The shoe that launched the Puzzle concept

Pikolinos Nairobi Sandals are hand beaded by Masai women in Kenya. Over my Thanksgiving vacation last year (2012) I was visiting my hometown in Maine and landed on the Puzzle Apparel concept.  It all happened because of one conversation, and one picture of a shoe.  For years, while working for companies like Eileen Fisher and Ann Taylor, I’d wanted to launch a fashion brand that created positive social impacts.  And as a fashion designer, I am passionate about the aesthetics of handmade materials – so I always felt it was a bonus that they bring hand producers and artists more opportunities and exposure.  I was just waiting for the right idea to click.  And then it did.

It was during a chat with fiber artist, business woman, teacher, and philanthropist, Susan Merrill that the Puzzle concept came together and I felt I’d found a brand concept that would bring social impact and handmade materials together in a really exciting way.

Susan Merrill works in felted wool.

Susan and I sat in a sunny conference room and she teased ideas out of me.  I explained that economic and social development through textile and apparel production had long been an obsession for me. I told her how I was using my course on social entrepreneurship at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies to research and write a business plan focused on creating an inclusive textile and apparel value chain in Ethiopia, a country where I had once worked as a designer with artisan-weaving company, Sabahar, before graduate school.

I shared with Susan the countless conversations I’d had with Americans asking, “Why do you have to go all the way to Ethiopia to make a difference?” “We need jobs here…”  And I’d heard the message loud and clear.  I was starting to think about my hometown in Maine and the needs I saw there.

Plus, Amanda Rector, a college classmate who is now the Maine State Economist, had shared with me a Brookings Institution report on the future of Maine’s economy and it’s needs.  Sure enough, the report indicated that an important part of Maine’s future rested with its dense creative economy – people like Susan Merrill and the myriad other creative artists I had known throughout my youth in Maine.

That the creative cluster would be important to Maine going forward made sense to me.  Internationally renowned Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, ME is just over the bridge from my childhood home, and outreach programs enrich the area practically year round, lending a distinct culture of creativity and innovation to the area.  This potential for innovation is the reason why Maine’s future could lie with its creative cluster.

This was what Susan and I discussed.  How to find an innovative way to use my background – a combination of fashion industry experience and education in economic development – to bring an inclusive textile and apparel value chain to Maine.  Towards the middle of the conversation Susan pulled out a picture, torn from Vogue, of a pair of Italian sandals made in Kenya.  She told me, “artisans in Kenya bead each strap uniquely.  No two are alike.”

Pikolinos Nairobi Sandals are hand beaded by Masai women in Kenya.

Pikolinos Nairobi Sandals are hand beaded by Masai women in Kenya.

It was that photo in which I saw that mass-customization would be the key to bringing the fashion industry to artists, and would allow me to leverage and augment individual creativity in a wide-spread way.

That’s the basis for Puzzle Apparel: mass customization.  The details came later, which you can read about in my next posts, starting with Why the name “Puzzle Apparel?”


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