In the last two years, I have developed a better understanding of the fantastic skills and traditions found in Nepal that are still very close to their roots. It’s not so long ago that such skills were passed on from father to son, through generations. Whilst older artisans are trying to attract new generations in learning and continuing these skills, a new wave of contemporary artisans are putting value back into their tradition, making space for a contemporary and sustainable industry.
French-born designer Marina Shrestha has worked in the handicrafts industry in Nepal since 1991. She later developed her brand into what is now known as Marina Vaptzarova, a well-reputed local business setting high standards in sustainable luxury from Nepal.
I sat down with her in her serene garden in Kathmandu to gain insight into how Nepali artisans and their crafts have the potential and place in the international market.
You have worked in the handicrafts industry in Nepal for over 27 years. What major developments have you noticed?
I started in 1991 with designing sweaters and jewellery using natural materials from the forest. The big difference I see now is that local artisans have started to understand, the importance of design, which they didn’t understand at all at that time.
There is more care for quality in finishing and doing things correctly from the start. For example, before making a book was just making a book; they wouldn’t care or mind if it is crooked! Before you wouldn’t find anything straight in the houses built. So even the notion of a right angle was something difficult to comprehend.
Design and quality are improved overall. There have been developments and introductions or upgrades of new materials like felt and more importance has been given to Pashmina.
What prompted you to begin your business in Nepal?
Everything happened by chance. I never really decided to start a business. Someone challenged me saying that lampshades cannot be made in Nepal; so I proved her wrong! I continued to make paper-based corporate gifts for local companies and the business grew with a France-based multi-retailer. I followed the wind and things moved on from there. Ultimately, I’m a designer and never had business plans!
What is your favourite material to work with? And why?
I don’t have an absolute favourite but I would say I found Nepali paper very interesting due to its quality and strength. It’s also interesting that you can only find it in the Himalaya, so it’s very special. This may be the strongest paper due to the very long fibres of the Daphne bark it is made with. I saw a lot of possibilities with that and the fact that it is handmade and also has irregularities makes everything a bit different and unique.
I was also interested in other natural textiles at a time when we never spoke about sustainability and ecology. I just liked it! I thought it was nice to use what is available and what is natural; it made me feel good. Just like the vegetal leather that I created – Daphley; it’s made from the same fibres that make the paper and has a very soft touch. I care a lot for the touch; the feeling is really important, not only the aesthetics.
How does sustainability play into your designs?
I’m lucky in a way that my designs were made from sustainable raw materials. I first used them because I found them nice, not so much for ecological reasons. Later I continued to use these materials because when the debate came I wanted to follow sustainable practices. It is difficult to be 100% sustainable; there are some elements I need to outsource like zippers for example, but at least it’s metal, not plastic. Things have to be practical too. It is important that not only the product is natural and ecological but also that the raw materials themselves are not depleting the planet. The source itself and the production process must be sustainable.
What importance do sustainability and ethical manufacturing have in your business?
I really like the idea of adopting traditions, culture and skills. You begin with its idea, and by means of adaptation to your design, your product is given a life and story. It provides a link to a past that arouses emotion within us. I’ve mixed up different traditions to create a product and this is really interesting. You can travel without actually going to the place; the creation thus sustains traditions, crafts and skills. Read my recent blog post on Story Telling Through Design.
Ethical and sustainable business practices are important. As someone recently remarked, “oh when I see you your products I can feel that the person making it is happy!” Sensitive people can sense this energy. It feels good. It cannot feel this way if the person making it was suffering.
The materials I choose to work with like daphne fibres, nettle weave and hemp weave are all sustainable at the source, and are all processed by hand as I already explained.
How does this compare to the reality of the industry?
Marina Vaptzarova products are entirely handmade in Nepal from plant harvest to finish, with exceptional cases with regard to zips and buttons. Each process uses very little energy; only physical energy as everything is done by hand! In fact, even in the workshop little electricity is consumed. We try to ensure that all our suppliers and artisans along the production chain are also manufacturing ethically and sustainably; my team regularly holds discussions with our suppliers on how to improve processes.
My company enjoys a very low employee turnover rate; most of my team members have been with me since the early 90s! Moreover, the wellbeing of each employee was always important for me. Each member receives a fair salary, above the industry norm, and other health and insurance benefits, as well as up to 80% school fees for their children – from the beginning of my business I operated this way when this was not the industry norm.
How do you view the handicraft industry in Nepal compared to what is being produced in other countries?
I find that making things in small quantities is easier in Nepal than in India. Artisans are ready to do things that others are not. That’s why Nepal is weaving a lot of Pashmina; they can produce small quantities for handloom. It’s a different scale in general.
Each one has its own quality. In Nepal, there are still many things that are very close to the roots. I tried to make jewellery in other countries when Nepal was going through internal war. So I went to look in India; they would do unique things but not others’ designs, and only in large quantity. In Bali, they charged a high price to create a mould and make according to the mould, but that’s not really handmade! I even went to the Golden Triangle tribes – they make some crazily intricate work but again not other designers’ work.
In Nepal, they really do make every piece by hand. I know because sometimes for a quality check you can definitely tell that there was no mould! I’ve managed to produce designs in Nepal with designs inspired by cultures from all corners of the world.
A lot of the skills are still passed down from father to son as it was since many generations. Until now it is still alive as you can see in certain parts of Patan and there are some efforts in keeping this activity alive. These old cities in Nepal are still alive and have not yet become a museum devoid of life.
What are the main challenges of working with artisans in Nepal and how have you overcome these challenges over the years?
I don’t know if I’ve overcome it! Nepali artisans are quite soft and easy to work with, without much resistance, but the quality aspects and checking need to continuously be monitored. My team have really come a long way with this. Most often than not, they can detect defects in a product quite quickly.
My artisan team have made considerable developments: at the beginning they would love to do the same thing, repeating it and once they’ve nailed it they would enjoy doing it again and again. Now it’s the opposite; they are happy to try new things and understand that this is more interesting. They have also learnt to become more inquisitive and understand why they are doing things rather than just following instructions. This way they can also be sometimes involved in problem-solving and the design process.
You advocate that Nepal can produce high-quality raw materials and finished goods for the international market? How? Why?
I would say mostly finished goods. Nepal has good quality raw materials like nettle and hemp – their natural look is interesting. What is more interesting is doing something perfect with something like handmade nettle weave or hemp weave; I believe Nepali artisans can do this given the proper designs.
I feel that the outside perception of Nepal, except perhaps for Pashmina production, is that we can only produce cheap things of low quality. I believe that is a false perception. There are enough high-quality crafts for having a centre that is something between a museum and concept store where only with the most refined craftsmanship would display this ability and skill. Buyers often go to trade fairs in India and there is little of this activity happening in Nepal. Such a concept will display excellent skills from Nepali artisans and can attract more tourism and serious potential buyers who value high-quality design. Also creating such concept store can attract local artisans back to Nepal where they would be of higher value, such as statue makers who have left to continue their trade in China for financial reasons.
What is the one thing you would tell the young artisans of today?
Go for quality and design. Don’t be like others. Do your own thing. Dare to stand out.
Design and creativity have a big importance in every business. There is so much competition, you cannot do like your neighbour. Design and creativity are so important and valid for success, be it personal or in your professional career.
There are so many things you need to think about in business. If you want to scale up you need to consider developing a team to cover finance, marketing and design. If you can have this combination, you are likely to be more successful. It’s very difficult to scale up if you are the designer, the manager, the finance director, the production manager, the marketing expert … and so on.
Always remember your responsibility towards the wellbeing of the staff you employ and their future with your company.
You can start by subcontracting work and anticipate what problems may arise. Be clear on what you expect and what you will not accept. Keep insisting until you find solutions with them, when they say they cannot do it – most often because they have not done it before. Don’t give up on your idea; be ready for creative problem-solving. Keep drilling it in – find a way to seek the result you are looking for.
Have knowledge about what you’re asking your artisans to do. You don’t have to be doing it yourself, just know how it works and be able to explain the technicalities. This way you can develop further because the artisans respect you.
Marina Shrestha is the designer for Marina Vaptzarova.
She also offers her services as a Design Consultant with boutique hotels and resorts for interior accessories.
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