scaling responsibly by co-designing collections
Through pairing international designers with skilled craft communities, Abury facilitates the creation and production of capsule collections.
ABURY Berlin, Germany
Through pairing international designers with skilled craft communities, Abury facilitates the creation and production of capsule collections. Andrea Bury’s goal was not simple, but it was intriguing: transform an old building in Marrakech, Morocco into a hotel – without using any electric tools. Act as if the construction was happening two hundred years ago. Bury had recently departed corporate life, and was looking for a meaningful challenge; to create “a space that allows change to happen.” To aid the transformation, Bury turned to Marrakech’s artisans: “We did everything with local craftsmen. I learned about their skills, but also their stories.” According to Artisanat du Maroc, a public organization created to promote Moroccan handicrafts, 2.5 million people are employed in the artisan sector as craftsmen, so there was a rich supply of artisans. Bury started bringing their goods—handmade, vintage bags —back to Berlin, where she lived, and “people asked me for more of these beautiful things with stories behind them.” But Bury quickly discovered that not all of the stories were happy ones. Traditional crafts were “in danger of fading.” Most souks (markets) were full of crafts import-
ed from Asia, and “the younger generation was less interested in acquiring [the] skills … that require intense training.” They saw “their parents working hard every day with their hands, earning the same money as the children who carry luggage for tourists.” Without steady family income, and the official documentation of employment from a more established business, artisans also had trouble obtaining government-provided health care and benefits. With each return trip to Germany, Bury learned more about the market for craftwork, and what product tweaks were needed to sell to European consumers. She began to consider a business that might support the artisans she knew in Morocco. Her background running a marketing agency prepared her for social entrepreneurship, but she felt that she “didn’t know much about fashion and design.” She connected with a design student in Berlin who accompanied her to Marrakech. That collaboration planted the seeds for what would later become Abury, a fair trade lifestyle brand that sells products in 20+ countries. It also became Abury’s model of connecting designers with skilled craft communities to create fashion and accessories collections. 3
Through the Abury Design Experience, an annual contest for young designers, Abury “gives young designers the opportunity to live and work in a foreign country, and give artisans the experience of spending time with these designers. This is where I hope the magic happens,” says Bury.
«...the younger generation was less interested in acquiring [these] skills … that require intense training. [They saw] © Abury
their parents working hard every day with their hands, earning the same money as the children who carry luggage for tourists. » - Andrea Bury, Founder and CEO
This is not to say that the magic happens instantly. “In the beginning, the artisans are not always enthusiastic … until they see things are really happening. They've had bad experiences [in the past] where they feel they were exploited or where there were unfulfilled promises.” Each designer spends two months embedded with the artisan community, living and working together. During this time, a collection is co-created and prototyped, and is ultimately “marketed and sold by Abury through [our] own channels,” which include their online store and 60 brick and mortar retailers in Germany. “The designer usually starts with an idea, but the craftsmen refine it with their special knowledge of the materials and techniques,” Bury explains. 4
Cross-cultural communication has been a challenge at times. “We’ve had to learn that a ‘yes’ is not always a ‘yes.’ We’ve needed to enter their sphere to really connect [with them], and that takes a long time.” To give these partnerships time to breathe and develop, Abury has started “placing orders earlier than needed.” While Abury initially worked with Moroccan artisans, later collections have involved artisan communities from Ecuador, Ethiopia, India, and other countries. Fifty percent of profits from the collections–and from all of Abury’s sales–are directed to the brand’s foundation, which primarily funds educational and community projects in Morocco, including a school for threeto-six-year-olds that’s adjacent to Abury’s home. When Bury first launched the Design Experience, “people … were rather skeptical and said that no one would apply to a contest [for a] brand nobody knows. And the application process is quite time consuming.” But in the first year alone, they had applicants from over 30 countries. Bury has been mindful of the brand’s growth, balancing not wanting to “produce more” with a desire to “support designers to create their own little brands.” To propel this goal, Abury recently launched Design Meets Craft, a platform meant to scale their inventive
co-design model. Abury identifies emerging designers, who in turn provide workshops on quality, trends, and design to artisan communities. Together, they “create a uniquely designer, handmade collection” that Abury markets; half of the profits are invested in the artisans’ communities. Bury hopes that this model will lead to a “healthier” expansion of the artisan sector, while creating entrepreneurial opportunities for young designers. Abury’s staff works directly with artisans and artisan communities, despite the small size of the team–four full-time and three part-time employees–and limited resources. Working without a marketing budget, Abury markets all of its collections using viral marketing strategies. Notes Bury, “Every consumer … becomes an ambassador. When we sell to boutique stores, we tell them the stories [of our artisans] and give a small presentation to the sales personnel.” Despite their successes, the work continues to evolve. “We’re still searching for [who our customers are]. We have a big community of 25-to-35-year-olds, but the buying community is 45-to-60-year-olds. There are design-driven consumers, and consumers who are driven by the stories behind the products. We are not H&M. When we have a new collection, it takes time to reach awareness,” concludes Abury’s founder. 5
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION Abury is a B Corporation based in Berlin, Germany, and founded in 2011. How they define artisans: In German, the word for artisan is Kunsthandwerk which combines art with handmade. “For me an artisan is someone who makes unique things with their hands,” says Bury. Products and Product Categories: Abury mainly sells fashion items and fashion accessories, including Berber bags and other bag styles (clutch, cross-body, tote, vintage), shoes (babouches), jewelry, scarves, and wool accessories. These items are produced by artisan communities in a number of countries including Ecuador, Ethiopia, India, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Morocco, Peru, Romania, and Tanzania.
Their business model: - Funding Bury started the organization with her own money, plus contributions from family and friends. Some of those early family and friend investors received equity in the company. Abury relies on sales and corporate sponsorships. - Supply Chain “In the production process we only work with local materials. We negotiate the prices with the artisan directly. It is really important to us that the whole production process is transparent. Everybody can read the stories behind the products on our online zine, oneofamind.net.” - Distribution channels • Their online store and other platforms (German sustainability-focused websites) • An Abury brick and mortar store in Berlin • Wholesale sales with a stockist of 60 retailers in Germany - mostly small boutiques • Abury’s sales operations are entirely based in Germany.
« We’ve had to learn that a ‘yes’ is not always a ‘yes.’ We’ve needed to enter their sphere to really connect [with artisan communities], and that takes a long time. » - Andrea Bury, Founder and CEO
REFLECTION QUESTIONS “We do not learn from experience; we learn from reflecting on experience.” - John Dewey, educational theorist and New School co-founder The DEED Lab’s case study series is meant to provoke dialogue among members, supporters, funders, and consumers of the global artisan sector—and to inform the next generation of designer-entrepreneurs. First, we hope that readers of any case study we publish will consider the overall state of the global artisan sector. Given that it is a $500B+ industry, why, then, are the majority of indigenous artisans living in poverty and socially isolated? And now that you’ve read about Abury, we invite you to further reflect using the short set of questions below. While some of these questions specifically reference the case study, all of the questions are meant to generate broader dialogue about the sector. •
Andrea Bury says that, in Marrakech, traditional crafts were “in danger of fading” and that “the younger generation was less interested in acquiring [the] skills [their parents had],” in part because they saw “their parents working hard every day with their hands, earning the same money as the children who carry luggage for tourists.” How does, or should, Bury’s observation inform how we might approach efforts to preserve skills and/or cultural practices?
Andrea Bury says that, when engaging with artisan communities, she and her team have “had to learn that a ‘yes’ is not always a ‘yes.’” What dynamics - cultural, power, or otherwise - might be at play in these moments, and how might organizations and individuals authentically navigate them?
What are the pros and cons of Abury’s approach to scalability, and how do these pros and cons compare to other artisan impact models?
Abury’s Design Experience “gives young designers the opportunity to live and work in a foreign country, and give artisans the experience of spending time with these designers.” That kind of proximity is not always the case for foreign designers. What other challenges, besides cross-cultural communication, could you anticipate existing within these exchanges? How might proximity ease, or magnify, certain challenges?
This case study was written in 2020 by Robert Burack, DEED Lab Fellow, with editing, compilation, and interviewing support from Elizabeth Bailey, Luciana Jabur, Alik Mikaelian, and DEED Lab Director Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo. It was designed by Silvia Garuti. Our gratitude to the Abury team, including Founder Andrea Bury, for their participation. The information presented in our case study series is drawn from a combination of desktop research and qualitative interviews. The content and views in this document do not necessarily represent Parsons School of Design or The New School. This information is shared for educational purposes purposes and should not be read as a seal of approval.
DEED is a research lab based at Parsons School of Design that focuses on the future of indigenous artisans and their children. Through fieldwork programs, strategic partnerships, and research, our focus is on models that equally support poverty alleviation, artisan empowerment, and cultural preservation. This case study is one of several available at deed.parsons.edu