Growing up, there was an eclectic, beautiful, and growing collection of textiles in our home. My mother had gone to school for fashion design and loved fabrics of all kinds. ‘Treasure’ to my mother was finding a high end textile in the remnant bin that she could sew into the most fancy romper or dress for one of her girls. There’s no doubt in my mind that I formed an appreciation for colour, pattern and texture through my many visits to the fabric store with my mother. I loved seeing my mom’s eyes light up at a discounted piece of upholstery fabric, that less than 24 hours later she would have transformed into the most gorgeous fall coat for my baby brother. As with most creative types, my mother was always collecting things, mostly fabric and buttons, for future projects, waiting for inspiration to strike.
My father also contributed to the household collection. He appreciated my mother’s fondness for textiles, so when he travelled for work (which was often, far and wide) he would bring her back fabric, table cloths, batiks and other local fabric arts souvenirs. My favourites were always the South American textiles and specifically the Guatemalan ones. I loved the bold colours and embroidery, the geometric patterns, and the animal and floral motifs.
Needless to say, growing up in that environment, Guatemalan textiles and handmade clothing and accessories have become nostalgic for me. So when I came across Nena & Co bags I was immediately smitten. Not only are the bags beautiful, they are handmade (including hand woven fabrics), many from repurposed huipils (hand woven traditional garments), and each bag is one of a kind. The bags seemed to meet my litmus test. Beautiful: check. But more importantly: handmade, sustainable, fair labour, and socially responsible. Check marks all around.
What’s more Nena & Co makes giving back to the community that produces their bags a normal practice. Through a variety of projects, Nena & Co helps the communities they work with by providing purified water, or, more recently, supporting outreach programs that teach women how to deliver babies and provides them with birthing kits.
It is undeniable that I love beautiful things, but more important to me is always the story behind the thing, the creative inspirations, and the production ethics. I was really happy when Ali, the owner and designer of Nena & Co agreed to do an interview with me. I can gush to you about the outstanding quality of my Nena bag and how much I love using it, but I expect you will be more compelled to love the bags when you hear straight from Ali about why these bags are so important to her and to the people who sew them.
Tell me a little about yourself. How did Nena & Co get started?
I started Nena & Co because my family is from Guatemala; I ended up lucky enough to be first generation American (on my mom’s side of the family). This could be one of the reasons I believe in social responsibility. When visiting a third world country you have to ask yourself: “why am I one of the lucky ones to have so many opportunities and these people don’t?” Because of that, my love for design, and my heritage, I decided I wanted to create opportunities for people that want to work and do it in a dignified way, which is important to all of us. The people I work with in Guatemala are amazing talented artists. They have learned complex specialized trades from the time they were children. When these craftsmen have to leave home to work in factories to do jobs unrelated to their skills, they often end up performing jobs that are not equal to their talents, interests or artistic nature.
We are a new business that has only been around since May of 2013! Oddly enough my Dad had been encouraging me to do this for 10 years, but it wasn’t until I met my husband three years ago that I felt I had the vision to move forward with it. And once I did, it all came so naturally!
Where do you find your creative inspiration?
I find creative inspiration all around me but there are two specific things that dominate my creative process: 1) What I perceive as a daily need in a product. 2) I invest a lot of time and money in understanding the various textiles made in Guatemala. By doing this I don’t just learn things like how cotton is grown, dyed and loomed. I always learn the story of the artisan. This might be my greatest motivation as I try and design products that truly flatter the hand made fabrics that come from such inspiring people.
What is your favourite part of what you do?
Getting to know the people that work for Nena & Co. in Guatemala is by far the most rewarding part of what I do. Of course I love designing and seeing a finished product that people love. But the most rewarding part of my job is becoming friends with the artisans that work for Nena & Co. and learning their story. Guatemala is a country whose people have suffered from recent civil war, corruption in their government, and great poverty. Even with all of the negative influences they have pulling on them, they greet you with warmth and will share whatever they have. When we meet with our craftsmen we like to teach them business principles on how to place a value on their product based on materials, technique, quality, and time since most of them do not know how to do this and are used to foreigners “haggling” down their prices. We honor their work and we do not underpay our employees or craftsmen.
We value what we make but also want to be fair to our customers and set our prices accordingly. I think we should all ask ourselves “what is my social responsibility,” and although we can’t all start a business, I’d like to think I’ve created a way for people to give back with meaningful purchases or “shopping with a cause” through Nena & Co. and other brands that follow the same business model. I love what we do, the people I work with love what they do, and I hope you can see the beauty in Nena & Co. products.
The motivation and reason I started Nena & Co was because I am half Guatemalan and it was my dream to one day give back to families from there. It’s been a learning curve but we’ve come to a point where we don’t just manufacture in Guatemala but we’ve created sustainable work for Mayan women and men who are able to earn above just “fair wages” and in a dignified way with our company. It is rigorous work that we don’t take for granted. We are so grateful to be able to share our heritage and their beautiful talents with our customers.
Whenever I get home from a long trip to Guatemala all I usually think is I can’t wait to come home and take a warm shower, eat a hot meal and snuggle my husband and watch a movie. Then I started thinking of all the women we work with and the homes we visited and I know they never get to do what I just described. If they have water, it’s definitely not hot, there is no heater to warm the house or a cozy bed to snuggle in. They work from when they wake, doing household chores, tending to children and livestock and then making time to weave to earn money. Don’t get me wrong, I really like nice things and I don’t feel guilty; rather, I feel responsible. I feel a great responsibility to continue to design, collaborate and build a business to give these women and men an opportunity to create a better future for themselves.
What’s next for Nena & Co? Do you have any exciting new products or projects in the works?
I’m striving to create more and more products where we can integrate newly woven textiles into the products so we can continue to give the Mayan men and women sustainable work. We have created three new collections to do just that: the Resort Collection, the Sustainable Line (we just launched the newest addition to that line the Sustainable Mini Carryall), and the Kids & Baby Collection. All these projects are near and dear to my heart and have created so many more jobs than we could’ve imagined when we first started out.
A few photos from our Sunday stroll last weekend to showcase my bag — make sure to scroll all the way to the end for details on the Nena & Co Giveaway that I am hosting.
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