BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Calling her commitment to providing economic opportunities for women and her own passion for beautiful handmade design her second act, Liz Prior presents her collection of jewelry, bags, jackets, and other accessories on October 14 in Wilmette.
The ad executive with L2T Media recently launched the Rowan Collective, magnificently made by women artisans in Peru and Kenya, celebrating the opportunity to champion a meaningful mission while expanding her own creativity. Rowan has been three years in the making.
“Empowering women is the key to eradicating global poverty,” Prior explains. “The mission of Rowan Collective is to increase women’s income in developing economies around the globe by leveraging both their diverse artisanal skills and the raw materials of their regions with the goal of improving their lives as well as the lives of their children and communities.”
Prior began her own global commitment with Christy Turlington’s Every Mother Counts, which aims to provide maternal health care to every women in the world: “One of the ways that they raise money is through running because distance is the biggest barrier to providing maternal care. I ran in three or four races and got to know Christy,” she says.
Prior adds, “The biggest data I took away was the need to get income into the hands of women. Statistics show that women give back into their communities 90 percent of their income in terms of healthcare, education, and other positive influences. Men give back about 30 percent.”
Prior, who travels to both Kenya and Peru as much as possible, shares her designs with each of the groups. “When I was in Kenya in July, I was able to show our team recent Instagram posts. What huge smiles on the artisans’ faces when they saw their creativity come to life,” she recalls. “They have such a commitment to producing beautiful works of art. The borders are now closed in Peru, but I can’t wait to be back in the field, and I am investigating cooperatives in other countries to be our partners as well.”
Prior was inspired by the Rowan tree—for centuries known as the tree of life, symbolizing strength, wisdom and courage—for her new company’s title, recognizing the qualities of her artisans, and we would say, her own.
“In nearly every developing society, artistry is the second largest driver of the economy behind agriculture,” she says. “Beading, weaving, basket making, and crafts such as embroidering are taught to girls as young as 6 years old. In most of these regions, education for girls is not an option, so artistry is often the only means to earn a sustainable wage.”
The Maasai Mara women create hand-beaded jewelry, Rowan’s signature detachable tote straps and new clutches: “MAA Beadwork, a social enterprise founded in 2013, is based in Maasai Mara, Kenya. This collective of 578 women from more than a dozen communities spanning 32 miles from MAA’s headquarters began with the simple idea of connecting the female artisans with markets that were difficult for the women to access. The organization supports their artisans with intensive training on advanced beading techniques and important basic life skills such as financial management and reproductive health.”
In 2008 the Antassia Bead Project was formed by Antonia Stogdale in partnership with the Mokogodo Maasai women in Northern Kenya. Prior says the philosophy behind Antassia is to preserve the Maasai way of life by harnessing beading skills of the women to create sustainable income for the ladies and their families.
“Antassia’s bags have been featured in British Vogue, but even more important is the project’s success in terms of female empowerment. The women have now become breadwinners of their community, overtaking the men—an incredible accomplishment, especially in this region of the world,“ she shares.
Prior continues, “The amazing team at Pamwod Crafts, located in Kibera, the largest urban slum on the African continent, is a collective of 10 artisans that have been working together for 7 plus years. They have partnered with Rowan to produce its first collection of brass jewelry. All pieces are handmade using recycled brass materials. The team, which is led by Paul Asuga, also known as Aman, believes in 100 percent equality in the workforce. The gender divide, which is still very common in this part of the world, does not exist in Aman’s studio. Women have the same chance as men to perform any job on the production line.”
Nearly every artisan at Pamwod Crafts is a parent, and for them this studio and the work provided means security for their families. The income earned covers basic living needs, such as clean water, food, and school fees for their children.
Prior has also tapped into the beautiful weaving techniques found in Peru: “Threads of Peru is a non-profit social enterprise that works with Quechan weaving cooperatives in four regions of the Sacred Valley, the region surrounding Cusco, Peru. Threads is committed to strengthening the ancient craft techniques of the Quechuan culture and believes in empowering its artisans, who are predominantly women.
“With little or no access to education and few available economic opportunities close to home, most of these Quechuan women, who live in the high Andes, are still entirely reliant on their husbands. Income earned from weaving gives them more of a voice in the household and allows them to work from home while tending to their children and their responsibilities.”
Each textile they create is discussed and assigned individually, after which the artisans begin foraging for plants to naturally dye the wool. The wool is spun by hand and then woven into vibrant palettes using a back-strap loom. The entire production process can take up to nine weeks depending on weather conditions.
Prior says she, like so many other women in the United States was compelled by the #MeToo movement to examine her own professional journey into business and felt drawn to step into this second act: “While I never experienced sexual harassment or assault in the workplace, I did experience feeling undermined, undervalued, sexually uncomfortable, and simply minimized in the workplace because of my gender. Through some extensive travel, I learned how common it is for women in developing countries to be marginalized in ways far more extreme than even the worst narratives exposed by the #MeToo movement.”
“I came to quickly understand that the level of marginalization in almost every instance is more of a cultural norm than it is an exception. In most cases, women not only lack the power to change the status quo, but they lack the understanding of the importance of being equal citizens in their own,” she says. “Investing in girls and women creates a ripple effect that yields multiple benefits for women, families, communities, and countries. This increases women’s household income, improves their access to school and healthcare, gives women greater control over their reproductive health, improves women’s ability to make environmentally friendly choices, strengthens their status within families and communities—all of which have global impact.”
For Prior, The Rowan Collective offers a unique and beautiful way for women to support women: “I look forward to people reaping the benefits of our artisans gorgeous work while contributing to their livelihood.”
The Rowan Collective collection will be presented on October 14 from 5:30-8:30 p.m. at 1156 Mohawk Road in Wilmette. For more information, visit rowan-collective.com.