Deutsche Welle/DW, by Andrea Kolb (Feb. 26, 2013) — A Berlin-based fashion label gives traditional Berber handcrafts a new lease on life by selling embroidered leatherworks abroad. An almost forgotten technique is now being passed on to a new generation of sewers.
When you walk Berlin’s streets there’s often an eclectic mix of looks on display. A few years ago Andrea Kolb began adding to the mix of quirky styles on display when she returned from Morocco. Kolb brought back an old Berber leather bag she had been given and it started to get quite a bit of attention.
“In 2007 I went to Marrakesh to renovate a traditional home, a riad, and I met old craftsmen. These craftsmen told me that their skills are being lost and that they are not well respected,” she told DW.
“Then I got an old handmade bag and I took it back to Germany and all my friends wanted one.”
The bag Kolb is describing is a simple leather flap handbag. Berber men would often wear these bags. They are made from goat’s leather, which is thick and robust, but also very soft. The leather flap on the bag is decorated with delicate oriental designs, which are embroidered onto the leather using vibrantly-colored silk ribbon.
“This is when the idea started to form in my head,” Kolb explains. “On the one hand you have skilled people who are not earning enough with their craft and on the other hand you have a world where people are longing for these products. We had to bring them together.”
Forming a business plan
The idea formed into a unique organization; a foundation and fashion label called Abury. Two shops in Berlin and 10 throughout Germany now sell Abury bags, but long before Kolb could get to that stage, she encountered a problem. There weren’t many craftsmen who still knew how to make the products.
Even amid the bustling activity in Marrakesh’s traditional city center, it wasn’t easy to find the right craftsmen. Kolb made contact with Omar Nahli, an engineer who had worked in France. He says that the leatherwork crafts that had caught the eye of Kolb and her friends back in Berlin were well and truly in decline.
“Before Abury, if you had gone into the villages there was no one who was able to do this,” he told DW. “Everyone had forgotten, because it didn’t interest anyone.”
Not to be discouraged, Nahli and Kolb eventually found Berber artisan Monsieur Omar Farrij, who then designed an embroidered pattern for the Berlin-bound bags. They worked with a French designer to create modern forms such as smartphone and tablet cases. Kolb then started to set up training facilities to teach villagers outside of Marrakesh in how to sew the traditional embroidery.
Re-training the locals
Monsieur Omar instructed 10 women and three men in the village to carry out the work and they now work five half days a week on the embroidery and sewing.
The sewers start earning around 70 euros ($91) a month while they are training. As they build up experience, they can earn as much as 900 euros ($1180) per month – when they are being paid by piece or bag.
Profits from the bags were put back into the Abury Foundation. Some of the money was then used to renovate a salon in the village for entertaining guests.
“I’m very happy because traditional things are of value are much more important than the industry-made products,” Monsieur Omar said. “It takes two days to make one bag and every piece is unique.”
A path for others?
Back in Berlin, Kolb says that the Abury model can be applied to other traditional crafts for other products as well. But she also has a warning for those wanting to pursue a similar path.
She says it’s proven difficult to raise large amounts of money through the foundation. Morocco isn’t the low-cost manufacturing location she first expected, and the costs of the foundation and the intermediaries are considerable. In addition, high-end fashion boutiques like the ones in Germany, Zurich and New York that stock the Abury bags also want to make their normal margin on the products. That all means that at the moment an Abury tablet case is sold in the shops for around 250 euro ($327). A smart phone storage bag comes in at 69 euro ($90).
But, Kolb believes that as people begin to value handmade and ethical products over mass-produced ones, the Abury model could help see traditional crafts sustained.