All GAIA products — from handbags to jewelry to pillows — are handmade in Dallas, Texas, by resettled refugee women who are using their tactile skills to help rebuild their lives here in the U.S. after experiencing tremendous loss in their home countries.
The "refugee artisans" GAIA employs do most of their work from home. We make (sometimes multiple) weekly visits to each of them, picking up the products they’ve completed, delivering the materials they need to make more GAIA goodness, and just catching up — we may be serious business women, but first and foremost, we're friends!
Tag along with us on a recent visit to see Catherin, the first Refugee Artisan to begin working at GAIA, back in 2009.
When we arrive at Catherin’s Northeast Dallas apartment on a mild January morning for our weekly product pickup, she answers the door with little Juliana on her hip. She smiles and invites us to come in.
We've made visits to Catherin's countless times, but the formality holds — she offers us a plate of refreshments. (We always tell her not to bother but she just can't help it!) Today, she puts out a plate of chocolate-covered wafer cookies and apple juice — bring on that sugar rush! — then sits on the sofa with Juliana on her lap. The baby munches a cookie and giggles, coyly trying to steal everyone's attention and, per usual, she is successful.
Catherin's modest apartment home is immaculate. There’s a cartoon on TV, as there often is. Sometimes, if you're lucky, you'll get a dance routine from Juliana. (Toddler moves are the best!) Unfortunately for us, she's not feeling the music today. There's a neat stack of GAIA bags on Catherin’s sewing table in the corner of the room where she does the majority of her work. This living room experiences A LOT of living — dance parties, movie snuggles, picnic-style meals, and the frequent whirring of Catherin's sewing machine allowing her to make a living-wage contribution to her beautiful family.
Johnna, GAIA's production specialist, walks over to Catherin's "office" and carefully checks each bag, starting with a stack of Fold-Over Clutches. She zips and unzips the bag, inspects the inside, and keeps a tally. Then she moves on to a stack of Cha Cha's and a pile of Lariats.
The prized gingham Pom Pom bags are part of our big J.Crew order (coming spring/summer 2017! Eeek!). Johnna counts 15 and praises Catherin for her trademark quality, admiring the way she has secured each handmade, hand-beaded pom-pom to the bag by hand.
In a white binder that includes a labeled section for each of the refugee artisans, Johnna tracks product inventory and payments to the ladies. Not super high-tech, but it gets the job done! (Shoutout to all our analog ladiez!)
After Johnna inventories each piece — and notes that Catherin doesn’t have the leather she needs to finish some of the bags (rats. Our bad.) — she joins Catherin on the sofa and explains her new assignments.
In the week ahead, Catherin will make two prototypes for the GAIA spring collection. (Vendors are eager to see our new designs — coming soon, guys!) Catherin watches closely as Johnna shows her a pattern and lays out fabric and leather to explain how they should be pieced together for the new creations. This begins our back-and-forth R+D process, which could take one week or one month (fingers crossed for the former!).
Next, Johnna shows Catherin a stack of fabrics from which she will make more Cha Chas, and explains how to cut the precious vintage textile to maximize its awesomeness. The fact that Catherin keeps all of these details in her noggin is just remarkable. Sometimes wires get crossed (or Juliana has her way with our neat stacks) and products come out different than we intended, but Catherin's skill and our beautiful textiles make it pretty impossible to really mess anything up. *Knocking on wood.*
Finally, before we leave, Johnna and Catherin take a quick inventory of supplies. Does Catherin have enough beads? What about white fringe? This is the trickiest part of employing women from their homes rather than at one centralized production facility. If we forget something, or they forget to ask, it haults production until our next visit. Although the inefficiency and inconvenience pains us, all of us will jump at the chance to go pay another visit to our talented friends.
Johnna makes a note of what to bring Catherin next time, and then we're off to the next stop: Maria’s home, where we will attempt to count hundreds and hundreds of pom-poms. Say a prayer!