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AOW Handmade Matches Ethical Brands with Artisans

AOW Handmade Matches Ethical Brands with Artisans

When starting an ethical brand, specifically one that benefits artisans, the hardest part can be matching your brand to the correct artisan group. Fortunately many tradeshows around the world have began to pop-up, allowing brands to find their perfect match. The thought navigating these shows can sometimes seem overwhelming, so we sat down with an expert to give you the inside scoop on artisan tradeshows.


AOW Handmade, founded by Annie Waterman, is a consulting company with a mission to help buyers efficiently identify and connect with vetted international artisan suppliers based on specific product requests and production criteria. It is their goal to provide clients with a personal sourcing experience. Services are specifically catered for companies looking to incorporate “artisans” into their existing production line, companies that want direct links to artisan suppliers, and/or companies simply looking for new and unique ethically made products.


"I have been working in this field for about 12 years now. My first experience in the field was back in 2004 when I worked for a designer based in Boulder, Co. This particular designer was ahead of her times and developed contemporary home décor working directly with artisan groups throughout South America. I literally “knocked on her door” until I was offered an internship. 4 months later, I was offered a full time position. During my four years working for this woman, I did a bit of everything including sourcing, designing, product development, marketing, and sales. I learned the wholesale/retail business and have been working in the field ever since. I loved the experience and felt all of my interests finally aligned."

FC: What advice do you have for brands looking to source from artisans?

AOW: If you are a wholesaler, my biggest piece of advice would be to first find a few export ready partners who can develop new products, in a timely manner. Less is more. That way, you won’t spread yourself thin. Also, invest in a designer. Design is the primary way to really compete within the U.S. market today. That way, you can develop long-term relationships and develop handmade, ethical collections but always have fresh, new designs to bring to your clientele.

FC: How does a brand know which artisan group is the best match for them?

AOW:  Oh, this is a tough question. To start, the designer needs to be very clear when it comes knowing what you truly want in a partner, collections, and how you want to structure your business model. A lot of things need to align including target price points, quantities, terms, ethics, communication, and standards. You have to ask them a lot of questions and look at their history. Who have the worked with in the past? Who are their current clients? This way you can get a feel for their export experience. Do they solely rely on your business or do they have other avenues to generate income. This is my particular area of focus when I work with companies. I help connect brands and wholesalers to the appropriate suppliers while looking at their product interests and production criteria. The business relationship needs to be mutual, it needs to work for both parties. Expectations need to be clear. 

FC: Are tradeshows a good resource for brands looking to source from artisans?

AOW:  Yes, indeed! When an artisan group exhibits at a show that is a strong sign that the artisan group is investing in their own business and actively looking for new clients. But again, you need to look at their experience and whom they have worked with in the past. How long have they been in business? I would suggest emailing them and have them send you a catalogue, terms, and price list. Do they send it in a timely manner that matches your sales calendar? These are all good questions to ask. 

FC: How should brands plan which tradeshows are best from them to attend?

AOW:  This simply depends on what you are looking for and how far you are willing to travel. There are artisan shows worldwide and they are all good opportunities to connect with suppliers.  If a brand is looking to connect with artisan groups and simply want to travel to a show within the U.S., then the best platform to connect with suppliers would be Artisan Resource @ NY NOW. 

FC:  What makes an artisan tradeshow different from any other tradeshow? Do the brands have real opportunities to interact with artisans?

AOW: There are trade shows and then there are “artisan fairs.” Trade shows may have both artisan companies and brands exhibiting. For example, the Eclectic section within Maison & Objet trade show in Paris features a combination of both. Most often, you will find an artisan group at a trade show that might have a representative in the booth whom manages the enterprise or organization but also works closely with the artisans.

You just need to carefully navigate the show and ask a lot of questions because it can be confusing who is doing what. It’s often easy to distinguish a supplier when you ask where they ship from. For example, if they ship from country of origin, they are often a supplier. If they ship from Europe or the states, they are often a wholesaler or “trader.”

FC:  As someone who has worked with artisans all over the world, how do you see the fair trade and ethically made market changing or evolving?

AOW:  I think artisan is “on trend” which can be exciting but also scary. I really hope that artisan craft and handmade production is always valued. It should be high end and priced appropriately. I hope that “artisan” is seen as luxury because it is a product that is made by human hands, and needs to be respected.

I also think the world is getting smaller so you can no longer really be a wholesaler and simply find unique products that stand apart. People are traveling the world and finding the same things so you need to set your company apart by investing in designers who then can work with the artisan groups to develop products that fit within your target market and keep your clientele excited by new handmade products once or ideally twice a year. 

FC:  How do artisans feel about American brands using their goods, do they see the value and cultural preservation of their goods? Do they see the story being told through their goods?

AOW: I think artisan groups are just eager to find steady employment opportunities so they are interested in connecting with American brands. But of course, everyone has a different opinion and each enterprise has a different mission. Some enterprises focus on cultural preservation and some strive to push volume production and exclusive designs. It really varies from company to company. I find there is no right or wrong way, buyers just need to be sensitive to the mission of the enterprise. 


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This post was originally posted on Fashioning Culture

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