It's interesting how things sometimes end up in your lap—in this case, it was a bag belonging to a friend of a friend that ended up on my kitchen table, and things developed from there. Those of you who already have read a few of my interviews from this interview series know that I have a tendency to stumble upon people and things that catch my interest. Well, the bag on my kitchen table sparked my interest and led me on a quest to find out more about the woman behind the brand. Turns out, she's been staying in Copenhagen for a few months. Lucky me!
Read on to learn how a woman born and raised in Australia ended up starting a bag brand in Guatemala.
Core77: What inspired you to start designing?
Athena Maroulis: I've always loved colors, patterns and dressing up since I was a kid. My mother is an architect and both of my parents have travelled a lot and have an appreciation for art. Our house was full of paintings, art deco furniture (my dad's obsessed), African jewelry, millinery ribbons (my great grandmother was well known hat-maker) and exotic fabrics amongst other things. I think that growing up in this kind of environment makes you conscious of shapes, colors, textures and how things are put together.
Other than that, I have been sewing since I was around 13 and learned how to make garments. From there, I placed top 10 in the state in my final year textiles and design and knew I wanted to have my own fashion business. It seems that design has been in my life from an early age.
Being exposed to items from so many different cultures most have triggered your imagination on many levels. Do you remember any particular piece that you found extra interesting?
It's hard to pinpoint one piece specifically. I have a huge appreciation for structured lines and symmetry and I think it's due to the art deco buffet table, drink cabinet and side board that we had in our home. However, I think my favorite thing (now and forever) has been dressing up, so I've probably spent countless hours fossicking through and trying on the fabulous pieces in my great grandmother's old costume jewellery box. There are the most amazing chintzy, glitzy, rhinestone encrusted statement jewellery pieces in there. I still find them so fascinating and beautiful.
You now design and produce your own bag brand called Athinaeum. What brought this about?
After I quit my job at an advertising agency, I had been traveling for many months in South America and was heading north. I had missed my onward ticket to Spain after enjoying Carnival in Brazil. Alone in Panama, I had the flu and was at a loose end, not knowing what to do. I was thinking of heading north to the States but wanted to go through Central America. After a weird series of serendipitous events, I accidentally ended up with a plane ticket to Guatemala.
It hadn't been part of my plan to fly there, but I changed my mind when I heard about a yoga and meditation retreat there. I decided that it was what I needed to gather my thoughts, recharge and figure out my next steps. After completing the course, which included a week of silence, I felt tranquil, healthy and inspired.
All around me were these amazing textiles and I knew I wanted to evolve them into something beautiful and functional, to be treasured by a Western market. The idea evolved and over the next eight months I developed, prototyped and produced my first collection. I've always known I wanted to create something wearable and I've always loved sewing and designing, but I had found the fast fashion cycle quite scary. It was so gratifying to find a creative outlet which is both sustainable and beautiful.
What is it with the cycle of fashion that you want to avoid? And how do you do so?
The cycle of fashion and the constant craving for newness is something that's unfortunately programmed into society. It has been around since after World War II, when the focus shifted from long-lasting quality towards planned obsolescence (or things designed to have a short life-span). Having said that, fashion trends have evolved since clothing was invented because people's tastes changed and evolved naturally.
We are now realizing that we do not have infinite resources. From a design and manufacturing perspective, this means that we need to go back to a system of making and buying things that will last longer and also explore how to repurpose existing materials. I think that fast fashion brands will not disappear anytime soon, but if we, as consumers, choose beautifully designed things, that are better quality we won't have to replace things as quickly and we will keep them for longer. If we buy fewer things that last longer, we can minimize how much ends up in landfill.
Athinaeum started as I saw people repurposing these beautiful Mayan handwoven textiles into things like handbags and other accessories. Unfortunately the products were poorly made and would fall apart after a couple of wears. I really spent a lot of time and effort to find great leather craftsmen and source quality zippers so that the handbag itself would last. I now have friends who have Athinaeum handbags from the first collection released in December 2011 and they rejoice at how many bottles of wine they have carried, how many countries they accompanied them to and how they still look great and they still love wearing their bags. I also tried to create a design that was very practical yet simple so that it could be versatile and beautiful silhouette to showcase the stunning handwoven textiles. Sometimes I say that I try to make things that people will want to pass on to their children—I really hope that I can make things that are both high quality and beautiful enough that they will want to.
When developing the handbags, how was your process in regards to the craftsmen?
I worked really closely with the leather craftsmen when creating my original collection. I knew the rough styles of the bags that I wanted to make, but sometimes working with leather is really different to sewing or patternmaking with cloth, which is what I'm familiar with. There are a lot of shortcuts you can make with leather, which is great.
I really worked closely with them to develop prototypes and from there we went on and I chose different leather colors to complement each textile. Because they are indigenous Mayans, it really helps because they know how the abstract motiffs should be positioned and what is the focal point of each cloth. This really helps because it can be hard to see what's the best part of the fabric and I trust them to cut up and trim these beautiful fabrics and get the best out of each piece. It's still a very collaborative process and I mark up each cloth ensuring they know which parts to use for what. It's nice to trust them because essentially they are helping me to highlight and showcase the best of each textile, kind of like framing an artwork.
What sort of relationship do you have with the women creating the Mayan fabrics that you use?
From time to time, I have the honor of meeting the women who make each textile, but there are so many textiles and so many amazing women who have put hours into each piece. They are true artists—besides skilfully weaving each textile, they select the wild color palettes and the design and embellishments. The textiles are from many different regions which I try to include in the style names of each piece so that you can google and even look up the region.
I also work closely with a few women who trade and buy the textiles and then sell them for the ladies who live in small remote communities. The Mayan women I work with are strong, kind and humble. They have taught me a lot about family, culture and the secrets behind the symbology and techniques of the weavings and why they are significant to each region.
What sort of impact would you like your business to have on the local community?
After 36 years of civil war in Guatemala, which only ended in 1996, the country has been stuck in political, social and economic disarray for many years. In some ways, the poverty of some areas of regional Guatemala has served to preserve their ancient customs and traditions. However, there is much to be done to build the country and it's really starting to progress in many ways.
I work closely with a family-owned workshop and I ensure that they all earn a wage that ensures a good standard of living for them and their families. Aside from that, I try and do as much possible with Athinaeum in Guatemala in order to feed the profits back into this country. For instance, all of my tags and labels are made there as well. Lastly, I also have the Athinaeum re-usable cloth carry bags (made in Guatemalan mills) made with a social enterprise called Mercado Global who work to empower women in Guatemala to create their own micro-businesses.
That sounds really interesting. When it comes to the micro-businesses, is there anyone in particular that has caught your attention?
The girl who made the cloth bags is called Isabel and she worked on them with her sister. Her story is pretty amazing. She started her micro-business a couple of years back and before that she used to work in Guatemala City and back to make tortillas to sell on the street for very measly wages. She has 12 siblings and didn't go to school past the sixth grade. She's now able to send six of her younger siblings to school and is the leader of a women's cooperative that sews and works on an ongoing basis with Mercado Global. She's a really warm and sweet girl who has the heart of a lion! Her story is not uncommon though and there are plenty of inspirational artisans living in rural Guatemala.
What's next for you?
It's a really exciting time for me because there are so many question marks. I've just had my first child who is an awesome little dude. I'm living in Copenhagen and Athinaeum is based in Sydney. My partner and I are heading back to Sydney to spend a couple of months there at the end of the year to check in on things and suss out opportunities there. Afterwards, we're going to spend a month in the Philippines to see what kind of opportunities are there for both of us. I've always hoped that Athinaeum would be a global adventure so let's see what 2015 brings!
We are looking forward to see where things are heading, and what you will present to us next. But before you head off on new adventures, can you give us some Do's and Don'ts when it comes to working with design and production in countries that are not our own?
Ha! I could write a novel on this subject. I guess I'll firstly say that it is important to spend as much time [at a production site] as possible to get to know the people. Understand the way that they do things and make sure everybody is aware of your expectations; you must be aware of their expectations too. People who are from a third-world country that has had a lot of instability or conflict can sometimes be distrustful and used to different levels of quality to what you are used to.
Be kind and understanding of one another, but be sure not to get swindled. It's really useful to know the language and if you don't, ensure you have a trustworthy translator so that everything is crystal clear and it helps if they have a good 'production vocabulary.' You can also be super sure that you've been understood by clearly drawing your ideas and instructions, make hand gestures and do anything else to make sure you're understood.