Style Pick: Higher Love Shopping
Retail therapy you won't regret
There’s a veritable walk-in-closet-full of ways that shopping can make us happy. Found nowhere on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it’s that zing when you try on a blouse and see how the color makes your eyes look brighter, or the way the delicate print on a dress not only hides a midsection pooch, but actually reveals a waist you weren’t sure still existed.
To be sure, the thrill of shopping isn’t limited to buying a dress or shoes. I vividly remember one summer in fourth grade hitting every furniture store in Houston. I was accompanying my mother on her quest for the perfect living room sofa. When the new couch arrived and our neighbor, a decorator, came over to eye the prize, my mother beamed with joy at her friend’s shared excitement: “Oh, Pat, just look how it says ‘Hello!’ to the color in the carpet!“ (A multi-level shag, as I recall.)
But the absolute most wonderful, cartoon-hearts-floating-over-your-head, satisfying shopping experience has to be when you know something you buy might actually make a difference in someone else’s life. There’s a new wave of brands and retailers inviting shoppers to double down on that feeling. We visited with two retailers in our backyard whose goods and sales enhance much more than your wardrobe and home. They are literally changing lives with their social impact.
Austin is home base to Raven + Lily, purveyor of handmade clothing, jewelry and home goods and a brand leading the edge of this new wave. On the day I meet its founder and CEO, Kirsten Dickerson, she walks through the company’s kasbah-meets modern, Michael Hsu-designed store in the Domain Northside balancing a giant stack of envelopes. “Investor thank you notes,” she says brightly. “There’s a lot more to write than there used to be!”
A certified B-Benefit Corporation, Raven + Lily was started by the Baylor grad for the express purpose of alleviating poverty among marginalized women. The elite certification (along with membership in the Fair Trade Federation and the Ethical Fashion Forum) means the company meets rigorous social and environmental accountability and transparency standards far exceeding a typical business. Dickerson’s enterprise has created employment for 1,500 women across 10 countries (including the U.S.) and the 19 artisan groups she partners with can count on a safe workplace; sustainable, regular income and access to healthcare and education. All of which add up to a real shot at breaking the cycle of poverty.
“It’s not just the person creating what you buy who benefits – to give another human being a path out of poverty is a pretty powerful feeling.”
Growing up in an affluent Houston suburb, Dickerson planned to become a teacher. She had no concept of real poverty or anything like the issues faced by the talented women she now works so closely with. But that was before a pivotal life event changed her course. “It wasn’t until a huge upheaval in my family, about the time I was going to college, that I knew real struggle. I went from being sure exactly what my life at Baylor would be like, to worrying if my sister and I would have a roof over our heads.”
The gratitude and grace Dickerson experienced during that time fuel her way of looking at the world today, where every life has value and unique purpose. “It was a period of incredible change. Many times my roommates would leave something on my empty shelf in the pantry, which meant I’d have enough to eat that day. I was able to stay in school because of a scholarship that came just as I thought I’d never find a way.”
Dickerson also did a lot of volunteering during this period, and became close with several people who were homeless. “None of them were really any different than I was,” she realized, “we’re all alike when you get past what’s on the outside.”
The empowerment of women that Dickerson is fostering with Raven + Lily goes both ways she feels. “We, as consumers, have so much power with the decisions we make every time we buy something. How you shop does matter and you can feel it. It’s not just the person creating what you buy who benefits — to give another human being a path out of poverty is a pretty powerful feeling.”
Creating her brand and its products (which can now be found in over 300 locations) was never part of Dickerson’s grand plan. She took risks, she says, because she had to, and stuck with her faith. It had proven that if she kept following the direction of her heart, she’d always keep moving forward.
Walk into the cocoon of color on Kerbey Lane that is Vineyard Marketplace, (a space shared with local fave music shop Drumz), and it feels like coming home in a magical dream to a spot you wish you’d never left. Vibrant and cozy, textures and pattern abound from the handmade clothes, toys, leather bags and table linens that fill shelves and racks, to the sculptural recycled glass light fixture hanging from the ceiling. Meticulously detailed upholstered furniture that looks straight out of London’s finest design houses nestles into every corner of the shop, and chunky Merino wool hats and vests practically beg to be touched.
As with Dickerson, Diana Wiley, founder of True Vineyard Ministries (TVM), laughs at the notion of ever having her own grand plan. Wiley, who had an interior design business and successful career in corporate sales before starting the non-profit, found herself acting on what seemed like an unthinkable notion in church one day.
“I was at my son’s church in San Marcos when someone from a hospital in Mozambique was speaking about the horrible conditions they were working under. I’d never been to Africa and wasn’t familiar with the area, but I knew I could find a way to do something to help.”
That first trip to Mozambique would ultimately set Wiley on the path to Musanze, Rwanda, now the site of TVM’s flagship program, Homespun Hope, and Wiley’s home away from home.
The violence of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide left not only a completely non-functioning infrastructure, but also a traumatized population of women. Half a million women were victims of a systematic campaign of rape; nearly 70% of those have had to live with the brutally intended long-term consequences — rampant HIV/AIDS.
Purposeful work brings dignity, as well as income. Wiley’s program uses job-based solutions toward the goal of helping the 600,000 widows who remain in Rwanda lift themselves and their children out of poverty. Handspun Hope’s signature product is organic, hand spun and dyed Merino yarn made from the collective’s own carefully tended flock of sheep, with the dyes coming mostly from local plants. Wiley’s goal of creating a competitive edge in marketing the high quality yarns is meeting success, attracting the likes of Kate Spade’s family of companies and Indego Africa.
“As a rape survivor myself, I could relate, in many ways, to some of their experiences. Also, I’d lost a brother to HIV/AIDS many years ago and saw firsthand the immense challenges of dealing with the illness, plus the stigma that went along with it.”
Wiley and her modest-sized staff are justifiably proud to have met the stringent membership standards of the Fair Trade Federation. Knowing that every woman who comes to work in the program has suffered varying degrees of trauma, homelessness and other stressors of poverty, Wiley is even prouder to offer the widows and their children living with HIV/AIDS “… something rare in Rwanda, which is personalized one-on-one counseling services needed to support the spirit.” Recently, they added a training program for lay counselors allowing them to bring on more help in their holistic approach. “Helping these unbelievably resilient women find a way to peace, as well as employment, means everything to us.”
Read more from the Community Issue | February 2017