Photos Courtesy of Marla Showfer, the Winding Road
There’s an awful lot of talk these days about the story behind a creation. For us teddy bear and friends aficionados, we think “story” and we imagine Paddington or Pooh or the Care Bears — and even a recent creation like Peppa the Pig or Toothless the Dragon might flit across our minds. However, the story that is being conversed about isn’t a literary one: it’s the reason behind a piece’s origin; it’s the tale of how an item came to be created and what its existence means.
Among the most popular story-based goods are items that are made in the Fair Trade movement. For the uninitiated, these are primarily products that are handcrafted by indigenous populations from economically depressed regions of the globe. Western entrepreneurs establish relationships with the artisans who live within a village and then set up work spaces where their native crafts can be made in a safe, healthy environment. They are given a fair wage, are often provided with medical and educational opportunities, and have the chance to preserve their artistry and earn a life-sustaining income.
Marla Showfer is one of the leading proponents of the movement, and her association with the craftspeople of Nepal, India, and Morocco birthed a large and colorful array of accessories, clothing, home décor and . . . handmade felt toys.
“I think it’s really rewarding to meet a group of women artisans in a place like Nepal and start a relationship with them,” Showfer shares. “Eventually we can sell their goods into major stores, boutiques, and museums across the United States and in Canada! I can create an avenue for them to reach the U.S. market, which they could never do on their own from where they are.”
Showfer’s business is aptly named the Winding Road, which is ideal because it was a circuitous path that led her to this vocation. “After 20-plus years in corporate marketing for Levi Strauss and several major advertising agencies, I had turned 50 years old. I wanted the next phase of my life to combine social responsibility, my passion for travel, and my experience in marketing and merchandising.”
Amazingly, the decision to launch the Winding Road was made on July 4, and the aura of Independence Day did not escape the businesswoman. By deciding to pursue this new goal, she was striking out on her own into uncharted territory. However, she knew that by doing this, she would be providing economic freedom and personal independence to citizens in oft-forgotten regions.
“One of the things that is so cool is that I meet this small group of women in Nepal who hand-make these beautiful felt animals. I feel a connection to them, and I instinctively know that people in American will feel the exact same way. I know that what these women are making is universal. Everyone will respond to them,” Showfer states.
When Showfer has occasionally spoken to some young children, and even a few of their adult counterparts, about the faraway country of Nepal, she has been met with blank stares. Some people are not familiar with the location or the lifestyle limitations. This is something that she wants to address and change: “I will ask the kids, for instance, if they know where Nepal or Kathmandu is, and they usually don’t. Most of the people I’ve spoken to know where India and China are located, and they have heard of Mount Everest, so that is a starting point,” she says with determination.
“I will show them a picture of one of the women making hand-felting and then creating one of the felt animals. I will talk to them about how the government of Nepal does not provide free public school. As a result, they have a 55% illiteracy rate among adults. In rural villages, the illiterate rate is as high as 90% among girls. When customers buy these Fair Trade goods, they are helping these family members send their kids to school and to become economically empowered,” she stresses.
On all of the hand-felted animals, and on the other hand-made goods as well, Showfer makes sure to attach a hangtag that gives information about where the pieces hail from. She wants customers to understand the valuable nature of their purchase.
“Fair trade toys and other kid-friendly items can create an educational opportunity for parents to teach their children a bit about other cultures and how people live around the world,” the business founder affirms. “It’s important that children realize that goods are still made by hand, and not everything is made out of plastic in a big factory. Buying handmade Fair Trade goods can truly help women and artisans in need of work. At the end of the day, a purchase can lead to these women being able to support themselves. They and their families can gain economic independence.”
The commitment to improving the lives of overseas workers hit home to Showfer when she was in India on a business trip. She was moved and inspired to act after she encountered an enormous number of women and children rushing to her side, begging for food. “Most people just went about doing their daily business. They see this every day and it seems normal to them,” she recollects. “They think there is nothing they can do to solve the problem — it is too huge. I decided not only to think about it, but to try to do something about it.”
Because of her own experience in consumer merchandising and marketing, Marla Showfer went the route of exporting handmade crafts and importing them into the States. An avid photographer herself and a ceramicist and painter, she has always been passionate about art. The Winding Road has offered her the chance to travel down all the paths she has been attracted to, while concentrating on lifting people out of impoverished circumstances. She knows that her attraction to this pursuit is mirrored in the passions of her customer base.
“The people who shop the Winding Road are socially conscious. They are well traveled and are aware of world issues. Most of them are women, and they are out searching for independently owned shops, small boutiques, and museum stores, because they want unique finds. She does not want mass-produced toys or goods made in a sweatshop. My ideal customer is a special person,” she says with pride.
“If the goods help other people, support a cause, and have a good, compelling story behind them, it makes her feel good about her purchase.” That is more than good enough for Marla Showfer.