Standing Tall for Fair Trade

A handcrafted gifts boutique brings a world of beauty and justice to the Northwest.
by : 

Jenny Rose Lara

February 1, 2014
Standing Tall for Fair Trade

In the center of a small island town just off Seattle’s coast, a life-sized, ironwork giraffe towers above the artfully landscaped front yard of a century-old house, inviting a closer look. Cross the garden to the wide front porch and you have arrived at Giraffe, the Fair Trade boutique Priscilla Schleigh opened seven years ago on Puget Sound’s quietly thriving Vashon Island. With a second store opened in downtown Tacoma last year, Schleigh has let Giraffe grow organically, starting small and following her passions for finding one’s own way, seeking out beauty through justice, and encouraging everyone she meets to do the same.

Jenny Rose Lara: How did you come up with the name for your store?

Priscilla Schleigh: I’ve been collecting giraffes my whole life; it’s been sort of a recurring theme. I had already decided on the name and then a funny thing happened. It was my last day at my old job and I thought, “I just need one more confirmation I’m doing the right thing taking this leap of faith.” And no kidding, a woman came into the shop with an enormous giraffe coming out of her shopping bag. It turned out she was one of my former customers at Nordstrom, and she even remembered my name. Well, I had just asked for one more sign. Now every other person who comes in the door says, “I love giraffes!” And honestly, I’ve never met anyone who didn’t! Giraffes are visionaries—I think I connect with that. They can see farther than anyone on the horizon.

Lara: When you’re looking for merchandise, how do you know what is going to work in your store?

Schleigh: I start with my personal filter: Does it meet my standards? Is it ethically sourced and does the supplier—the person I call the “bridge builder”—have a relationship with the producer group? And I look at the quality. I think for years people have said, “Well, it’s Fair Trade, the quality doesn’t matter,” but I completely disagree. We need to have compassion for our customer as well as for the artisan group; we have to ask if we are giving them a good product, too. I think it’s a difficult job for a bridge builder to say, “These are good basket makers, but can we help them with some colors so they have a more marketable product?” It’s a lot of work. I have a friend who works primarily with a group of weavers in Ethiopia. She travels back and forth and helps them fine-tune their products to make them truly marketable, and then she creates a beautiful showroom and gets lots of orders. These are the groups I look for.

The other thing I keep in mind is whom I’m buying for. I might find something the supplier says is a popular product, but I still know I won’t be able to sell it at Giraffe. You really have to know who your customer is. And that’s the marketing side of things, which is so important. Who is my target customer? What is the age group? I need to think about who has a little expendable income, because we are selling extra things—it’s not like it’s groceries. But, a beautiful basket, for example, is going to beautify my life, and at the same time it’s going to be transformational in the lives of these wonderful artisans. The stories I’ve heard, how it changes women’s lives and their ability to stay in their communities, are just amazing.

I guess that’s the long answer.

Lara: Your education is in clothing design and textiles, and you had a long career at Nordstrom; you later became involved with the Fair Trade organization Ten Thousand Villages. How did all of these things come together for you?

Schleigh: After college I went to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, initially to teach sewing. I started working in a children’s hospital as a donor relations coordinator, and I ran a little shop there called Hand in Hand, where I showed local artisan products for people visiting the hospital. I ended up staying almost four years. At 30, I came home, traveled the world as a tour director, then walked into Nordstrom one day to visit my sister and ended up working there. I had a wonderful job as a personal shopper, then a department manager, and I did wardrobe seminars and customer service training.

When I was transferred to Portland, I started going to a little Mennonite church, and every other Sunday they would say, “Pray for the store.” I thought, “What are they talking about?” So I went. It was The Blue Parrot in Seattle, which was essentially Ten Thousand Villages before it became that. Right away I noticed they had terrible customer service. And as a Nordstrom manager, customer service is number one. I offered to do training for them. I joined the board of directors, traveled to Pakistan with one of their learning tours, and got to see firsthand what it meant. The artisans there made these fabulous rugs, and it meant they wouldn’t have to look at sewage running right in front of their house anymore. They could build a culvert. They could send their kids to school.

When I was a kid, our family took us to meet missionary friends, so we kind of grew up thinking about the world. I was also raised in handcrafted traditions. I grew up sewing my own clothes, and my first shoes were handmade, moose-hide moccasins made by a neighbor when we lived in Alaska. So, sewing, along with that thought of helping, was sort of in me, who I was. But I understood the entrepreneurial side, too—my dad owned his own business.

Lara: Was it after you moved here to Vashon Island that you were inspired to open your store?

Schleigh: I took a class here called The Artist’s Way. We all have gifts, and we need to take the time to mine them. Being on Vashon Island allowed me the environment that was quiet enough. In the fourth week of class, they asked, “What is your dream?” I said I wanted to have my own Fair Trade store. And literally, within six months it was like a freight train moving ahead, and I just had to hang on! Things started unfolding.

But it came from somewhere inside, and I think that’s what we have to pay attention to. I encourage so many women who walk through this door, and I feel like that’s probably my mission as much as anything. I’m able to tell them my story of finding what my passion is, and I encourage them to find theirs. It’s okay to have fear—a little bit of fear can light a fire—but are you going to let it stop you? You won’t know until you try!

Just finding your passion and taking the time to figure it out is so important, and often that’s who I encounter here as customers. They come to Vashon to get away from the city. They want to find something unique. They come here and we have a conversation; we tell them the story of the artisan. And it’s the story of Giraffe, too: “Okay, I’ve seen all the fancy stuff. Now what am I going to do to really light a fire under me?”

Lara: How has your store evolved since you opened?

Schleigh: Before I opened the store, I was working at a small arts-and-crafts gallery. I contacted Ten Thousand Villages and held an offsite international craft sale on the island for three years in a row. Sales grew from $1,500 the first year to $11,000 by the third year, and that was all in a one-day sale.

I felt the community was ready for the store after three years of the craft sale. We opened Giraffe and I thought, well, we’re just giving it a try. We started out small. I didn’t have a grand opening; I just opened the doors and put a giraffe in the yard. I had a borrowed table in the front room. We just had merchandise from Ten Thousand Villages and a few other people and that was it. I didn’t start with a huge chunk of money, we just grew as we could. And then a year ago, we opened our second store in Tacoma.

Lara: Is the new Tacoma store different from Giraffe Vashon?

Schleigh: It’s a whole different feel. This is an old house, so there is a way to make it feel really homey, whereas the other store is extremely modern. But, it’s mostly the same merchandise, just in a different setting. In Tacoma I can sell things from Vashon artists, too. They are already being shown on the island so I wouldn’t want to carry them here, but over there it works. I don’t have all my products in Tacoma. For instance, my kids’ section didn’t really fit in over there. Again, I had to look at my target customer.

Lara: What made you realize it was time to open a second store, and how did you choose your location?

Schleigh: It’s an up-and-coming area. I knew if I wanted to expand, that would be the direction, and things were starting to happen there. It was the right location, and we knew it would be great to get in on the ground floor.

A lot of the reason was I had so many customers come in from Seattle or Tacoma and say, “I love your store—can you please open on the mainland somewhere?” That was a push right there. It’s also something different for Tacoma, and I think they need an alternative to the mall. We opened last October and we’re doing well. I always like a new challenge; it was getting pretty comfortable here.

Lara: You live on Vashon but divide your time equally between the two stores, making the trip to the mainland and back almost daily [about 1.5 hours each way]. Is having a physical presence in both stores part of your recipe for success?

Schleigh: Absolutely. It is a challenge—having one store is definitely easier than two. But, when customers come in and realize I am the owner, there is a different dynamic. I have two employees on Vashon and three in Tacoma, including a wonderful full-time manager. My husband and I manage the store here.

Lara: With both stores, how do you manage to stay organized and keep things running smoothly?

Schleigh: First, I would say do not even think about opening a store until you have a point-of-sale system lined up. Before we opened, I did a lot of research and found something called ProphetLine. It keeps everything straight for me. I can print my reports and see every day what my inventory level is. I can say, “What did we do six years ago on this particular date?” It’s all there. It is such a time saver. When I was first opening, my husband said, “Let’s wait, it’s too expensive.” But I dug my heels in—I wouldn’t open until we had a point-of-sale system in place. Every other day he says thank you!

And I think just keeping it simple. There are wonderful classes out there. I took a great seminar on color and image by Leatrice Eiseman. She helped me realize I was all over the board when it came to colors in my store, and I really fine-tuned it. It’s important to know what your image is and to stick to it.

Simplicity in finding what works for merchandise, too. We carry these wonderful lines of food, like spices and Palestinian olive oil, and people would ask, “What can I do with it?” So I started carrying cookbooks, and now customers can buy them together. It makes it simple.

Making it relevant to people’s lives is such a key and putting yourself in the shoes of your target customer. I know who that customer is—it’s really someone like me. I want something unique. My home is my haven and I want it to be special; I want it to reflect me. I have lots of artwork in my home, and I know personally almost every artist of every piece—it’s important to me. I don’t live luxuriously, but if I’m going to have something, why not get something that has meaning to me and to someone else, too? People know that buying here makes a difference.

Lara: Do most of your customers seek your store out because they know it’s Fair Trade, or is it a pleasant surprise?

Schleigh: When I first opened, I had a sign out by the street that said “Fair Trade.” Then I had a customer say, “I almost didn’t come in, because I’ve been to Fair Trade stores before and they all look the same. But, I’m so glad I did because yours is different.”

My plan now is to put something out that says “Ethically Produced,” or maybe my store’s tagline: “Weaving Together Beauty and Justice.” But, that original sign is no longer out there, and my sales have gone up.

Lara: It shows when you have a genuine love for what you are selling. When you choose something that speaks to you, it speaks to other people, too. Do you feel your background at Nordstrom and as a designer has helped you feel confident to share what you love?

Schleigh: Hugely. I’ve been involved with handcrafted traditions my whole life. Working overseas, I’ve seen firsthand the difference it makes in people’s lives. So for me, it’s about finally giving myself the permission to do what I’m passionate about and not be afraid. It’s my living now. To have all those beautiful things Fair Trade, which I would want anyway, makes it all the more wonderful. These simple baskets allow people to stay in their communities and create beautiful things we use and love, and it’s creating such a difference in their lives.

I tell my customers, you spend a little time, maybe an extra couple of dollars to know what you’re getting, and you can feel so much better about it. Why wouldn’t you seek out better quality products?

I also need to ask who’s out there spending money. In my experience, it’s most often women who are the decision makers for this type of product. If I don’t have a connection to those women, is it really going to work?

Some people just look at numbers as their guide, but that doesn’t work for me. I need to know my customer, and I need to know the stories. I’ve been to about 30 of the countries I have products from, and I think when you see the world and you have that connection, it’s really important.

Lara: How do you know if a supplier is truly Fair Trade? Have you ever run into any issues?

Schleigh: It’s happened a couple of times, but I look for people who have solid relationships with their artisans. When I go to a Fair Trade booth with so many products, I have to wonder: Do they have a relationship with the artisan, where they’re providing the artisan with valuable information about building their product on a designer level, or are they just getting it and reselling it? The Fair Trade Federation is great, but to me it isn’t always the gold standard for quality. They are the one group I’ve had to send quite a few products back to because the quality was poor. Are you creating a real commerce when you have your artisans create a poor quality product? Are you really valuing their time?

It’s also out of balance if you’re not really valuing me as a customer, and providing me with a good product. To me, it’s about creating a fair product for your customer as well as fair living wages for the artisans. It needs to be fair on both ends to be truly Fair Trade.

Lara: What are some trends you’ve noticed in the industry? Has it become easier or harder to find products?

Schleigh: Wood products seem more scarce, at least from certain countries. In Vietnam, for example, there are more regulations now on wood leaving the country. Overall, I’ve noticed the quality of most products keeps going up.

Lara: What are some of your top sellers?

Schleigh: The roll-on bracelets from Nepal, through a group called Aid Through Trade. They have a great story and it’s a fabulous product. They really do exemplify the weaving together of beauty and justice. I sell a lot of those. Our furniture is doing really well. And, my vetiver placemats from Indonesia are a great quality product for the home. I use them myself.

I personally use all my products. My customers say, “You have personal-shopped the world for us,” and it’s true. I’m providing a service to my customers. I use the products and I tell them about it. It’s almost like it’s my lifestyle shop. I’ve decided I’m not going to bring in products I can’t personally stand behind. Why do I need to offer something to my customer I wouldn’t use myself?

Lara: Do you have any advice for retailers who want to carry more fairly traded goods?

Schleigh: The Fair Trade Federation is a great resource. They have an annual conference and a marketplace, so you can see what’s out there, but that’s not the only place. These days I pretty much only go to the New York Gift Show, which has a whole handmade section. Sometimes I’ll go into a regular showroom and tell them, “Here’s my mission, and this is my filter,” and they might say, “OK, there is one thing in my showroom that works for you.” I’ve found that is not the typical route most Fair Trade retailers take, but it can work.

Talking to other retailers who are willing to share. Typically, the Fair Trade people are willing, because there is a greater purpose there than just their own prosperity. I think that’s the beauty of working with Fair Trade groups.

Lara: Any final words for our readers?

Schleigh: The world is big enough for you to put your personality into what you do. Open up. Be willing to express yourself and ask for help when you need it!
I’ve said yes a lot more often than I’ve said no to adventure and traveling. I think when opportunities present themselves, you have an option: Are you going to have fear or faith? I’m determined not to let fear stop me because I think fear stops so many people. Don’t be afraid to do it.

Jenny Rose Lara is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to Pacific Northwest publications on topics from ecology to business and style. Write to her at Photography by Jenny Rose Lara and Harvey Bergman (storefront).