GET­TING UN­DER­FOOT

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.

The Australian - Wish Magazine - - AIA AWARDS 2017 - STORY MILANDA ROUT

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.”

K POR­TRAIT JAMES CANT

Two Agra Knot rugs in Duchess pink and King­fisher blue from the Heir­loom col­lec­tion

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.