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How One Designer Successfully Quit Her Job to Travel the World

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It's time to get to know some of the emerging designers nominated for Racked Young Guns, our annual search for the country's most promising up-and-coming fashion talent.


Proud Mary's Harper Poe. Photo by Olivia Rae James.

Harper Poe, the designer behind the ethically produced, textile-focused line Proud Mary, has mastered the art of being in not two, but five places at once. Poe works with artisans in Mali, Guatemala, Niger, Morocco, and Peru on her collection, which combines a modern aesthetic with traditional methods of production using locally sourced indigenous materials.

The result is an eclectic, color-happy melting pot of clothes, bags, home décor, shoes, and accessories, all in bold patterns and textures that are made for mixing-and-matching. The best part: They all come with an affordable price tag. "I wanted a job with purpose," says the Charleston-based designer.

All of these international connections didn't come in a day's work. The beginnings can be traced back to 2007, when Harper, who initially wanted build houses, quit her job in interior design to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity in Chile. She was so inspired by South American traditional textiles and crafts that when she returned to the U.S., she decided to launch the line in concert with her friend Molly Purnell, who is no longer involved with the label.

Explaining the name Proud Mary, Harper says, "My first name is Mary Harper and Molly's is Mary Lorraine, so we said we had to do something with Mary. Plus, the name Mary is a strong female name in a lot of cultures, which I like." Today, her line provides fair wages and sustainable jobs to men and women in the developing world. An email with someone in Mali here; a Skype session with Morocco there—here's how the magic happens in all five countries.

GUATEMALA: Guatemala was Harper's first foray into working with producers outside the US. She met her current facilitator in Guatemala through non-profit organization Nest, which, at the time, was a micro-finance organization offering loans to craft-based businesses. She and her facilitator, who work together today outside of Nest, connected with five weaving groups that specialize in ikat, heavier brocaded fabric, stripes and plaid, Oaxacan-style weft-faced weaving, and another around Lake Atitlan who focus on tightly woven stripes.

The process looks something like this: Once the fabrics are woven, they are brought to a sewing workshop outside of Guatemala City—run by a man who employs a few sewers—to finish off the clothes, rugs, pillows, and bags. "This town had a lot of factories, but when the economy went down, a lot of them closed," says Harper. "Now they're doing so well, even buying cars. It's cool to see them getting on their feet again." With the success of these pieces, Harper also recently started working on shirts, tanks, and tunic dresses for the summer, made from a white gauzy fabric she came across in Coban.

MALI: Harper met her collaborators in Mali through a woman from the West African Trade Hub, a USAID-funded project that connects artisans to buyers and designers in the United States. "You have artisans that make these amazing things, but they don't have a bank account or email, and have never shipped anything out of the country," says Harper. "Organizations like this help artisans become export-ready."

In Mali, Harper works with an all-male mud cloth-printing group that was started by a Malian man. "It's a social enterprise. A lot of times people focus on young women, so I think it's interesting to employ young men who can pass down these traditions," says Harper. Using all organic cotton and all-natural pigments (think mud from the river for blacks, bark for reds and browns, and indigo for blues, purples and greens), the artisans craft everything from bags to pillows. "This is a beautiful workshop—it's so serene. Everyone wears brown tops and pants. They're Muslim, so they're praying five times a day. It's an interesting environment to be around," she adds.

As for the process: Harper sends in her designs and the artisans print the piece of fabric before taking it to a group of tailors in the capital city, Bamako, to get sewing. In addition to this group, Harper also works with a Malian woman who specializes in crochet and indigo dyeing, and employs a cooperative that doles out traditional caftans. "In Mali, a lot of the business owners are women and the men are laborers, which is interesting."

MOROCCO: "I wasn't intending to work here," Harper says. "One of my friends was home for a visit and had on this interesting pair of shoes. I thought they would do really well if I made them a bit more modern." She was right: today shoes are one of Proud Mary's bestsellers. Her friend, who currently works as her facilitator in Morocco, connects Harper to shoemakers who use raffia to weave the upper part of the shoe in their houses before handing it off to a cobbler in Marrakech to finish off the soles.

NIGER: In addition to shoes, clothes, and home décor, Harper also has an arsenal of baskets in her collection, which she imports from the West African country of Niger. The Tuareg artisans, who Harper met at a craft fair that was organized by the same woman who heads up the West African Trade Hub, hail from Agadez in the Sahel region. Together, they handcraft each piece from palm and leather. "There have been a lot of problems in that area—it's very lawless," says Harper. "It's hard for these governments to manage what's going on, so they have a hard time producing, but when they can get it out of the country, their baskets are stunning."

PERU: While Harper is not currently producing in Peru, she spent a lot of time in the South American country, working with a small weaving cooperative in a mountain region on a collection of fringe totes. "These women's weaving techniques are incredible—they use really fine materials." But that doesn't mean that's it for Peru in the future. "Peru has beautiful textiles—really nice wool," says Harper. "It would be nice to do a fall/winter accessories collection from there. Nothing is set in stone yet, though."

Year after year, Harper continues to add new countries to the list; Cote d'Ivoire is in the works. "My goal is for the line to be a global exploration with textiles. I like the idea of working in regions that have strong textile traditions." The point of Proud Mary isn't charity work, she says; it's about discovering beautiful things around the world. "Instead of a sob story that pulls at your heart strings by saying support this poor woman, make it more uplifting. It's more like: these people are amazing—they're weaving beautiful fabrics. And there's no way you could do this in a million years."
· Proud Mary [Official Site]
· Knitwear Line Calder Takes Off-Duty Style to the Next Level [Racked]
· All Racked Young Guns 2014 posts [Racked]