Interview: Jen Lewis, Purse & Clutch
“Good fashion is as much about the maker as it is about the finished product. It’s about art, about connection & about sustainability.”
Imagine if there was a story behind every article in your closet. Talk about giving your wardrobe a whole new life! Beyond that imagine if you could be certain that the clothes you purchased actually added to the value of someone else’s life. Would you think twice about the purchases you make?
Jen Lewis founded Purse & Clutch with the mission to end the poverty cycle by employing artisans in Ethiopia and Guatemala, to create a socially conscious handbag brand. Connecting consumer to the maker, Purse & Clutch provides stunning leather handbags and accessories that are not only incredible quality pieces to add to your wardrobe but are also pulling artisans out of poverty.
01. What was the path that led you to start Purse & Clutch?
My dad was born and raised in Jos, Nigeria & several of his siblings returned to West Africa as adults which meant that I grew up hearing about civil wars, lack of access to medical care & stunning African countrysides + textiles. I knew I wanted to play a role in connecting needs & resources but really had no idea how.
This took on several different looks including teaching high school Chemistry in Honduras, working at a Non-Profit here in Austin that sought to create jobs for the homeless by gardening in people’s backyards & selling the produce at the Farmer’s Market & tutoring math at low-income schools. Starting Purse & Clutch has been the accumulation of the seemingly random skills I’ve learned along my journey of figuring out how I can best serve those with limited opportunities.
I started Purse & Clutch in 2011 after a good friend moved to India to help start an organization that worked with locals to make handbags designed with their Western customers in mind. The stories she would tell me of the transformation that employment could bring captivated me. She told me there was a line out their door of eager potential workers looking for a job & that they just needed to sell more bags to be able to expand their workforce.
I knew I wanted to find a way to be involved! I asked her to ship me a box of bags & as they were being made I researched everything I could about how to start an online shop. We then began to partner with other artisan groups in different developing countries learning what our customers loved as well as what was working from a community development perspective. After five years of carefully curating collections from existing artisan brands, I was eager to take what I’d been learning & dive deeper.
We now design & produce our own label that’s currently being made by weavers & artisans in Guatemala as well as leather workers in Ethiopia where other employment opportunities simply don’t exist. It really is amazing how much of impact employment can have on an individual’s life as well as on her community!
02. Where does your passion for ethical fashion come from?
My passion for ethical fashion began with vegetable gardening. I learned a lot about the food industry by reading books like Animal, Vegetable, Mineral by Barbara Kingsolver & Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser. It really opened my eyes to the need to be aware of where what I was consuming was coming from both as an issue of health as well as an issue of what my purchases were supporting.
I learned about ethical fashion through starting & running Purse & Clutch. It gave me an inside look at the lives that can be transformed simply by choosing to care how things are made. I started out feeling really powerless because the problem seemed too big to make a dent in, but as I’ve seen the changes that happen in the lives of the artisans we work with, now I feel like I can really make a difference through my purchases. I want to live in a world where people matter – and I believe that the companies I buy from can bring me closer or further to that desire.
03. What’s your best advice for shopping ethically as a consumer?
Start small. Pick one area, maybe it’s shoes. As you find yourself wanting a new pair of boots to start researching brands to see what you can learn about their production. Give yourself grace & time – it’s a tough commitment.
Also, I’d suggest following blogs such as The Good Trade or The Peahen to piggyback on their research & styles. Once you discover a go-to brand that’s your style & price point it can make ethical shopping much easier.
04. What was your vision for your business when you first started and how has it shifted?
While my vision of creating & sustaining dignified employment for artisans without job opportunities in developing countries has stayed steady, it’s the “how” that has shifted. We’ve tried out several different product lines & partnership as we’re finding out the best way we can serve our artisan partners.
05. What would you say is the most rewarding part of owning your business? What is the most challenging?
Seeing the impact that we’re able to facilitate is incredibly rewarding. We’ve seen single mothers able to afford the uniforms & supplies needed to send their children to school because they can work from home – meaning they can earn an income while taking care of their children. Women opening bank accounts in countries where it’s practically unheard of. Men transitioning from living on the streets to a shelter & to now their own apartments. Girls having employment opportunities beyond prostitution. Women gaining confidence in themselves & their abilities to support their families.
I also find it rewarding that we are changing the lives of our customers & their shopping practices. It is empowering to discover that what you chose to buy or not buy has a profound impact on the product’s makers. That in doing something as simple as choosing to purchase a handbag that was ethically made instead of the easier, faster, cheaper alternative made in abysmal working conditions that you are acknowledging your role in the production process.
As for challenges – where to begin? At almost every turn, I face doing something I’ve never done before. From designing collections across different countries – each with its own textiles & production limitations, to find a customs broker, to managing employees. There’s always something new to learn! I know that the success of Purse & Clutch means having a larger impact on our artisan partners. It’s a something I don’t take lightly which also means that I feel that responsibility with every decision I make.
06. Where can we find you on your days off or when you’re not working?
My husband Jonathan & I like to take long walks through our neighborhood in East Austin with our one-year-old daughter Grey. She is particularly good at waving, which makes everyone we pass stop & grin.
I have the privilege to stay at home with Grey while keeping Purse & Clutch up & running which means that I’m somehow both never working & always working!
07. Where would you like your business to be in 3 years?
The ethical fashion industry has grown so much over the past few years, it’s my vision to continue to usher in this new wave of transparency so that consumers are fully educated on the processes & organizations they’re supporting with their purchases. The next few years for Purse & Clutch specifically, we’ll be focusing on bolder designs as I believe that our artisan groups are now at a place where they can handle a bit more of a challenge! I’m looking forward to really solidifying our brand’s style across our textile techniques.
I’d also like to see us land collaborations with larger companies like Target or Anthropologie so we can continue with my dream of making ethical fashion easily available to all.
What ethical fashion brands do you look up to and/or love to support?
Collective Humanity is a favorite of mine – my daughter loves her handknit bunny we’ve lovingly named Noel Shempsky after the character in Frasier & I’m kind of obsessed with their blankets. They partner with women in Cambodia & the founder, Kate Davis, is the real deal.
I’m also a big fan of Fortress of Inca. I have several pairs of their handmade Peruvian leather boots & their style is 100% me. I know when I buy a pair of their shoes, they’ll become part of my wardrobe for years & years.
What are your top 3 tips for anyone trying to start their own boutiques?
01. Learn the difference between being busy & being productive.
02. Test every assumption.
03. Figure out what you bring to the business that no one else would.
Connect with Purse & Clutch
If anyone finds themselves in Austin & is up for having an adorable toddler tag along, I’m always available for a coffee date – firstname.lastname@example.org