Holts took us to South America—we should have brought a spare suitcase for all the inspo we brought back.
Christina Reynolds heads off on a four-day South American adventure in search of the best slow-fashion finds.
Day 1 Lima, Peru
You know a designer has created something special when you’re magnetically drawn to it. You. Must.See.It. You. Must. Touch .It. That’s what happens when we arrive at the Escudo design studio in Lima, Peru. “I don’t know what that is, but I want to put it on my body,” says Alexandra Weston, the director of brand strategy for Holt Renfrew. She then carefully inspects the craftsmanship of the dress, which is made of hundreds of light-grey seed pods strung together with loops of braided grass. “Stunning,” she says. “Just stunning.” Weston is here to scout socially conscious artisanal goods for Holt Renfrew’s H Project, an in-store specialty shop. She has called her latest passion “Uncrate South America,” and, as with previous projects, which were set in India and Africa, she’s curating products from this part of the world that meet the aesthetic and philosophical goals that she established when she launched the program in 2013. She asks
Giuliana Macchiavello, one of the designers behind the three- year- old Peruvian label, for the story behind the dress. “It was handmade by two women from the Amazon,” says Macchiavello, who designs the line with her sister in close collaboration with master weavers, knitters, embroiderers and beaders. “They were so inspired and empowered to see that they can earn money through crafts. This is why we start by looking at what the artisans can do and then design around that. We include them in the whole process.” Understanding that process is also key for Weston. Before commissioning products, she ensures that she knows exactly who has produced them and where the raw materials come from. She likes what she has learned at Escudo, so several of the brand’s pieces will find their way into H Project shops. “This project is like my third baby,” says Weston, who has two young sons. “We can be so disconnected from our products and our food in North America. This is one way to make a stronger connection and directly support the people making the goods.” Our next stop is the Peru Gift Show, one of South America’s largest trade shows; it showcases artisanal goods from across the country. While most of the buying for Uncrate South America was planned prior to the trip, Weston and Laura Shaddick, Holts’ manager of brand and creative strategy, would like to find more jewellery and accessories. We check out everything from Andean opals to organic-alpaca toys to a line of woven bucket bags with leather trim. “We found three strong new possibilities, which is better than a whole bunch of potentials,” says Weston. “Plus, we saw some of the items that we’ve already selected; seeing it all in context confirms they are the right fit.”
Day 2 Cusco, Peru
Today, we wake up in Cusco, the former capital of the Incan empire. We drive up above the city into the Urubamba mountains to visit two weaving collectives whose artisans specialize in the traditional process of hand dying and weaving wools. The road is frighteningly narrow—“All we need is an inch,” quips our guide, Francis Casapino. As we pass 3,800 metres, we’re still well below the towering snow-capped peaks of the Andes. But even on this remote dirt road, we find ourselves faced with a traffic jam: A large pack of llamas, sheep and pigs (including six adorable piglets) is making its way toward us. We get out to take a closer look, and within minutes one of the llamas takes a special interest in Weston, who is wearing an Ulla Johnson sweater embellished with alpaca wool that hangs off the shoulders. “It just wants to meet its cousin,” jokes Shaddick. At our first stop in the village of Patabamba, we quickly get a sense of how physically taxing weaving is. The wool must be harvested and hand-washed and then spun into yarn. The women do this with spindles between their toes while pulling back with their whole body. Then it is painstakingly dyed and spun again before it can be woven into anything. Backstrap looms are popular here, but it can take two women a full day to set up a loom before they can even begin weaving. It can then take months to h
complete a complicated piece. Next, we drive higher still to the even smaller village of Amaru (population 350) to visit the Amaru Weaving Community collective. These women make woven bracelets, hair ties and bags for New York-based designer Ulla Johnson’s globally inspired line—30 percent of her collection is produced in Peru. H Project is partnering with Johnson on an exclusive collection of accessories. Weston, along with Heidi Bischoff, a member of Johnson’s design team, is here to review sketches and discuss colourways and styles with the weavers. Bischoff speaks Spanish, but the women doing the weaving only speak Quechua, so it becomes a three-way translation. “What about something like this?” Bischoff asks Weston, pointing to a skinny double-wrap bracelet with a triangle pattern and beads on the edge. “Yes, but not in that colour,” says Weston. “What about pink and purple and then the outside is red or grey? And what will the closure be like?” There is also talk about doing a small pouch bag—like a cellphone sling—but they need to price it out first. It’s difficult to communicate with the weavers, but later I learn from April Borda—whose company, ITV Peru, manages the day-today operations in Peru for Johnson—that they set up the collective several years ago after most of their husbands were killed in a road accident. In addition, they have now started to host small groups of tourists who want to experience a traditional pachamanca meal, a Quechua word that means “earth oven,” of potatoes, corn, pork, beef and guinea pig. Before we leave, we join them for a late lunch in their newly built dining room—balanced on stilts, it offers views of the surrounding quinoa fields. “You never know what to expect when you come to a place like this,” says Weston. “Ulla told me that it was amazing. But the fact that they have this ongoing relationship, and have produced so many products together over the years, makes it more special.”
Day 3 La Paz, Bolivia
After a 7:40 a.m. flight, we arrive in La Paz, Bolivia, which, at an altitude of 3,657 metres, is even higher than Cusco’s 3,399 metres. The city looks like it has been carved right into the mountain range. Andrea Lenczner and Christie Smythe, the Toronto-based designers of Smythe, have joined us now, as well as Franceska Earls of Augden, the New York- and Bolivia-based hand made-knit wear company. The two brands have been collaborating for several seasons and are now working on some exclusives for H Project. When we arrive at Augden headquarters, two dozen local women are sitting at tables knitting quietly—but at superhuman speeds. Display cases in the showroom are stacked with spools of alpaca wools in a range of colours and textures. Earls started the business in 2010. Her mother, Sonya Zuazo Ratay (who is Bolivian), and her father, Andre Ratay, live in La Paz and co-manage her business. We meet Angela Lerico, one of Augden’s knitters. Through a translator, she tells me how a friend taught her to knit. “When I became a single mother, I needed to find a way to feed my four children,” she says. “I love to knit. It is good work. I can relax my body when my hands stay so occupied.” While we’re chatting, Lenczner, Smythe, Earls and Weston go over the fall Smythe x Augden line, discussing what will be available at H Project—and in Holts’ contemporary department as well. Holts has already put in an order for a large number of the super-soft oversized alpaca sweaters. “Working with Augden has been wonderful,” says Lenczner. “I don’t ever want to stop collaborating.”
Day 4 Uyuni, Bolivia
Our showroom and artisan visits now complete, we have time to fly to Uyuni to see the world’s largest salt flat. We’re like a group of schoolchildren when we reach the vast, almost featureless landscape. “It’s like a beach, but it’s not,” says Weston as she gets in a few cartwheels. Later, we climb Isla Incahuasi, a dormant volcano covered in cacti in the middle of the salt desert. We end our day at a very shallow lake( it’s just inches deep) to take in the sunset. Rubber boots are a must. The reflection of all the deep pinks and soft blues across the salt water is different with every turn of the head—except for our vehicle, we have unobstructed 360-degree views. We eat charcuterie, toast our adventures and share our insights as we hang around to watch the moonrise. “It’s all so inspiring that it’s out of control,” says Smythe. Weston is particularly taken with a vista of monotone greens against a whiteand-pink backdrop. “What an amazing palette,” she says. “Seeing all this, meeting the artisans and seeing the products being made, it just gives you even more confidence that what we have chosen is relevant and will be a good representation of the places and cultures.” Weston notes that, aside from benefiting the artisans, H Project has influenced the relationship that Holt Renfrew has with all of its vendors. “The sustainability elements have trickled down into this bigger corporate-responsibility program,” she explains. “It’s about respecting our environment, inspiring our people, creating positive change and selling products responsibly.” n
From left: The road and terraced Urubamba mountains above Cusco; a backstrap weaving loom; a wool display at the Peru Gift Show; sample bracelets and design notes for the Ulla Johnson x H Project collab; a villager in the Urubamba mountains; hand-dyed yar
La Paz’s mountainous terrain; a Peruvian weaver demonstrates spinning wool (left) Franceska Earls and Alexandra Weston in the Augden showroom in La Paz
Smythe x Augden Hand-knit alpaca-wool sweaters ($425 for the black and the pink; $495 for the blue ombré) are available at Holt Renfrew’s H Project shops and online at holtrenfrew.com as of September 6.