Building a Fair-Trade Fashion Line Out of ‘Pride, Not Pity’

Harper Poe, a South Carolina-based designer, on the dangers of using another person's story to sell a dress or a handbag

A woman weaving in Mali
Adama Diarra / Reuters

In a world of fast fashion, sustainable-fashion brands tout their dedication to transparent and ethical production. While goods from these companies can be expensive, the goal is to pay producers a living wage while creating fashionable, high-quality clothing.

As resistance to fast fashion was picking up, Harper Poe graduated from college and started a day job that didn’t inspire her. She quit, and with a friend went on to found Proud Mary Global Textiles, a company that sells fair-trade accessories, home goods, and clothing. She partners with artisans in countries such as Mali and Mexico known for quality handcrafts. Before Poe launched Proud Mary’s first collection in 2008, she had no real experience in the field, aside from working briefly in interior design. She says that she’s sought out guidance along the way that’s helped her balance her company’s mission with its bottom line.

For The Atlantic’s series on mentorship, “On the Shoulder of Giants,” I spoke with the Charleston, South Carolina-based designer about the promise and pitfalls of social entrepreneurship, as well as how she patterned her winding career path on an admired mentor’s. The conversation that follows has been edited for length and clarity.

Elisha Brown: Can you expand on Proud Mary’s slogan, “Pride, not pity”?

Harper Poe: The idea is that Proud Mary is a business-to-business relationship. A lot of people are like, “We’re empowering women.” That’s awesome, but there’s something wrong with that. When you say you’re empowering someone else, that’s insinuating that you have the power, and you’re saying, “Oh, I’ll give you some of my power.” But the artisans who are making these products—I can’t weave like that, I can’t make that embroidery—they already have a lot of power. We wouldn’t be in business if it wasn’t for these artists.

Brown: What are the origins of the company?

Poe: I was living in New York City a year prior to launching Proud Mary. I studied construction management in college, and I was working for a general contractor in the city. I just burned out on working nine-to-five in New York City, so I quit my job, went to South America, and volunteered with Habitat for Humanity. For the first time, I saw women weaving textiles and the cultural significance of it really struck a chord with me. I got back to New York and I started taking classes in global affairs, because I was also interested in international development and reducing poverty.

It was a perfect storm of different passions coming together at one time. A friend and I started Proud Mary together, and we launched our first collection of handbags, pillows, and small accessories made in Guatemala at the end of 2008.

Brown: Who has guided you as you’ve learned about the ethical-fashion movement?

Poe: Starting out, I had no idea what I was doing and probably didn’t ask for enough help. I just knew this was my calling and I was going to form a business and figure it out. I met Elaine Bellezza. When she was 40, she was living in San Francisco as a private chef and artist. She quit those and joined the Peace Corps in Cameroon and ended up living in Mali for 15 years. She had a gallery and started working with artisans there. She’s been developing handcrafts all across West Africa, and did some work with the World Bank.

She was always super encouraging of me. Whenever there was an opportunity to bring a designer on some of these development trips, she would encourage me to apply for it. I think that she definitely challenged me and still does. She just always told me to not having a bleeding heart about this work. I definitely found that challenging sometimes. She’s like, “This is business. Go do the work. The good will come out of those business relationships.” I think about that a lot.

Brown: How did you wind up working with women in Syria and Mali?

Poe: I think Mali is the country that’s probably the closest to my heart. I went there in 2011, and fell in love with the textiles and the people and the music. I went with Elaine, who had lived there for 15 years. I started talking with her, telling her I wanted to work with textiles in Ghana. She said, “You should go to Mali—they have beautiful stuff.”

I had listened to the news, but knowing people in a place, understanding their point of view and why things are happening, changed the game for me. Some of our artisans’ spouses were killed in the war. Since then, the security situation has deteriorated. A lot of artisans we were working with there don’t really have an outlet for their products anymore.

I also wanted to do something with the refugee crisis in Syria. I found a Syrian-American woman through the Ethical Fashion Initiative. She started a workshop with about six women who, some of them, ISIS had taken over their villages. Some were double refugees from Palestine, and now were internally displaced in Syria. They make handbags and jewelry. They’re trying to grow and scale to 75 women in the next six months.

Brown: What do you think about where the ethical-fashion movement is now?

Poe: We hit a tipping point with [the 2013 garment-factory collapse] in Bangladesh. Conscious consumerism has come a long way, but there's a long way to go. We’re at risk of exploiting some of the producers and some of the artisans, from a marketing standpoint. I fear that terms like “ethical fashion,” “artisan-made,” “empowering women,” all those buzzwords, people are not going to think about the women—which could be a bit dangerous. The brands that are doing this work should be honest and informative, not overzealous in using another person’s story to sell their products.

Brown: Have people reached out to you for advice or mentorship since you started Proud Mary?

Poe: Yeah, I’ve had a few people wanting to start sustainable businesses. And I have one assistant/studio manager. She graduated last year, so she’s trying to figure out what she wants to do. I try to loop her in as much as possible, tell her about my path and how very nonlinear it was. I let her know it’s okay to make mistakes—it’s okay to try and have five different careers until you figure out what you want to do.