Melanie Cornwell, November 19, 2012
“In our early years, people would ask me, ‘What is the connection between working with artisans and prevention of human trafficking?’ People rarely ask that now.”
Nearly 20 years ago, Eve Blossom’s entrepreneurial passion was sparked not by a dream, but a reality. Confronted with the harsh truths of human trafficking, she set out to find a way that she — a trained architect and designer — could strike at the root of the central problem of poverty in Southeast Asia. Blossom seized on a budding theory that if you increase the incomes of artisans and produce stable jobs, you reduce the likelihood that they and their families will have to make desperate economic choices.
Fast forward to the present: Blossom’s pioneering social venture Lulan Artisans just celebrated its 8th anniversary designing, producing and marketing contemporary textiles made by over 650 master artisan weavers, dyers & spinners in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, India, and Vietnam — some of the countries with the highest rates of trafficking. Each Lulan piece is a unique work of art that holds a story of a people, a past and a more promising future for the weavers.
Now Lulan is launching a network called we’ve, a highly curated, design-centric e-commerce site connecting buyers with artisans through story. In other words, it is a digital extension of what Lulan Artisans has been doing in the textile industry for nearly a decade.
The LiP: What does Lulan Artisans do?
EVE BLOSSOM: We partner with master artisans, combine contemporary design aesthetics with the artisans’ incredible unique talents and highlight them — their work and their process. We also connect the artisans with multiple markets to build strong economic opportunities.
The LiP: Can you give us a little background on Lulan Artisans and how that led to we’ve?
EVE BLOSSOM: I started my career in design as an trained architect and in 1995, I was fortunate enough to live and work in Hanoi, Vietnam, renovating old French villas. During my first few months in Hanoi, I overheard two European men talking about how later that night, one of the men was meeting a six-year-old girl whose father sold her for sex. I tried to intervene but was unsuccessful in changing the outcome for that little girl. I didn’t know anything about human trafficking. I was a designer.
I began to research human trafficking and business models that would help prevent it. I learned that artisans are one of the groups at risk for falling into human trafficking, because their incomes are often below poverty level.
In 2004, I founded Lulan Artisans to generate livelihoods for artisans, create job stability and help prevent human trafficking. While writing my book Material Change a couple of years ago, I reflected on the years of our work and what we had accomplished so far. I felt committed as ever to the work but recommitted to the idea of using the latest technology and distribution to evolve Lulan further. Thus the idea of we’ve.
The LiP: What exactly is we’ve?
EVE BLOSSOM: we’ve is a design-curated, e-commerce community that supports closer relationships between buyers, designers and artisans, using a novel way to purchase artisanal products through story. We have a patent pending for the process. we’ve‘s geographical reach is global and the artisanal products are diverse and include textiles, jewelry, ceramics, recycled products and more.
The LiP: How did you come up with the idea for we’ve?
EVE BLOSSOM: The concept of we’ve advanced in early 2010, when Lulan Artisans sponsored a textile design competition online. Designers from around the world, interested in collaborating with artisans, submitted more than 1600 designs. It was clear that there was need and desire for an online community serving designers, artisans, and buyers.
The LiP: Describe your creative process.
EVE BLOSSOM: We use a design process that is very collaborative with the artisans. We first see samples of their techniques and skills and then, create designs that highlight what is unique about their cooperative’s capabilities. We produce collections by using different cooperatives in different countries integrated into one cohesive offering. It makes for a richer collection that goes well together.
By working with artisans as peer-to-peer partners, we share design knowledge as a technology transfer, infusing a broader design understanding and aesthetics so it lives within them. The goal is the cooperative will acquire the skills to be self-sufficient and have long-term sustainability. We call these Design Sprouts — cooperatives that teach each other and grow contextually and locally. The cooperatives embody design and business skills to be self-sufficient for the long-term.
The LiP: How will this work contribute to the evolution of your industry?
EVE BLOSSOM: I think it already has in some ways. In our early years, people would ask me, “What is the connection between working with artisans and prevention of human trafficking?” People rarely ask that now. Other businesses are starting to use similar models. Job stability, job creation and economic options help anyone anywhere in the world to have better economic options.
In the future, we think manufacturing will change dramatically and the maker movement will continue to be a major change agent. we’ve reflects the maker movement and how it helps establish a better way to produce with a transparent relationship chain, closer relationships and high design.
The LiP: What inspires you?
EVE BLOSSOM: What inspires me most is working with incredible artisans and also using design as the main differentiator to make a difference in the world.
The LiP: Have there been any past unrealized projects that have recently become possible through new techniques and innovations? If so, please describe what, how and why.
EVE BLOSSOM: Great question, and the answer is how we’ve came out of Lulan…we’ve is the unrealized project that is about to be realized.
The LiP: What’s your big-picture ambition with this work?
EVE BLOSSOM: I have three objectives:
1. High-design artisanal products that produce stable jobs impacting many cooperatives throughout the world including in the United States with US makers.
2. Transparency in the supply/value chain, which I call the “relationship” chain.
3. Influence other companies to find processes to help get rid of slave labor in their supply/value chain.
The LiP: What is the most progressive idea/concept you have come across recently that you would like to see grow?
EVE BLOSSOM: For me it is we’ve…
Photos courtesy of Eve Blossom