As you might have seen on our Facebook or Instagram, GAIA products are now in select J.Crew stores all over the United States and abroad, as well as online.
It’s a big moment for us — one that was nearly a year in the making. We are beyond thrilled to see our beautiful handmade earrings, pompom bags, and hair ties (more on that later) under the J.Crew umbrella. It’s not something we aspired to, but the implications for our little brand are huge: More people find out about our products, which means more sales. But what’s meaningful about that is it means we get to hire more refugee women! And that’s why we’re here!
So how did this partnership happen? And how did a tiny brand with a tiny team working out of a 950-square-foot office pull off production of 6,200 individual handmade items? Sit tight and we’ll tell you.
Last May, our founder Paula shared a photo of herself in a striped J.Crew dress on GAIA's Instagram account. Paula tagged J.Crew, along with her GAIA pieces. The company’s creative director, Jenna Lyons, saw the post and “liked” it, along with several other photos on our feed. She also shared a few of our images with members of her team. Which, of course, we didn’t know.
Cut to two months later, when we get an email from the brand buyer who oversees J.Crew’s partnerships with third-party brands, called "In Good Company". She told us that they’d anonymously ordered three Pom Pom bags and that they were obsessed with them. She said that Jenna had carried one to a wedding and loved it. She asked if we could make some samples for potential consideration for the spring 2017 collection.
Of course, we said yes!
They sent us some of their fabric yardage and we made 16 samples, using a mix of their fabrics and ours. They said they might use them in their September Fashion Week presentation in New York. (What!?)
We tried not to get our hopes up because they kept reminding us that the bags might not be used and that even if they were used that they might not be picked up for stores. All summer, our team struggled to keep our composure, knowing that we might appear at New York Fashion Week! We were still flying high just from the fact that Jenna was following us on IG — never mind that J.Crew was interested in our products!
Deep breaths, like, all the time.
So then, lo and behold, Fashion Week rolls around, and on September 11, several styles of our Pom Pom bags show up in their presentation! We were freaking out, to put it mildly. But would they get picked up by stores? Would J.Crew actually place an order? We didn’t know. And we would have to wait. And wait. And wait.
We were getting nervous.
And then, about a month later, they finally reached out and said they’d taken so long because they loved all the bags and it was hard to choose!
When the order came, it was initially for three styles of Pom Pom bags.
But a few weeks later, the J.Crew accessories team emailed and asked if we could make hair ties with pom poms. We hadn’t done it before, but Bothina figured out the construction for the initial samples we were able to send the company an assortment of color combos.
And then, when Paula went to New York and met with J.Crew buyers they saw her GAIA tassel earrings. They asked for samples and then chose three styles from our existing collection.
The full order comprised 4,200 hair ties; 1,200 Pom Pom bags; and 400 pairs of earrings.
This was by far the largest order we’ve ever received. Now we had to figure out what it would take to fulfill it. We starting by plotting out how many of each item needed to be completed each week and compared it to existing resources. At that time we had six refugee artisans, and we quickly realized we needed triple that number.
So the team reached out to the International Rescue Committee, who began to recruit potential candidates. We held several interview sessions in our office before choosing the 12 women who were the best fit.
We then enlisted Alyssa to oversee production and Johnna to oversee sourcing. One of her biggest challenges was finding a reliable quality source for the elastic bands we needed to make hair ties.
A big order like this one forces a little company to shore up. For GAIA that meant not only hiring more people, but also streamlining processes, putting system in place, and formalizing training.
Volume was the challenge. Each Pom Pom bag has seven pompoms — we needed 8,400 pompoms for the bags — and each hair tie has two — which meant 8,400 more. And every GAIA pompom is made by hand. There were refugee women all over Dallas making pompoms nonstop for weeks! We knew we had the earrings down, it was just a matter of getting 800 individual pieces made. The hair ties were a little tricker, because we hadn’t done them before and our supplier was late delivering the elastic bands, which put us in a time crunch.
Ultimately, we were in the thick of things for more than a month — and it all got done only with the help of many, many volunteers. GAIA friends and family came to our office on multiple Saturdays to help us inspect each product and attach the hangtags hand-signed by our artisans. It was a family affair — Lauren J.’s mom flew in from California, both Paula’s mom and step-mom volunteered their time, and the husbands did their share as well! One friend of ours even threw a party at her house one evening where people did quality control. (Everything had to be perfect!) We all took home bags or ties to tag each night. A neighbor let us store the inventory in her office. Toward the end, we had to pull out all the stops!
And then we packed it all up and sent it to New York. Whew!
The Fulfilling Things
This order was a turning point for GAIA. Whatever happens next, we grew so much from the experience.
Our hearts are warmed by the outpouring of support we received from every direction, and we are in awe at what an incredible partner J.Crew has been. They liked us for who we are, never asking us to change what we do or how we do it, fully believing in the mission behind our brand and showing us a lot of patience and grace when we needed it.
What has happened feels surreal at times. To know that J.Crew elected to use its massive international platform to feature a little company that exists to employ refugees and to bring awareness to refugees living in the United States is significant in many ways, especially in a time of anti-refugee sentiment. GAIA refugee artisans now have a world stage on which to shine.
We didn’t dream this dream that is now a reality, but we are forever grateful.
J.Crew Order by the Numbers
18 refugees artisans
1,200 Pom Pom bags
4,200 pompom hair ties