BUSINESS PARTNERS JODIE FRIED AND SALLY POTTHARST HAVE LITTLE IN COMMON ON THE SURFACE; BUT WITH ARMADILLO & CO. THEY ARE TURNING AUSTRALIANS’ LOVE OF BEAUTIFUL AND UNUSUAL RUGS INTO SOCIAL PROGRESS FOR ARTISANAL WEAVERS IN INDIA.
An accountant and a former Bollywood costume designer meet and decide to sell rugs. One lives in Los Angeles, the other in Adelaide, and the rugs are made in India. This may sound like the plot of a comedy where everything goes horribly wrong but this is in fact reality – and a very successful one – for Australians Sally Pottharst and Jodie Fried and their company Armadillo & Co.
“We have spent many hours on Skype,” Pottharst, who lives in Adelaide, tells WISH, of how they manage the logistics. “Jodie and I have become such great friends. It sounds cliché but possibly being so far apart, when we do come together it is energised time. We travel back and forth. We see each other three or four times a year. It is certainly not ideal but it works.”
The pair are celebrating a decade in business and doing so by opening their first retail store in Beverly Hills. The flagship will showcase to the world the rugs they have become known for: beautiful designs that are handmade in natural fibres by traditional weavers in India. LA is also an apt location to set up shop because the home of showbusiness is where the story began for Fried and Pottharst. Without the entertainment industry, Fried, who studied theatrical design at NIDA, would have never come across villages of artisan weavers and embroiderers in India, she would never have met Pottharst, and Armadillo & Co would never have existed.
“I was working in the film industry in Australia and I received a grant [from the Victorian Arts Council and AsiaLink] to work with a dance company in India. I fell in love with India and its people and its treasure trove of fabrics,” Fried tells WISH of her slightly unusual journey to becoming a rug seller, of all things. “It was in Bollywood, and in 2001, there was an earthquake there which devastated most of Godhra [the part of Gujarat state where she was living]. So I stopped what I was doing and went down to the border of Pakistan and India and helped rebuild the villages in the area. I then met these communities of artisans, mainly women who did a lot of embroidery and hand-making.”
That is when Fried decided to set up her own company, called Bholu, selling textiles made by these women. This would have a dual purpose of creating beautiful and unique products and also giving the weavers an income. “From very early on, my goal and my drive about starting the business, apart from having hunger for entrepreneurship, was creating a socially sustainable company that had a purpose more than just a product.”
Fried ran the company for about five years and Pottharst started buying her wares. An accountant by training, Pottharst started working in her husband’s high-end rug and homewares business after having children. “I developed a keen interest in rugs because although I had been an accountant, I am a much more creative, tactile person,” says Pottharst, who was born in Zimbabwe before coming to Australia. “I became an accountant because I was moving countries and I needed to be employable.”
Pottharst then met Fried at a trade show in 2007 and she was impressed; they clicked on many levels. “I approached her and said, I know about rugs and I love your designs, why don’t we join forces? Have you ever considered making rugs?” Pottharst recalls. “She said, oh no, I don’t know much about rugs and I don’t think they are very glamorous and I don’t think they are for me. I just quietly touched based with her again a few times. I am quite persistent when I need to be!”
Fried eventually agreed and the pair went to India to look at producing a range of rugs. They identified a gap in the market back home in Australia for high-end, beautiful but simple floor coverings that did not have “fancy” edges or designs. “We wanted to create a range of products that were very earthy and quintessentially Australian,” says Fried. “It is like a good pair of shoes. A good pair of shoes will completely make an outfit. You feel the quality [or lack of quality] if you are wearing a cheap pair of shoes. It is the same with floor coverings and rugs; having that quality underfoot is really underestimated. I think that is something that we really wanted to pursue in terms of the quality of weaving, the longevity, the durability and the finishing.”
The pair spent the first few years getting to know the different skill seats of weavers around India as villages are known for weaving one particular fabric (wool or linen, for example) or a particular stitch. The looms are often made of bamboo and the weavers work in sheds or little structures in the village with dirt floors. The skills have been passed down – mainly by women – from generation to generation. Fried and Pottharst then push these traditional boundaries by asking the weavers to do a different stitch in a particular fabric to meet their designs.
“We take something they already do and we change it with a different fibre or yarn and create something really unique from that,” Fried says. “It is quite funny because there aren’t many people in the rug business. It is dominated by men, except for yarn preparation, so for women to be doing business with men [at our level] is different. The requests we make for what we want is always different but now because we have been working in these parts for so long, they are like, ‘here come those crazy white Australian women, what is going to happen today?’”
And that is not the only challenging part of creating a product made by artisan weavers in India as opposed to a factory in China. The logistics of getting the rugs finished and back to Australia are not easy. “There have been containers stuck in ports or stock that was supposed to arrive two months ago,” says Fried. “We are on to it now but in early days, it was unbelievable, really unbelievable.”
As a result, their growth has been slow – they could not rush even if they wanted to. “We have mainly just been concentrating on Australia and New Zealand because it has really taken this long to get the systems and the infrastructure well oiled and working their best,” says Fried. “Sally and I are both aware of our risk. As business owners we are quite conservative, but I think that has paid off because we have grown within our means and steadily.”
It also has allowed the pair to establish the other side of the business: giving back to the local community. As well as making sure all of their weavers are paid under fair-trade conditions, they support a local primary school so children of the weavers can get an education. “For the last five years we fund all the teachers’ salaries, we buy all the school books, we have built bathrooms, we have intentions to build two new classrooms, one of which will be a computer lab,” Fried tells WISH. They also plan to offer scholarships to encourage more girls to go on to secondary schooling, instead of leaving to learn domestic duties, as often happens in the villages.
For now, the pair are concentrating on their new luxury “heirloom” collection as well as their first brickand-mortar store. They commissioned Standard Architects, who designed flagship stores for Isabel Marant and Helmut Lang in LA, to create almost a “high fashion” concept for their first foray into retail. “It is exciting from a brand perspective. We have never been able to give our consumer the full retail hug; walking in and having everything we would expect,” says Fried. “Opening internationally is also very exciting. It feels like we have had a great 10-year rehearsal.”
And despite – or perhaps because of – the challenges of being so far away from each other, Fried and Pottharst are acutely aware of how fortunate they are to have found each other. “Every day I am so grateful for meeting Sally because I think it is really important to acknowledge that it is quite hard to find a business relationship that works so well,” says Fried. “What I treasure in our relationship is that I respect what she is good at and she respects what I am good at,” adds Pottharst. “We do feel pretty lucky. It was a chance meeting, really, but it is amazing how the world goes.”
“We fund all the teachers’ salaries, we buy the books, we have built bathrooms, we will build two new classrooms.”
Two Agra Knot rugs in Duchess pink and Kingfisher blue from the Heirloom collection