Ali Hynek, founder and CEO of Nena and Co., outlines creating a handbag business that values her products’ quality and her employees’ standard of living.
“It’s a lot more than only a bag” is embedded in to the culture of Nena & Co., a Utah-based company that pays a good wage to very skilled artisans who produce high-quality niche handbags and accessories. Nena works together with master weavers and craftsmen in Guatemala, Ghana, Mexico and Morocco. Weaving fabric thread by thread, then stitching hand-cut leather pieces on traditional sewing machines, they create beautiful one-of-a-kind and limited-edition products that are innovative in design and produced sustainably and responsibly.
This approach–part of an evergrowing “slow-fashion” movement that emphasizes quality and fairness for both producers and consumers–helps to create Nena apart and is a significant element in its growth and success in the last six years. “Each individual inside our company is important and incredibly real to us,” says Ali Hynek, Nena & Co.’s founder and CEO.
Hynek, who spent the first years of her career employed in the corporate world, can be an avid traveler and lover of fashion. While visiting her mother’s native country of Guatemala , she observed beautiful and meticulously made textiles which were woven yourself or on foot loom that took hours and sometimes days to create and were then paired with inferior handbag design and construction.
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The idea of Nena & Co. began to take form. “What I knew in the beginning was that I needed to accomplish something with artists, and I needed to accomplish it in Guatemala,” she reflects. Hynek and her mother/business partner Cony Larsen began looking for freelance artisans from Guatemalan markets to put together beautiful, high-quality sample handbags to check the UNITED STATES market. After learning the interest was there, her business plan begun to take shape.
Hynek saw a chance to create a plan that remained true to her values. On her behalf, only a for-profit company that treated its employees with respect and fairness would work. “What I kept hearing was these talented Guatemalan seamstresses, craftsmen, and weavers wished to work but didn’t have the outlet to market what they could produce,” she says. “I saw a chance for Nena & Co. to become reliable client these artisans could depend on to get their fabrics and in so doing, create a steady income source for them.” She felt this may be a win-win. Nena & Co. could create a beautiful and well-made bag with her vision, and at exactly the same time, keep carefully the integrity of the weavers’ designs and pay a full time income wage that empowers local artisans to perform their own enterprise. Hynek wished to understand that every artisan attempting to create her product had been treated fairly and with respect.
Like the majority of entrepreneurs, Hynek and her partners knew it made sense to start out small but ultimately went against the advice of several by choosing to create manufacturing in Guatemala. She didn’t want her creations to be mass-produced in a factory being unsure of the task environment and conditions.
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She also knew that being truly a good employer involved a lot more than paying a decent wage. In the first days of dealing with her Guatemalan weavers, Hynek learned that hearing their needs before her own paid. She recalls placing a little order of fabric that her weavers submitted to her promptly, but with inconsistent dimensions. We were holding master weavers in a freehand technique that’s mastered over decades. After questioning the range of sizes, Hynek learned that all weaver used her own hands to measure length; a thumb was about an inch, and pinky finger to thumb was 6 inches. The easy step of purchasing a measuring tape allowed these artisans to become more precise, made the customers pleased with consistency, and helped generate repeat customers.
Since its from 2013, Nena & Co. has experienced enviable growth and success. Although Guatemala is near to the heart of the brand’s origins, Nena & Co.’s true passion has been empowering people which have a desire to work and a love because of their weaving heritage. New artisans and products were added from Morocco and Ghana, and the brand is excitedly getting ready to launch their upcoming Mexico collection. Ali can recall placing an ad in the neighborhood paper in Antigua, Guatemala seeking to make those initial first hires to now having over 150 leather craftsmen/women and over 200 weavers in Guatemala alone. “We’ve gone global searching for talented artisans who want sustainable income at fair wage incomes,” says Hynek. “For instance, we have now partner with artisans in Ghana – where we are verified members of the Fair Trade Federation–and our newest partner weavers are Berber women from Morocco. The majority of our weavers are women and so are now the primary income earners within their households and so are very pleased with it.”
Nena & Co.’s marketing, which leans heavily on social media and an expansive visual story-telling element of its website, taps into its customer’s growing interests in fair trade products. “Our objective for connecting our consumer to your makers is quite clear,” says Hynek. “We wish our customers to learn the faces that induce their Nena & Co. products, read their stories and feel the humanity along the way of its construction.”
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“Our dedication to paying fair wages will not deter from Nena. Actually, it’s quite contrary,” she explains. “Our customers experience a lovely and well-made bag that’s unique, so when they find out about how their bags are created, and how those workers are treated, it deepens their experience with this company. In marketing terms, we say it drives more passion in to the brand. Everyone feels good if they buy a Nena bag. We quite literally have confidence in ‘wea