Brand Stories: Anchal Project

Coupling social change, minimal aesthetic, and sustainable growth, Anchal Project is changing what we know of the fair trade industry. Based in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, I sat down with Colleen and Maggie, the two sisters behind the project, for this in-depth interview. I walked away inspired, invigorated, and truly excited about what Anchal is doing and hope you will as well.

Keep on reading for the full interview after the jump!

How did Anchal Project begin?

{Colleen}: It started as a class project. When I was in graduate school at the School of Rhode Island Design. I was studying landscape architecture. I thought I was going to design parks and plazas. But as apart of a seminar course I was talking called Design and Development. During that class, I had the opportunity to travel to India and work with local organization, New Light, a non-profit in Calcutta. It was here that I had this realization and the “A-ha” moment that I could combine my passion and interest in design with positive social and environmental change. Our group project was really just a call for some sort of textiles initiative. As we started talking with this NGO, she was in the middle of a red light district. Once we had this dialog, she was expressing a void in their programming for the commercial sex workers. They had outreach and needs met for the children, but they didn’t really have anything in their programming or economic alternatives for the women themselves. So we started brainstorming ideas, come back to Rhode Island, sold notebooks and notecards. We raised $400 and that was what got the project off the ground initially. We started training our first group of artisans shortly following. This was in 2009. Then Maggie joined forces quickly after that. After we had done a lot of piloting work selling products. Then from there, together we’ve really grown the business and the organization.

What is the main difference between Anchal Project and other fair trade brands?

{Maggie}: I think we are all mission-driven, but kind of have a different approach. One, we focus really heavily on aesthetic and design. Not only is it how we have creative problem solving but how we approach programmatic difficulties or organizing artisans structure in the program. But we really value a contemporary design aesthetic within the company and with the goods themselves. One big difference is we don’t work with artisans or skilled artisans to begin with. These women have never had a job before or really skills to speak of. We spend a lot of time training with them and with that we kind of want them to have a leg up in the fair trade world so having contemporary and modern aesthetic is important. Then I think because we are working with such a small group of women we really are dedicating the growth of our company to parallel the skill improvement and being sustainable with the growth. We started with a group of 15 artisans, now we have over 130. We wanted to make sure that as they progressed in their skillset our products reflected it accordingly. We started with a very simple quilt, then they advanced and we started making scarves. Then they learned how to work with zippers and it was a miracle. As they’ve improved, our business has grown. We’ve been able to challenge them and they’ve been able to challenge us. So together we’ve been able to have a constant evolution of our product.

{Colleen}: I’d say in addition, because Maggie and I both have a design background that it was really important to us early on that we would give the design and the tools to the artisans themselves for them to become the designers. We’re slowly teaching techniques and color theory and composition and creative outlets essentially. We’re in the final stages of that and we’ve found it coming full circle as they’re actually designing the pieces and creating it. Which is exciting.

Do you sense a change in the fashion industry? Are you finding more knowledgeable consumers?

The mindset of the consumer often depends on where we are and who the event is targeting. Overall, people are more aware and we’ve been doing this for seven years. People seem to have a general reference point for what fair trade is and a brand to compare it to. Even if it’s a brand like Toms shoes, they kind of get it. Even in the beginning those companies weren’t mainstream. Now they are, so it’s a little bit easier for us to tell our story. But in the beginning, it was a lot of education. We would mention one part of social enterprise and people would be like, “What?” We’ve really noticed a shift and more people that we speak to is less of the longing of a rationalization of why you should buy this but are a little more educated to begin with.

And I agree, particularly with the fair trade element of it is one thing, but as you speak to the fashion shift in the kind of where things are sourced and people caring about the true cost, the fashion revolution, led to a mainstream dialogue where people now share and create change together.

It’s really interesting too, because we had our program in India for 7 years time and convincing people that everything you purchase is made by somebody from half way around the world, why not invest in somebody you know? Why not invest in the maker where you can see her face, know her story, and know it’s fair trade wages? But when we launched our local initiative with our Dyescape garden, which is where we’re growing natural dyes and aiming to produce items here in Louisville, that was the epiphany moment for a lot of people. It kind of gives us another element of explanation to people. It’s saying, “We’re more similar, than we are different.”

Tell us a bit more about Dyescape.

{Colleen}: That happened on a whim of a conversation entry. It was something that we had been thinking about for a while as far as how to bring the model closer to home. It was a great opportunity to combine a lot of our interests in design and spacial design and urban design all into one project. In 2014, I put together a design proposal that the city had a call for entry for communities or designers to put together their creative solutions for vacant properties. Our proposal was for a natural dye garden and an educational space within it. It’s kind of the anchor to a larger network of gardens that could help cultivate and grow natural dye plants because it’s such a major polluter in the global environment. We started construction in 2014 and then had our first growing season in 2015. But essentially right now, we’ve trained 6 women who were trafficked in the sex trade here in Louisville grow, harvest, and dye with plants that are grown here, not elsewhere, with all natural dyes. That’s going to continue. We just received a grant about a month ago. That will help have enough foundation and seed money to continue training. We made a line of ornaments that we sold during the Christmas of last year that we made here and sold.  Everything again, goes back to meeting the need of women where they are and then adapting the program to their needs. That’s kind of where we’re at with that. We’re hoping to launch a full collection with Dyescape with homegrown stuff.

You moved studios in January. Why did you want to be situated in the Portland neighborhood?

{Colleen}: Well, one our garden is right down the street, so that was a high priority. I think we wanted to be apart of a creative culture and we have loved being with other non-profits and creatives. It’s kind of like that dream space that we could always have more collaboration happen. In our old space we were isolated more. It made sense when we were looking for new spaces, that Gill showed us this old school building. We walked in and loved all of the light. Our old office had hardly any windows. But mainly because of all the other people that also showed interest in this building and then the neighborhood in general, we wanted to be apart of something that could reinvigorate the community. We had been going to the community meetings for the last few years and had started to become invested in the neighborhood too.

How do you cultivate creativity and ideation? What does your creative process look like?

{Maggie} : For both of us it’s definitely different. We just completed a two-week shret, a design intensive where we finalized our winter/fall collection. We’re always looking for inspiration everywhere. We like to take trips and travel is important for both of us. We both do have different processes.

{Colleen}: What inspires a lot of the pieces we design for Anchal specifically that’s based on the vernacular imagery of the artisans themselves. It really inspires me to design certain pieces and our whole Narrative Collection was  designed from an entry in India that we gathered over the years. I always have to get into nature and decompress before I come back. I like to draw and sketch out ideas. I think it’s like opposites. She’s over on her computer and I’m over at the desk drawing stuff. I do a lot of different iterations and like to paint things.

{Maggie}: It’s reflective of our backgrounds. She was landscape architecture and I was architecture. I tend to be a bit more structured and controlled with things and she’s a bit more crazy. It’s also reflective of how we run the business. She’s always like, “Yes. Yes, let’s do that. Totally.” Whereas, I typically respond with, “Let’s bring it back. Bring it back in.” It’s good because she pushes and says yes to stuff. Dyescape wouldn’t have happened. When we got it, I was like, “Oh no. Now what have we gotten into now. What are we going to explore here?” We definitely have a different process but it balances our talents and weaknesses.

What is a piece of advice would you give to a small business owner, dreamer, or creative?

{Maggie}: There’s definitely a lot of advice I would give. But there’s always the first step. It feels somewhat daunting to find it and discover what that step is. However, when you take the first step and put it out there, realize you’re doing a lot more than some people ever will. I’ve watched people. Our generation has so many beautiful ideas and has an opportunity to do things no generation ever has before. You look around and if you just talk to people, make those connections, you’re not going to be able to do it alone. Start talking to people and taking the first step with networking. It gets you more power, energy, and a toolkit of resources. Despite going to community meetings and going to every networking event out there, just take that first step and begin getting yourself and your idea into the world and out there. Just start talking about it.

{Colleen}: I’ll reiterate that point. I think when you have an idea, something that you might want to start, it’s very fragile inside of you. It’s scary to talk about it. Even with family or friends, but once you do put it out in the world just by speaking about it, then it holds you a little bit more accountable. Then you can take your first steps and you never know who they’ll connect you to based on that conversation. You never know the connections you can make and where it might lead. But with that, it’s not like I came to this with a business plan and everything was all hashed out and I knew exactly what to do. I was a design student. I didn’t know what a non-profit was. I didn’t know how to do much of anything. But I had this idea that we could create change by giving basic jobs and design training and career opportunities to these women. I think that being 24 with no experience it was hard to get listened to, hard to get funding early, but that was the defining point. Once you get an idea, and have a few people on board, you build a little track record. That’s what we did. Even with the artisans. We worked with them for a few months and we made one piece. It was such a celebration. I could then take pictures of these artisans, of what they had created, and connect it to a product and talk about it full circle, then that continued to snowball. Just keep pushing, one little step at a time. Take the idea and push it as far as it can possibly go.

Around your space I’ve noticed the phrase, “Love your didi.” Tell me a little bit more about that.

{Maggie}: Didi means sister in Hindi. All the artisans communicate that way and that’s all of us. It’s just like sisters. It’s simply “Didi.” Kind of like, I need you or wanting to get attention of someone. We had a campaign early on in the begin of Anchal. It was a conversation with actress America Ferrera, launching our infinity scarves. It was the Didi connection, simply that we’re a global sisterhood. Everyone is a sister and support your sisters. It started as that and then became office slang used jokingly.

{Colleen}: More than anything, it’s a compassionate and endearing word that we all like to use around the office and in general when talking about the project and our artisans. In general women can be really competitive, but we’re all really in this together.

As you look to Fall/Winter collections and the rest of 2017, how are you wanting to grow the company?

{Maggie}: As of right now a lot of our revenue is through online sales and retail. We are funded through donations and retail currently. We want to become self-sufficient through sales alone. Though we do a few pop-up events, we’re expanded our wholesale and partnerships. We’ve done two NYNow trade shows and are doing another one in August. That’s a lot of our focus right now. We’re expanding our brand awareness, getting our product into places as we can. We have stuff in Tokyo, all over the country, and in London. We’re increasing our partnerships and just completed a custom collaboration with an organization called, Thistle Farms. They do similar work as what we do and they do a lot of body care products. They do lotions, candles, and they’re a fantastic organization. We just did a bunch of quilts for them. We’ve done a collaboration with Urban Outfitters in the past and that was hopeful for us for the scale of partnerships to look forward to.

{Colleen}: In the next three years we hope to double in size artisan wise, so that just means our focus is continuing to improve the products and expand. As far as products that we’ve designed, we’ll be expanding our table linens, new collections of more affordable priced quilts, pillows, and bags. We’ve got lots of different stuff.

Thank you so much for joining us for this brand interview and a huge thanks to the women at Anchal for making time for this interview. Make sure to follow Anchal Project’s Instagram.

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