Before the Industrial Revolution, when mechanized factory systems started remodeling every aspect of our lives, it was humans, not machines, who made the products that made those lives possible.
As skilled craft workers, artisans have long been the forces behind items of function as well as decoration. For thousands of years, textiles fit neatly into both categories — which is why, by the mid-19th century, they became one of the planet's most dominant industries. With newly-automated fabric manufacturing creating unprecedented employment and capital, artisans, and the traditions with which they've honed their craft, became less and less essential to the ways in which we produce our clothes.
But artisans were — are — far too valuable to have gone gently into that good night. Today, as Aspen Institute reports, artisanal craft is the second-largest source of employment in all Latin American and African nations. And yet, one in every 25 people in the world is an artisan living in poverty, according to the CFDA. This can be attributed to a number of factors, including industrialization and colonization that took place two centuries ago. The main factor, though, is a lack of access — to quality materials, to global visibility, to modernized sales and distribution channels.
Enter Someone Somewhere, which works directly with artisans to produce its products. Since the social-good lifestyle brand launched in Mexico in 2016, it has made good on its mission to improve the quality of life for as many artisan communities as possible. And to date, Someone Somewhere has increased the monthly income of the artisans with whom they partner by 300%.
The Mexico City-based organization was developed by three Latinx best friends who grew up on service trips together in the same rural locales that Someone Somewhere now serves.
"We went to a lot of communities, and it was the same story everywhere," says co-founder Antonio Nuño, recalling that most of the artisans he met during that time were living on less than $1 per day. "And after a lot of these trips, we were like, 'There's got to be something we can do,' because their issue was the lack of opportunities in and connections with the larger markets. A lot of beautiful work is made using fabrics that don't do justice to the amount of time and effort that's put into it."
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At the time the founding team began researching what would later become Someone Somewhere, Nuño had already built a career in social entrepreneurship around Latin America, with stints in everything from impact investing to NGO work. He had long followed brands working in collaboration with artisans in the region, none of which had done so at scale, and was encouraged by the age group most likely to become their target consumer — millennials — who are more reliant upon social media to develop efficient, authentic brand loyalty than generations past.
With scaleability in mind, Nuño and his co-founders created a supply chain that works as follows: Someone Somewhere sources the materials, which are then supplied to the artisanal communities alongside data points (provided by the brand's own e-commerce sales) to help guide the design process. After the products are designed together with the artisans, production begins. The artisans create all the handmade elements, while the assembly happens nearby, in local factories. "That way," says Nuño, "the artisans can focus on their craft, which is what they love to do, and they can do it from their homes while taking care of their families."
The vast majority of artisans in the communities with which Someone Somewhere partners are women, whose techniques came passed down generationally through their own mothers or grandmothers. (It currently works with 180 artisans; 98% are women.) They live and work across five of Mexico's lowest-income states — Puebla, Oaxaca, Chiapas, Hidalgo and Estado de México — which greatly depend on tourism to drive its economies. And together, the states are home to a number of major Indigenous groups, including those with an artistic heritage rich in textile craftsmanship, like the Tacuate in the Western part of Oaxaca, whose traditional textiles often feature colorful cross-stitching and intricate, embroidered detailing.
To divest the artisans' craft from the greater tourism sector, especially in the face of a pandemic, Nuño and his co-founders set out to build Someone Somewhere not from what he calls "our own trenches in the city," but alongside the communities themselves: For the duration of the research and development process, the founding team physically lived with the artisans, eventually developing a new kind of supply chain that was so flexible, it enabled artisans to work from home while earning 51% higher wages than the national standard (and 37% than the global Fair Wage Guide minimum), according to the brand.
In 2016, the brand finally launched with a Kickstarter campaign to support its hand-embroidered T-shirts and backpacks, with price points at $25 for tees and between $55 and $135 for bags. It hit its $50,000 goal within just two days, with backers placing orders from 27 countries, including Japan, India, New Zealand and Finland.
Four years later, this August, Someone Somewhere expanded into the U.S. It was a move Nuño says had been a long time coming, but one that proved to be quite difficult to execute. The brand was set to launch stateside in May, but with the global health crisis accelerating rapidly, it decided to pause the launch until the team felt the climate was ready.
"The U.S. apparel market is 200 times bigger than Mexico's, and we already had a waitlist of thousands of artisans that wanted to join us," says Nuño. "Artisans rely on tourism, and since the pandemic hit, tourism is at almost zero. We were having so many communities reach out to see if they could work with us that we decided to move forward with the U.S. launch, knowing it could unlock a lot of opportunities for them."
Someone Somewhere is also B Corp-certified, meaning it's independently verified to meet the highest standards of social and environmental performance to, by its own definition, balance profit and purpose. This is especially appealing to those millennial-aged consumers, but doesn't move product on its own.
"The artisans' stories are the reason we're doing this, but we don't launch any product unless we know it can sell out by itself, even if consumers don't know the story behind it," adds Nuño. "I believe that's one of the keys to scale a brand that works with artisans: Knowing that the impact is amazing, but that's not what makes people buy products most times."
Nuño describes Someone Somewhere's most loyal consumer base as being travelers who are "very connected with the world's problems, because a lot of times, they've seen them with their own eyes." They're socially conscious, but they're practical — two qualities that, in this case, aren't always mutually exclusive. Functionality, then, is key, and the brand has decided to take its time, only launching into new categories like essential cases and fabric masks if the products themselves could become staples.
Someone Somewhere may not have the inventory — yet — to enable shoppers to completely de-industrialize, if you will. But it almost doesn't need to, when the example it sets is almost more important than a warehouse full of goods, just waiting to be shipped.
"There are millions of people who rely on their handcrafting to support their families," says Nuño. "One out of every 25 people in the world is an artisan, so if one out of every 25 purchases you make is from an artisan, you could be helping fight extreme poverty directly. In the end, it's not charity, which usually just dries up. It's job opportunities, you know?"