the market from a visual perspective. From there, I try to find out as much as I can about the enterprise—if there is honesty, trust, good communication, export experience, certifications, and attention to fair trade policies and environmental standards. I like to work with groups that specialize in a technique and don't try to do too much. I like to find artisans that know what they are best at. This focus is really important.
What have you learned from the artisans you work with and the communities you visit?
So much! It’s been such a journey–I'm so proud and honored to be able to work with all of the artists that I do. They are so hard working. I think there is a gap between buyers who are new to working with artisans and this might need more attention. I think I need to educate clients new to the field a bit more about expectations because there is a learning curve and a lot of common mistakes which can be easily avoided.
Working with artists requires time and a storytelling ability so their work can be valued and appreciated as art rather than compared to a mass-produced item competing on Amazon. Storytelling is key and trying to get artisan enterprises to invest in materials and photography to bring these stories to their clients is a struggle. The artisan side needs to invest more attention and resources to elevate the way their work is perceived.
Why are handmade products important to you and why should they be important to the rest of us?
I'm a doer and like to see tangible change. I do truly see how artisan work can improve the livelihoods of communities. I also think there is so much beauty added to the world when we offer artisanal goods to the market and our clients. I can’t imagine a world without artisanal craft. It’s so embedded in cultures and is what makes them so diverse, beautiful, and rich. I continue to see it as a win-win for both buyers and artisan communities alike, but we need to charge more for these goods so it’s worthwhile for the artists who make them. Artisan craft is a luxury item and I hope we can do more to really see them as such.
What are some benefits of working with artisans instead of factories? Challenges?
There is really no comparison. Factories are factories and that is a different type of product entirely. The beauty of handmade is the imperfections and the culture that comes out through it. You can almost feel the human presence behind handmade products.
The list of challenges runs long but I find them to be worth it if you are dedicated. My advice is to focus on fewer, better artisan partnerships to create real impact and change. There is a lot you can do when working with just one artisan community. Communication is also an issue which is why it’s taken me years to build a strong network of artisan groups that I feel comfortable sharing with my clients. Quality control can also be an issue but it’s all part of working with artists. That’s another reason I cherish the partners that I work with because they deliver. But of course, things go wrong: floods, delays, etc. It’s all part of it so the key is to plan at least a year in advance if you want to build a new collection working with a new artisan group.
What has working with artisans taught you about the importance of traditional methods?
You really can’t put artisan groups into one category. For example, there are master artists being featured at the Santa Fe Folk Art who are truly preserving traditional crafts. This show is incredible – I wish it would take off around the world. It’s a retail show and their goods are sold at prices that the work deserves.
Artisan enterprises producing for wholesale are another category. When you get into trying to preserve traditional techniques at wholesale prices, it gets tricky. You usually have to strip down the technique a little or tweak the design to make it work, pricewise. I strive to work with communities that specialize in techniques which can be developed for wholesale because this is where there is demand.
Usually, a technique is modified when sold wholesale so the traditional methods are there but they have been adjusted in some way. Some artists are open to this and other are not. In my mind, it’s really important to find a balance of buyers interesting innovating and also those who don't want to modify anything and are looking to preserve what is true to the area. This is happening more and more. Buyers are seeing traditional items and placing them in a more modern setting, allowing it to look more contemporary. This is nice to see because it allows the artisan community to really do what they are good at and what is 100% traditional to the area.
Are we at risk of losing traditional methods to more efficient machines? What do we lose if that happens? In particular, which artisanal methods are most at-risk?
This is a sad thought as we will lose so much beauty, diversity, and cultural heritage. The world, in my eyes, would feel flat and quite boring. It's an important sector to support, particularly initiatives like the Santa Fe Folk Art Market that allow artists to sell what they are best at and know so well.
I can’t say which are most at risk, but the issue is these really special techniques are expensive. We need stronger marketing and storytelling to justify the prices that these goods need to be priced at. In my mind these goods are much higher end than most luxe brands but they aren’t priced that way.
What are the “musts” you need to work with a group or company?
Honesty, transparency, good communication and strong imagery. I strive to work with artists that have Fair Trade certifications, but this is not always easy and feasible, so I spend time getting to know them in other ways – building a relationship, seeing how they work and in what conditions. I trust my partners and vice versa. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. There is no other way because even with all the certifications if you don't have trust, you don't have a relationship.
What’s the best part of your fabulous job? Favorite countries/communities to visit? Highlight moment or two? Interesting encounters?
Aw, that is a tough one! I’ve been lucky to have so many memories over the past 14 years. What makes this job so rich and rewarding are the people. I get to work with really good people and through them have really rich travel experiences. I’m lucky to have a network of friends and what feels like family around the globe.
I guess I would say that my favorite part of the job is to see the results from a connection that I have made – whether it’s new products being developed or seeing both the brand and suppliers happy and thriving. That brings me a lot of joy.
When I was working with ByHand Consulting, I really loved running buyer trips. I’d meet a unique group of buyers in-country, get them acquainted with the artists at the trade show, and help to form connections. We’d have dinners with people from around the world. The New World Craft Show in Guatemala was always a lot of fun, along with my trips with Aid to Artisans to Tunisia where I helped with a Market Readiness Program for artists new to the market.
I will also forever cherish my sourcing trips such as a recent trip I took to Morocco. I went deeper into the south than I’d ever been to find new artists to work with, spent time with them in the workshop to understand their production capabilities to help bring their goods to market. I also love photography and recently took a course with Magnum so finally being able to capture the imagery to tell these stories was quite exciting. Photography is key to my work.