At Frangipani, one of our most beloved Colombian brands is Susu Accessories. We love being a part of their incredible business and mission (and the beautiful bags, of course!). As a part of our blog’s mini-series on Frangipani’s Colombian brands, I had the opportunity to interview Laura McMahon, one of the partners of Susu Accessories. She and I spoke last week about Susu, the Wayúu artisans behind the bags, and their dedication to being fair trade. Read on to learn about this amazing organization, and how they became a worldwide brand.

Susu Accessories began about eight years ago, when the founders Zulima Anaya and Nadia Roberts decided that they had to get the beautiful hand-knitted bags of the Wayúu tribe of La Guajira, Colombia into the world. About a year later, Laura McMahon joined them, a cousin to one of the founders and a lover of Susu’s mission. McMahon and her cousin grew up around the Wayúu tribe, so they knew their beautiful designs since childhood. When they decided they would like to see some of these products in the US fashion market, the first goal was to contact the tribe and to gain their trust. “Working with an indigenous community, it’s not like you can just call and say ‘Hey, can I have 50 bags made and have them shipped to you- it’s not like that” she continued, citing how they had contact with a friend in Colombia with Wayúu family who helped them reach the community. “[The Wayúu] need to know you; they need to trust you. For them it’s about respect. It’s a completely different way of handling business - having someone who was a part of the community was very helpful.”

At first they began with only original Wayúu designs, but as they moved forward, they realized they could create their own designs for the Wayúu knitters by partnering with different Colombian (and later, international) designers. When choosing those designers, they must be just as committed to Susu’s mission as the founders. “It’s about staying true to the Wayúu roots and being able to showcase what they do.”

The Wayúu designs are not only beautiful, but incredibly unique and complex in their nature. “The way that the Wayúu design, the way that they get inspired, is by everything that surrounds them.” Examples include designs based on the head of a fly or even the stripes of a cow. But how does Susu keep this in mind when creating designs for the bags? “We create our own Susu design, but in consultation with them; they always have some kind of Wayúu base… we don’t want to lose the Wayúu soul.” Another way in which Susu is able to accomplish this is by leaving the knitters free to design the bottoms of each bag. McMahon said “our knitters are very specialized, and they can replicate a design very well, but all of the bottoms of the bags are free for them to design. So every single bag is going to have a different bottom, and that’s the inspiration of the knitter who made it. It’s almost like a signature; that’s where you get the information about the knitter.”

Essential to Susu Accessories is being a fair-trade certified organization, and they are dedicated to this mission. At the moment, Susu works “directly with the 350 women of the Wayúu tribe ; they’re all women heads of households. [Susu] provides them with materials, training, and they can work at their own pace… By working with Susu they are able to provide for their families, get something stable and get paid fair wages.” I can tell how proud McMahon is of being able to say this; it’s another reason that so many of Susu’s employees are dedicated to the mission. Fair-trade is something you can feel good about on every level, from the employer to the employee to the manufacturer and the consumer. 

But there’s still many companies to be wary of, according to McMahon. “It’s incredible to see how many companies claim to be fair trade and they’re not.” In order to know that a company is fair trade, McMahon said that they really have to be certified. Susu Accessories is “fair trade certified by Chicago Fair-Trade,” McMahon stated. She then continued, “that tells you that there’s no child labor, that they pay fair wages, that what you do is not hurting the environment and that you’re providing liveable, dignified jobs for the artisans who make the products.” Fair-trade products can be more expensive to produce, between transportation and manufacturing costs and paying workers fairly.  Susu Accessories stands out as one brand that has actually done the work of being fair-trade certified and sticking to it. “There’s gotta be a point in which you can’t compromise safety or people’s livelihoods just to make a buck.”

Now, as Frangipani shoppers must know, Susu bags are not inexpensive. They can retail for upwards of $300 a bag. I imagined this must come with some marketing challenges, especially with fast fashion running rampant on the global retail market. And, in the last eight years, Susu’s business has grown on a colossal scale, selling bags around the world (their biggest market currently is China, where consumers want as many unique things as they can get their hands on, and as McMahon told me, there are many clients that even have collections of Susu bags).  McMahon adds, “I am more than happy, willing, excited when someone wants to know about our process and why our bags are priced the way they are. ‘Where is all that coming from?’ And ‘Why are our bags special?’ I could talk about it for hours. But I’m not in the business of convincing someone that, ‘You should pay this.’ You need to actually want it and get it.” Because as she continued, “every single person is not going to be our customer. Our customers are people who care about fair trade, who love beautiful unique things, who enjoy color. It’s not for everybody and that’s okay.” 

Does this remind anyone else of Frangipani’s store and client base? Probably because Frangipani shares a similar love for color, uniqueness and sustainable and fair-trade merchandise. And as McMahon stated beautifully,  when you make the commitment- I mean these are real, human lives that are behind it- you can’t just sell out. That’s why we’ve been successful with it; that’s why people keep coming back, because they know.” It’s with this mindset and dedication to fair trade that Susu has been successful even with fast fashion at every turn. There are clients out there who believe in the mission as Susu does and want to support it, and this goes for Frangipani’s community as well.

McMahon ended our conversation with an anecdote from her early days with Susu. They take a trip every year or so to visit the Wayúu and hold a few days of festivities for their knitters to come and take part in. These conferences are held out of the house of a matriarch of the Wayúu tribe, Señora Memya, as she has been a huge part in connecting the Wayúu with Susu. They play ice-breaker games together to increase comfort and friendliness, and they’ll show the attendees if Susu has been showcased in the media and just catch up on life in general. But in order to get to La Guajira, it can take up to twenty hours in the car from the nearest airport. And these car rides aren’t for the faint of heart, as they go right through the desert and some of the most desolate poverty in the world. There are so many people in need, including many of the Wayúu, which is why Susu brings groceries and meals for their time with the knitters each year.  

And on one of the first of these trips that McMahon took, they had leftover groceries at the end of the events, so they asked Señora Memeya to give them to the knitters who needed it most. She responded, “‘Listen, take it back with you, because there’s need here, but there’s desperation on your way back.’” After a long pause, McMahon continued, “we’re talking about people who are not doing great to begin with, and for this woman and these people to say, ‘You know what? We’re good. Just take it back and distribute it to all those other people who don’t have at least this opportunity. We’re working with you guys, and we’ll be fine.’ It just shows you their nature.”

Even hearing this myself I was hooked; with brands like Susu doing their part to be fair-trade and making beautiful objects, and stores like Frangipani carrying these items, we have the opportunity to buy more sustainable and ethical products, and we should take it. That doesn’t necessarily mean buying more products or spending more money, but perhaps saving for those pieces that you can feel good about that will last you a long time. As a soon-to-be graduating college student, I know that if I want to purchase products that are better for the world and the people living in it, I have to save up or wait until there is a sale, but I want to do that to support artisans like the Wayúu, who need all that they can get, and companies who are, in-turn, helping them. For as McMahon said about her story as our conversation came to a close, “once you see that, you’re not into fast fashion anymore… it’s not even important. It’s not what it’s about.”

August 07, 2020 — Elizabeth Sander

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