My husband and I took an “Around the World in 80 Days” honeymoon in 2010. We visited 13 countries in Asia and Oceania, the Middle East, Europe and South America. Then I returned to my career as a freelance fashion designer in New York. But I felt changed.
When you go to design school, you imagine yourself draping fabric and sketching ideas, but the work I was doing for big brands wasn’t hands-on. Mass-market American fashion is made overseas, which means you can come up with a color story, fabrics, prints and patterns, but the rest is text and emails with China. Back at work, I couldn’t stop thinking about my visit to the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi, where I saw intricate, ethnic traditional dress designs. They weren’t made for the runway or sales; they were handcrafted by a community of women who pass down these garments and skills from generation to generation. It spoke to my heart.
In 2012, I began volunteering for a small ethnology museum in Luang Prabang, Laos -- but I was doing it from New York. A year later, my husband and I moved there. We were both freelancers who could work from anywhere, and I wanted to take a yearlong consultancy for the museum. I visited rural villages, and I took my first trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand, where I stood over a vat of natural indigo dye and thought, This is magic. I have to tell this story. Chiang Mai had a lot of creative young people making contemporary art in a way that felt more organic than the artisan-style “maker movement” happening in Brooklyn, NY, and Portland, Ore. So in March 2014, we moved to Chiang Mai.
That’s when I started The Kindcraft. At first, I didn’t even have a business model in mind. I just wanted to celebrate the makers of traditional art and contemporary craft, and I knew this would be the way to do it. I began developing products with some of the local makers I met. Being here and building relationships is what makes collaboration possible. There’s a mutual respect: “You’ve got some amazing skills, and I’ve got some ideas. Let’s put our heads together as equal partners.”
But with only a $5,000 startup fund, I needed to be strategic about money. I learned basic business things like LLCs, bank accounts, production budgets and online retailing. A photographer friend agreed to do all my product and press shots for a reduced fee. Other friends helped me license and edit the music for a video. My mom had just retired and agreed to do order fulfillment, allowing me to offer quick shipping to my U.S. customers. I bootstrapped as best as I could.
In July 2015, The Kindcraft expanded to become an online store, and I posted the first 25 products for sale on a Squarespace ecommerce shop that I built myself. I’ve since added about 15 more, and I occupy every role in the company -- buyer, designer, product developer, writer and editor. I’ve also set some goals: In the near term, I want to add staff, grow my audience and increase sales; in the long term, I want to open a brick-and-mortar space somewhere in the States, to function as a design studio, store and workshop venue.
None of this will be easy, I realize. But I stay motivated by remembering why I’m doing it. When I worked for big brands, I didn’t know what was going on along the supply chain. Were people being treated fairly? I couldn’t tell. But as an independent small-business woman, I know all the hands that touched the thing I am selling. I know how much they got paid, and I know they haven’t been working crazy overtime, because we’ve been working on it together. Sure, I want to make money. But my products have to be made by human hands, and by people who are happy to be making them. I can make that happen. —As told to Ashlea Halpern