SHE Spotlight: Estrella de Mar
Growing up, I had this awestruck fascination with Mary Poppins, especially her beautiful carpet bag. And that's the first thought I had when I saw some of the intricate, colorful bags from Estrella de Mar. "Why, it's a Mary Poppins bag!"
Trust me, it's a compliment. I hold Mary Poppin's bag in the highest regard because (to me, anyway) that bag represented infinite potential and when she appears with it, things change for the better.
I have no idea where Mary Poppin's bag was from, but Estrella de Mar's bags are actually modern Guatemalan designs that incorporate and celebrate traditional textile and craft techniques. And their goal is to change things for the better through their bags.
The company utilizes the traditional skills of artisans in Guatemala and harnesses the power of the fashion industry to be a force for good. There's infinite potential to what they can accomplish and through their company; through them even the small act of choosing the bag you carry around every day can have impact.
I'm beyond excited to introduce you to this company and its products. Many companies today are talking about social impact, and may have a token social program or "gives back" component, but trust me, Estrella de Mar takes it much more seriously. It's not a marketing ploy. It's a passion that runs deep, starting with respecting the makers, treating them as true artisans (read more on that here), and empowering women and communities.
Enjoy this conversation with the company's co-founders Julie Savoie and Emily Pinto.
What does your name, Estrella de Mar, mean and how did you choose it?
JULIE - Estrella de Mar means “starfish” in Spanish. We wanted a name that reflected our desire to create authentic, one-of-a-kind items that inspire wanderlust. We both love to travel and the carefree, natural lifestyle that can be found near the water, so Estrella de Mar was chosen.
EMILY - There is also a beautiful fable adapted from The Star Thrower about a boy who is throwing starfish back into the sea after they've washed ashore. An older man comes along and tells him his efforts are futile because more will inevitably wash ashore. He is not phased because he wants to make a difference for any that he can. "It matters for this one," he says holding up a single starfish.
It's a great reminder that you can't do everything, but you can do something- and you should.
Can you tell us the story behind Estrella de Mar? Any fun details about how you became friends?
JULIE - My older brother started a medical clinic outside of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala in 2001 that continues to provide access to medical services and health education for rural populations. He has a full time career in the States, but still travels to Guatemala every six months or so to assist with the operations.
On a trip down in 2011 he happened to meet Emily who was there volunteering with a worker-owned women’s weaving cooperative at the time. He told her about how I fell in love with the traditional textiles when I’d visited Guatemala to volunteer at his clinic and was interested in supporting the artisans through a business.
Emily had a design background and a similar idea so he introduced us- initially via email. In the following months we developed a healthy addiction to Skype as we discussed all the details! We finally met in person once Emily returned to the United States and officially formed Estrella de Mar in 2012.
Be honest. Who came up with the idea first?!
JULIE - We really came up with it together! Both of us had traveled to Guatemala, seen the beautiful textiles and culture along with the poverty and oppression that the artisans face, and thought we could make a difference.
EMILY - Our complimentary skill sets and experience made the decision to form a partnership easier. I have a degree in Fashion Design and Product Development and grew up in a family import and retail (focusing on jewelry & traditional crafts from the Far East) business. Julie earned her MBA and had already been working in the fashion and beauty industries for several years when we met.
It’s kind of amazing that were essentially set up by Julie’s brother and had so much in common and got along so well before even meeting in person!
We absolutely love your ethos or mission behind Estrella de Mar (Love is the message, Fashion is the Medium)! Tell us a little more about what this means for your company and how you came up with it!
EMILY - The phrase came to me as I was brainstorming about how to convey our mission statement in a summarized, informal way. It’s poetic and warm, yet still encapsulates the ethos that we are very serious about.
Are there any specific moments as you developed this company where you had to make a tough decision?
JULIE - As a new company, you have to be flexible and learn to adapt. We originally wanted to create tunics with the beautiful embroidery that is seen on many belts and shirts in Guatemala. However, we realized that the materials we were hoping to use weren't readily available in Guatemala and that the majority of the garment construction couldn't be performed by the women’s cooperative we had partnered with.
We reevaluated and decided that focusing on bags and travel accessories would allow us to use local materials, give more work to the cooperative, and incorporate more of the traditional techniques that we were seeking to preserve. It takes commitment to maintain a true artisan designed and created product. Read more on the design process here.
You are passionate about supporting true artisans and protecting cultural processes and traditions. How does that change your business model?
EMILY - This goal is what guides Estrella de Mar. As Julie mentioned, our product assortment is based on highlighting the beautiful traditions and techniques of our artisan partners.
The fast fashion industry cuts costs wherever possible, sacrificing quality and ethical (or even merely humane) production practices in the process.
We are part of the slow fashion movement. Artisan production is the second largest form of employment in the developing world after agriculture.
There is so much potential for the artisan sector to create change at the community level and cause a powerful ripple effect.
You’re competing with fast fashion and mass market bargain prices. How do you explain your pricing to someone who’s breaking the addiction to cheap impulse buys?
EMILY - Fair pay for labor and materials is the cornerstone of our pricing. We work from there to design and determine our collections, rather than saying we want to make a specific design and it must cost $50 so we’ll cut any corner to make it happen. There are cheaper materials available in the markets, but we have become more and more cautious about incorporating upcycled or vintage textiles.
My experience in Guatemala has taught me that if you see a handmade item with a price that seems too good to be true, it probably is. In Guatemala, artisans who are desperate to earn anything at all in order to provide food, shelter, or medicine for their families are taken advantage of by intermediaries. Handmade textiles are then available for purchase through these third parties who keep any decent profit for themselves.
We ensure we are not part of this cycle by working directly with reputable sources and the artisans themselves. To put it simply, you really do get what you pay for.
What is each of your favorite pieces you offer and why?
JUILE - I love the Weekender bag because it represents an escape from the everyday. The bright textiles make any getaway feel more special. It's a luxury artisan item that is also so useful!
EMILY - It’s hard to choose, but I think I’d say our Carry-All bag. It's my go-to for a busy day when I need to have a lot with me; my iPad, wallet, planner (I still love a paper planner!), a water bottle, and maybe even a change of shoes all easily fit inside.
The outside zippered pocket keeps things like my phone, keys, and a pen within easy reach which really helps throughout the day.
You are able to see socially-conscious business from the inside out. What are some key markers we all can look for in companies that are truly “doing it right” and not for marketing purposes?
EMILY - Transparency, humility, the desire to keep improving. The companies that I admire embody these characteristics and many set the bar really high.
It can feel daunting or even inauthentic to brand ourselves an ‘ethical’ company because surely we have and will make mistakes, but I find this Maya Angelou quote to be really inspiring, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
What are your favorite sustainable healthy ethical (SHE) brands you use?
What's your favorite healthy guilty pleasure when the going gets tough?
JULIE - I treat myself to SoulCycle. It sounds cliché, but jumping on a bike for 45 minutes and sweating it all out really helps me manage stress and forget my worries.
How can our readers best link arms and cheer you on??
- Keep in touch via social media (Emily is returning to Guatemala for a product development trip at the beginning of June and will be sharing plenty of updates!)
- Say Hi on Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, Snapchat!
- Drop us a line
- Opt in for our occasional newsletter (we only send one out when we have something super important to share).
- Estrella de Mar handmade goods are available here.
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