in conversation with harper poe of proud Mary
Written By Kelley Mullarkey
After a stunt in 2008 volunteering for Habitat for Humanity in South America, US-based designer Harper Poe launched Proud Mary, an international textile company. Since its inception she has contuined to vagabond around the globe to remote far flung places such as Morocco and Peru crafting covetable collection after collection of textiles made with love.
Working with global artisans in developing nations Harper unites fair trade ethical practices with modern design. From gorgeous handmade brocaded tote bags crafted in Guatemala to striking indigo shibori dyed kaftans handwoven and sewn in Mali, West Africa, each induce serious wanderlust. Armed with her free spirited nature and her eye for detail, Harper is continutely inspiring.
Having just returned home to Charleston, South Carolina, from her most recent design trip to Lesotho, a small country adjacent to South Africa, we caught up with Harper to discuss all things travel + design.
You recently returned from Lesotho for your upcoming collection. Tell me about that trip — any moments that really spoke to you on that trip?
Lesotho was physically one of the more beautiful places I’ve ever been. I was there in their summer so everything was so great and the mountains were pouring over with waterfalls and sheep grazing as far as you could see. The World Bank is currently doing a project in Lesotho to boost up their handcrafts sector by bringing in buyers and designers so it was a really exciting opportunity and fun to be on a development project like this from the beginning. None of the artisans in Lesotho have exported so as there is a long road ahead, both myself and the artisans see a lot of potential and are excited to start importing their goods to the U.S. and other developed countries.
The most interesting moment of this trip was on a Sunday (our one day off). We took a drive up into the mountains to see the countryside and one of the giant dams. On our way back to town we saw a group of people on a hillside near a tiny village huddled together. Curious, we pulled into the small village and stumbled into a circumcision ceremony. The boys had all been herder boys and just come down from the mountains for their rite of passage ceremony. At first we were not very welcome, but our driver convinced the villagers that we were okay, we paid them $20 and they let us sit through their ceremony, take photos, listen to their songs and chanting. I felt completely honored to be able to take in something like this. We were there for a few hours and at the end were chatting with a woman who acted like town mayor about sourcing blankets from some of their herder boys (they embroider the most beautiful wool blankets).
What are some of the aspects you look for when deciding on a new geographical location to work on a project with?
They have to have a tradition of textile production because Proud Mary is based on the exploration of global textiles. It’s also beneficial to find producing groups that have had some sort of artisan capacity building/training so that they are familiar with the process of exporting and producing bulk orders. It’s also a selfish thing — I try and work in locations that I am interested in personally.
What are you most inspired by while on these design trips?
The people. I LOVE connecting with people in different cultures. I grew up in a fairly homogenous city and that always felt wrong to me. Being surrounded by different language, dress, landscape, weather, and religion feels right. The world is this way and I love plugging into something so different, I feel the most normal in these environments.
Introducing artisan crafts to the global marketplace creates more jobs and awareness, which also leads to the risk for exploitation within the supply chain. What are your thoughts on this?
I’ve seen this with companies copying traditional textiles instead of ordering from the source. This seems to be happening less and less though, which is great. I think as artisans are growing their businesses, they are becoming less susceptible to exploitation because they know their value.
How have you seen the industry evolve since you launched Proud Mary?
It’s evolved tremendously since I started in so many ways. Design has become a strong component of artisan made products as opposed to the “crunchy” fair trade look that was around for decades. Large retailers are jumping on board too, as consumers almost expect handmade, global made in a retailer’s product arsenal. This is great in that more buying power is going to support global handcraft but we must be sure that we don’t just use the buzz words and that we educate consumers on the products we are selling to them and are transparent and honest about our process.
You’ve worked for Habitat for Humanity in South America and as a nanny in France. When did travel weave itself into your life
When I studied abroad in Spain in college.
You normally travel solo. What has that been?
I do, but I usually have contacts in country that I’m working with, so I’m never totally alone although not knowing the language in most places I can feel fairly alone. I love that experience though, being able to make it around a foreign place not knowing the language. It’s extremely gratifying. Traveling alone you are also forced to meet people. I’ve had some of the most beautiful evenings and conversations with strangers on my trips. I feel like I’m the most open and honest version of myself while traveling (I think most people are) so you can dive into realness very quickly.
What’s next up on your must-go to list?
India and/or South East Asia. South East Asia more for adventure and exploration and to experience Buddhist culture. India for the textiles and chaos.
You’re constantly wandering through markets while on your travels. What are some of the special pieces you’ve brought home with you?
I always bring back little animals, stuffed or wooden. On my trip to Lesotho I bought a beautiful blanket off of a herder boys back…that’s a prize!