I decided to start Radio Ock Pop Tok with Susan Hull Walker, founder of IBU Movement, for several reasons. IBU Movement’s model is dynamic: they are designers, artisan collaborators, retailers, storytellers and passionate ambassadors for women artisans. When Susan launched IBU five years ago, she galvanised a movement to help heritage skills find space in the modern marketplace and to connect consumers directly with artisan makers.
Team IBU may work across a broad canvas, but under Susan’s brilliant leadership, their efforts are guided by clear, precise vision and tangible results. In addition to increasing sales for artisans from practically every continent, in 2019 Susan launched IBU Foundation to further assist artisan groups. In their first year alone, the Foundation has raised over $400,000 and helped over 1500 women artisans. And, most importantly, Susan has managed to build a community that extends from artisan all the way to consumer and encourages fluid conversation, understanding and support.
Susan and I spoke across multiple time zones and chatted about her determination and inspiration through these challenging times. Here are some excerpts from our conversation about heritage skills, textiles and “language of cloth”.
— Rachna Sachasinh
Rachna: Before you began IBU Movement, you were a minister for 18 years. What inspired you to make the leap from ministering to championing women and handicrafts?
Susan: As a minister, I had a great appreciation for the sacred texts, but I realised that these sacred texts were written by men. In spite of having a deeply fulfilling career as a minister, I always had the gnawing sensation I was wearing someone else’s clothes. Language is a powerful communicator, and I wanted to communicate as a woman. My ‘aha moment’ happened in a market when I was sifting through old, vintage textiles. These textiles were bold and delicate, powerful and restrained. They were deeply expressive and highly impassioned, and they meant something to the maker and the wearer. I realised then and there that the language of women is the language of cloth.
Soon after,I began to seek out women weavers, embroiderers and so forth. Through these interactions, I learned women artisans are matriarchs of their traditions. Across cultures, women express their hopes, dreams, identities, their familial and community bonds, their spiritual beliefs through the language of cloth. I also realised that these traditions are at a crossroads. Unless we continue to value these textiles and this form of expression, we will no doubt lose it. So, I decided to switch gears. When I started IBU, I wasn’t interested in providing “help” or “charity”. IBU is a Malay word used to address women and convey respect. I wanted to build a “movement”, a platform of exchange between women across cultural lines.
2019 was a watershed year for IBU. It was the culmination of many successes and the beginning of the IBU Foundation. Why did you start IBU Foundation?
My aha moment happened in a market when… I realised the language of women is the language of cloth.
While I still believe that doing business with artisans is the best way to generate income and growth, we found that many of our artisan partners were starting way behind the starting line. They didn’t have consistent electricity or the right tool, no computer or even dodgy floors. The Foundation provides support to our partners for infrastructure and operational improvements. The Foundation has also helped the perception and message behind IBU Movement. It underlines our commitment to having long-term, sustainable partners with artisan groups. And, for folks who don’t get hysterical about textiles like I do, it’s a way to help and get involved!
You’ve achieved a lot in five years! What are some factors or strategies that contributed to IBU’s success?
To be honest, I’ve been cultivating and growing the idea for this movement for nearly 30 years. In 2015, I met a few key, high profile people who immediately lent their expertise and support. We received a lot of positive PR which in turn attracted more positive energy. We benefited from a lot of good will, I would say.
Timing is another factor. We began when women’s issues were getting a lot of traction. The #metoo movement, the 100 year anniversary of women’s vote in the United States, plus a general momentum around women and women’s issues. And, in the past few years, there’s been more conversations around beauty, style, equality, high fashion and slow fashion. Handicrafts and folk art have always been seen as “trinkets” or categorised as “bohemian”. We wanted to elevate traditional textiles, to create an experience with textiles and their makers that wasn’t just about getting trinkets from your latest travels. In addition to having a storefront in Charleston, South Carolina and an online shop, we were constantly on the road doing trunk shows. In this way, we were able to build a community of strong supporters and buyers around the country. I think this helped us tremendously.
At IBU, you buy 40% of your products directly from artisans. The remaining 60% are designed in your studio and then you work artisan groups to produce the pieces. Why is this design collaboration important?
Our collaboration honours tradition. We figure out what a particular group can do well, and then we bring knowledge of the market to the process. At the end of the day, we have to be able to sell what we make, so in this regard we need to put forth items that are functional and relevant in modern lifestyles. Some traditional textiles can be overwhelming. Take for example, khamak embroidery from Afghanistan. It’s staggeringly beautiful, but very difficult to wear or use in its original form. So, we scaled down the traditional design and made cocktail napkins and pillows. Adapting skills and scaling heritage patterns keeps them aesthetically pure and functional.
How do you communicate the value of the products to your audience?
We tell stories, a lot of them, a lot of the time! We use our newsletters a lot, 4 times per week in fact! Initially we feared it was too much, but honestly, our customers seem to love them. Each one is different, but each one tells a story. We spotlight an individual artisan or an artisan group at least once a week, highlighting the maker and their journey.
How did Covid impact your retail and online business?
COVID made it clear that our focus has to be on artisans and the sustainability of their work. Everything we do now has to be rooted in the “movement” and it begins with the artisans…
It’s been rough. With both Covid and the Black Lives Matter protests happening concurrently, we had to close our brick and mortar shop and cancel all our trunk shows for the year. I had to make the very tough decision to let go of every non-essential personnel
. I took on marketing, social media and three other tasks myself. We made a short term priority list, which included adjusting our website to make it more user and shopper friendly. We began to reach out to our customers individually to open up lines of communication that would typically happen in person. We reduced our prices by 25% for three months, and we did one big 40% off sale to generate cashflow so we can continue to order from artisans. We discovered people like sales, so we now do occasional “flash Friday” sales on one item.
What are some interventions or Covid-related strategies you have put in place and what has been their outcome?
We upcycled materials from our fall collection and made face masks! They’ve been a huge success, so we quickly ordered more masks from our collaborators. When people jumped online to buy masks, they often left buying one or two other things. IBU Foundation launched a Covid Relief Fund, a special fund just to help artisan groups with basic survival needs, like food and medicine.COVID made it clear that our focus has to be on artisans and the sustainability of their work. Everything we do now has to be rooted in the “movement” and it begins with the artisans…
What have you learned about your operations? Are you equipped to survive economic challenges? What will you put into place to help your business and artisan partners in the future?
I learned that I was burned out! (she laughs) For six years I’ve been working like a banshee, working and traveling like crazy. As things cancelled, I realised that there is a tremendous beauty in being small and effective. I learned that we don’t need a big team, we need a committed team.
What advice, if any, would you give artisan groups who are struggling to survive?
I would say make face masks! It’s an easy thing for folks to buy. I also encourage groups to go online, put as much effort as you can into your website and into creating a library of good images.
In one of your newsletters—which I should mention you write yourself and often straight from the heart!— you describe wearing a mask as an act of humility. And, you go on to say that acknowledging this humility individually and collectively has been an important lesson for you. Can you elaborate on what else the pandemic has revealed to you about yourself and the work you are doing?
When Covid hit, I thought it was going to be the death of IBU. The world suddenly stopped…
Prior to Covid, I would say we were successful in that we managed to stay afloat. We managed to generate enough income for our artisan collaborators and ourselves to keep moving forward. When Covid hit, I thought it was going to be the death of IBU. The world suddenly stopped, everything stopped for each and every one of us. Artisans couldn’t make things, consumers were afraid to buy, stores were boarded up. I experienced exhaustion. Then, after some rest and recovery, I decided it was time to fire back!
For five years, I had focused on building the best business in terms of total sales. But Covid made it clear that our focus has to be on artisans and the sustainability of their work. Everything we do now has to be rooted in the “movement”, and it begins with working directly with artisans to keep their work viable, providing infrastructure support, keeping designs relevant, making sure families are healthy. We have the ability to empower women, but we have to stay dedicated and stick to priorities. This pandemic has helped me return to the heart of what I am doing and what brought me here.
Check our IBU story on heritage skills, textiles and “language of cloth” on Instagram!
Radio OPT is a conversation series on all things artisan moderated by Rachna Sachasinh, long time OPT collaborator.