Merging fair trade and fashion
by Courtney Conover
"Mom is the creative one," says Leif Elias. "I'm more business minded." Elias, twenty-nine, and her mother Nancy Elias, fifty-seven, are co-owners of Orchid Lane, the clothing and jewelry business that Nancy launched when Leif was in kindergarten.
Orchid Lane, Leif explains, grew out of her artist mom's experience living in a Guatemalan village in the 1970s. "My mother got to know the women there, saw the traditional crafts they were making, and wanted to create an outlet to keep them alive," she says. "When women are forced to leave the village and get an industry job, they stop doing the craft, and it dies. My mom didn't want to see that happen."
Returning to the U.S., her mother settled in Ann Arbor and began importing crafts from Guatemala, selling them out of the basement of Bivouac on State. "We were actually out on the street with a little cart, because nobody knew we were down there," Leif Elias recalls. Her stepfather, Bruno Weckert, also an artist, worked with them in growing the start-up. Nancy Elias started a clothing line, which her daughter now helps design.
Twenty-three years later, the business has evolved into two stores on Liberty. Orchid Lane sells a broad range of clothing for women and men-some of which is "eco-chic" and made from recycled fabrics-as well as handcrafted gemstone jewelry, purses, and other items. Next door, Orchid Lane Warehouse sells clothing and accessories for $15 and under.
In Ann Arbor, "we were one of the originators of fair trade" retailing, says Leif Elias. What exactly does fair trade mean? "Selling goods at a fair price," Elias says, "and ensuring that people making the craft get a fair price and fair living wage."
Elias spends about three months a year on the road. She, her husband Chad Snell, and her mother travel to countries like India, Ecuador, Peru, and Mexico to meet their suppliers. "We insist on visiting the factories, the workshops, and the areas where the clothing
is being produced," she says. They talk to the business owners (seventy-five percent of whom are female) and to employees and also look for signs of exploitation: "Is the facility clean? Do they have good facilities and running water? Management is not going to pay their workers unfairly and then maintain nice standards-the conditions and quality of their workspace tell a lot about how workers are being paid." Elias won't be pinned down on what the workers earn, knowing the numbers will seem small by American standards, but insists it's a "living wage" that's higher than other jobs pay in those areas.
Elias is a petite brunette with expressive eyes (she models clothes on the stores' website). Sitting in a cubbyhole in the back of the business office, behind a desk with a couple of small sculptured gourds on it, she is friendly but brisk, eager to get back to work. That's how she is-waking up after knee surgery two years ago, she immediately called the store to make sure everything was running smoothly.
When Elias entered her mother's business, she brought in more clothing. It's aimed at younger women, with form-fitting skirts and pants in contrast to one-size-fits-all skirts and ponchos. Though most items still come from the developing world, some are made in America, and recently she had a few pocketbooks for sale from China (though she generally doesn't like buying Chinese products because she can't easily monitor production conditions there). Last summer, she opened a new store in Lansing, called La Bodega, patterned after the warehouse. She'd like to open other stores.
Carved wooden Buddhas displayed on shelves and the sweet smells of jasmine and incense heighten Orchid Lane's exotic quality. But many customers shop for practical items. Elias welcomes the holiday season, because some of her best-sellers are winter accessories-wool, fleece-lined hats and mittens made in Nepal. A close second: reversible silk skirts made from recycled Indian saris.
A fiercely independent only child and Huron High grad, Elias attended college at Vanderbilt University, where she majored in math and computer science engineering. The school's old-fashioned traditions startled her.
"You didn't attend class in sweats, and guys formally asked girls to attend football games with them-and we'd wear cocktail dresses," she remembers. The experience made her appreciate Ann Arbor all the more.
"I had to leave to realize that I wanted to come back," says Elias. "There's no place like it."
Though she had worked in the family business since she was fourteen, progressing from salesgirl to bookkeeper to buyer, running it herself wasn't originally part of her master plan.
"I sort of felt that people would look at it as a fallback for me. Like I wasn't able to cut it anywhere else," Elias says. But she liked the freedom the store gave her, and her inner entrepreneur emerged. She and her mom did have to make adjustments as co-owners. "A lot of times we fall into a pattern of 'mother-daughter,''' she says. "But my mother does trust my opinion."
And Elias-whose first name, Leif, means "heir"-likes keeping the business in the family. "I have a responsibility," she says, "not only to my parents but to my employees, the community, and the artisans we work with to keep the cycle going."
[Originally published in November, 2009.]