Enlightenment Ethical Travel Get Out There Makers On the Ground Perspectives

The Art of Repurposing: A Conversation With Mari Gray of Kakaw Designs

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 In our continuing series on Makers and ethical entrepreneurs we feature Mari Gray of Kakaw Designs, a company that creates products from repurposed materials and new handwoven textiles and is dedicated to empowering traditional weavers and artisans through  local partnerships. Kelly Moe-Rossetto interviews Mari about starting an ethical business, growing up between two worlds, and the joy of exploration. 

You have such a fascinating story. Tell us a little bit about your background, where you’ve lived and traveled.

That’s so interesting to hear someone describe “my story” as fascinating! But first, please lower your expectations… it’s not that interesting!

Where to begin…

Well, my parents: my mother is Japanese, my father he was working as a photo journalist covering the civil wars in Central America.  They had me in Guatemala, so I’m Guatemalan by birth but not by blood.

But my parents decided that Guatemala was not the appropriate place to raise a child – the brutal civil war was still going on at that time… so we went to Japan before I even turned one.

Growing up in Japan was different.  Looking back, I’m thankful for the super safe area where we lived.  Though my knees are still scarred from climbing trees all the time, I’m really glad that I got to connect with nature, running around wild and even taking naps in trees.  But it was a tough place for me because I was the only kid in my elementary school (and possibly in the entire town, aside from my dad) who was not 100% Japanese, except for one year there was a girl from Korea.  I stood out, and that was difficult for a little girl.

When I was 11, we moved to California.  I now say that I am “mostly from California” especially because that’s where I did all my schooling, through university.

I have my parents to blame for the travel bug I’ve inherited.  I grew up spending time every summer in Guatemala and every winter in Thailand.  Plus, visiting family, whether in Japan or in the US.  As I grew up, I realized I was hooked, and took it upon myself to study, work, live…  Currently, I count 10 countries total where I have done just that.

Mari Girl BW

Mari as a young girl with great style

 One thing I really love about Kakaw is how thoughtful and developed the products are, and how they take the work and situations of the artisans into consideration. what drew you to working in a way that was ethical and sustainable? 

This is such an interesting concept, because to me it’s the most natural thing in the world.  Of course the women prefer to weave and embroider from home – I would, too!  I thought briefly about setting up a workshop for the leathersmiths, to facilitate quality control and supervision… but then realized that it would be so much work to just get the workers to come into one place, and to set hours… artisans in Guatemala don’t work that way.  And as long as they get the work done, why should it matter?  I like to work from home, and just the same, the artisans we work with do, too.

 I love the name Kakaw Designs, can you say a bit more about the origins?

It took us SO LONG to get to “Kakaw,” but once we did, it was love!  My friend Ikuska and I thought long and hard about the business name, and finally we looked for inspiration from a long list of native Guatemalan plants.  We knew we wanted something with a solid connection to Mayan roots, and I loved the idea of a tree… and when we saw “Cacao” on the list, I realized that I had a cacao leaf tattoo on my shoulder the whole time, that I had completely failed to look at something obvious here: chocolate was known as the Drink of the Gods, I had come to appreciate cacao while working on a farm, learning all about the chocolate-making process… and hey, who doesn’t love chocolate?  The spelling “Kakaw” is how it is spelled in many Mayan languages.  And our collections are birds because of this image I had of native birds living harmoniously in the same cacao tree.  Pretty idealistic, but I love it.

Cacao tree_birds

I know Kakaw started with custom boots, how did you choose that, and what factors do you consider when adding new products to your beautiful growing line? Is it market driven, things you love personally, or something else?

Honestly, I started with boots for a practical reason.  I had little money, and working with custom-made orders meant that I didn’t need to invest in stock.  I also knew that I personally first got hooked on boots in Guatemala because I was able to be part of the design process.  I wanted to offer the same experience to people outside of Guatemala, which would at the same time encourage careful, slow consumption within fashion.  Less things, but more appreciation and love for each item.

Original Boots

 The first package I received from you included delicious cardamom treats from Cobán and I know you were a girl after my own heart! Tell us about some of your favorite flavors and foods that are special to Guatemala. If I were coming to a coffee /tea date at Kakaw studio what would you serve?

I knew when I heard about Cardamom Collective I had to send you a surprise treat!  Not many people know that there is cardamom in Guatemala… but there is!

I’m a tea lover, but here I’m partial to serving the best of the country… and that is coffee for sure.  I’d make you a delicious cappuccino prepared with a stove-top espresso maker, with hand-frothed milk.  Low-tech but very delicious!

Something I love about your posts and stories are the wonderful relationships you have with the artisans you work with. Can you tell us a little about what they love doing or what aspects of art and creating they get excited about?

It’s key for me to work with organized artisan groups, and for that, it’s essential to have an enthusiastic, motivated leader.  Francisca is just that for the weavers, and Claribel for the embroiders.  It’s great fun to come up with new colors, patterns, and designs together.  I love that they get excited about the possibilities, it really shows that this is their passion.

Francisca especially loves trying out new naturally-dyed color combinations.  Especially when the textile is dyed twice (two colors), the blend can make each of the colors come out different… and preference in color schemes is such a subjective matter.  She’s curious about the colors I ask for, and that’s a really fun cultural exchange.

Claribel gets excited about new product ideas, and especially those that involve textile scraps.  We’ve been working on reducing waste, and as part of that, we’ve been coming up with little items like pouches, coasters, and other products that involve mending holes and combining pieces of fabric. I love to see her excitement for this because it shows her appreciation of textiles – we don’t want to let even little scraps go to waste!

Kakaw Designs Alliance logo

It’s clear you love a good adventure and you seem to really make the most of living in beautiful Guatemala. Whether it’s for a long weekend or a long textile trail, what essentials do you bring with you, and what is your preferred travel bag?

Part of the advantage of having my own handmade business is that I get to develop products depending on my personal need… it’s great!  I wanted boots, so I made boots.  I realized I had too many boots and no shoes, so I made shoes.  I got a scooter and realized it was difficult to scoot around with a purse, so I made a backpack.  I got a new laptop and needed a cover, so I made a laptop cover… so on and so forth.

With that said, I love every product we have because they have all been tested by me personally.  And for traveling, I absolutely love our Quetzal Backpack.  It’s comfortable, durable, and just the perfect size for an adventurous day.  I’ve taken mine all over Guatemala, and it’s exceeded my expectations.  My essentials inside include: scarf, notebook, water bottle, wallet.  And inside the pockets I keep my keys, phone, pen, chapstick… and if I want to work, my laptop fits in there comfortably.

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned running Kakaw Designs, and how do you see the company evolving over the next few years?

There have been many lessons for sure (especially since I didn’t really know what I was doing!), but the one that resonates most with me is to take things one step at a time, with patience and grace.  Especially working with handmade processes and rural artisans in Guatemala with a different life rhythm, it can be so frustrating if you don’t keep your eyes on the bigger vision, which is to elevate traditional artisanal crafts.
With that said, I look forward to growing the business – I envision new designs, collaborations, and reaching a wider audience with wholesale, fairs, and pop-ups.  I’m not interested in huge orders.  I want small, sustainable growth, taking things one step at a time and staying in line with the true purpose for Kakaw.

Backpack Church Edited

Mari is the founder of Kakaw Designs, an artisan-made brand that designs and produces boots, bags, and accessories all in Guatemala.  After graduating from UC Davis, she took off to Latin America.  Several years and even more countries later, she decided to make her birthplace of Antigua, Guatemala, her home.  When not working, she enjoys gardening, coffee-drinking, and hiking with her adorable rescue dog Berry.

Kelly Moe-Rossetto is the owner of the socially conscious textile and home goods company, Cardamom Collective. After college she spent a year teaching English in France.

She earned her M.A from the University of Minnesota in Art Education with a minor in International Education. Her project looked at folk arts with an emphasis on traditional Swedish slojd, and how they can be used in both schools and communities to engage people in meaningful ways. Endlessly fascinated by the Silk Road and the Spice Trail, Moe-Rossetto spends her time exploring the way these two great paths allowed travel and the influences of different cultures to intersect across the globe. She enjoys learning new art forms and connecting with others who are driven by the hand made world. She dreams of traveling the Silk Road someday!



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