Ethnotek’s mission to keep culture alive, one bag at a time
Trekking far off the beaten path amongst the solitude of the hills of Sapa, bag designer Jake Orak found himself in a different world, in more ways than one, far from his suburban upbringing in Minnesota (USA). By that 2007 trip, Jake was already onto his second career, after a stint at industrial design for 3M. “There were extremely smart people there; I was having lunch with thermodynamic experts, mechanical engineers and chemists. But it was too big a company for a budding designer. I wanted something more ‘lifestyle,’ a bit more me,” he recalls. He then took on a job as a design intern in Saigon for an international bag company, working his way up to junior designer. “I didn’t know anything about bags,” he confesses. “I thought it was going to be easy. After all, it’s just fabric!” But having access to the sample room, where he could just hand over a sketch to be mocked up was exhilarating. “I learned so much, doing 50 things a day, managing whole collections, from sketches on a napkin all the way to freight on board and into retail.”
It was through the eyes of a bag designer that he appreciated the craftsmanship of the Hmong villages he encountered. “Seeing tribes in their natural environment, just existing, was incredible,” says Jake. “Some didn’t even use money, just trade. I witnessed thriving communities, people with their hands dyed blue from indigo, wearing their traditional dress… I felt incredibly privileged to experience this and I wanted everyone I knew to know about it, that something like this still exists on earth. I felt a sense of responsibility wash over me.”
Suppressing his first impulse to quit his job and join an NGO somewhere, he thought: “I’m a bag designer. Let’s be proactive and design something!” Jake remembers sitting down after a long trek in Bac Ha and writing in his journal about how inspired he felt, thinking how many other places there were like this in the world with basic human diversity and tradition still intact. “It’s gotta be rare and I want to help protect it,” he wrote.
But then, as it often happens, life went on. Jake moved to Los Angeles to become the senior designer for another high-end bag company. However, the idea for creating bags using local fabrics was rekindled when he spotted a shop selling African textiles while cycling in downtown LA. He recognized, though, that the idea of working directly with individuals in remote villages was simply not compatible with the large quantity sourcing required by a big company. “At the end of the day, it was just creating junk that’s produced in a factory with no real meaning. It’s a product without a soul,” he says of the mainstream bag industry. “I wanted to create something more meaningful while sustaining myself, a product that does some good in the world, but at the same time be practical. Something that improves people’s lives not just because of social good, but because it’s functional. It had to have a tech side and not just be a hippy dippy slouchy bag.”
Jake started sourcing textiles in 2010 and launched Ethnotek (www.ethnotekbags.com) in 2011. Trips involve a lot of research, attested to by ethnic textile books and a stack of Lonely Planets in his office. “There’s usually only one tiny blurb on where to get textiles,” he laments. “You can only do so much research. In the end, you just have to parachute in and ask someone who’ll usually first take you to a souvenir shop. It’s only when I explain that I want to meet the family who made this and order from them every three months forever, that they’ll say: ‘Oh! So you want to go to my cousin’s house!’”
Jake then spends two to three weeks with these families to gain their trust. “It’s a business-to-business relationship. It’s not a charity,” he says. “These people don’t want handouts. They want you to buy the things they create. They don’t want to leave their home to get a job in a factory. They want to stay at home and work from home. That keeps the kids in the village and it passes on the knowledge.” The time spent in the villages also allows Jake to work through a detailed protocol of finding out more about the artisan’s process, everything from whether the dyes used are natural or synthetic, where the cotton comes from, where the dye is disposed and what motifs mean. He also needs to be sure villagers have an export license and are tech savvy, being able to use email, receive wire transfers and understand shipping methods. Respecting fair trade standards also means asking about working hours, where the artisans live and how far they have to commute (in the case of collective weaving centers).
Jake now sources textiles from Vietnam, Indonesia, Ghana, Guatemala and India. A small factory in Vietnam turns these fabrics into “threads,” interchangeable covers for backpacks and messenger bags, and a range of chic travel accessories (think travel wallets and iPad covers). His Vietnamese textiles are embroidered by Red Hmong, Black Hmong and Flower Hmong villages in northern Vietnam and on looms in the Cham communities near Phan Rang. This month, he’s visiting the K’Ho minority tribes outside of Dalat. “That’s the story for all ethnic minorities here in Vietnam. They’re either being pushed out or put on display. Ethnocide faces the biggest threat here because there’s no support. It’s really important for us to restore demand, to bring business to these places where the people are trying to get by on agriculture or by conforming. I feel a sense of urgency when I visit the villages,” he says.
His work has seen results, though. He still gets goose bumps when talking about a village in India where Ethnotek started out collaborating with a single family of four, weaving three months out of the year. Ethnotek’s success has now allowed them to engage six looms in two villages weaving eight to 10 months out of the year. The goal for every village they work with is to provide year-round sustainable employment. “We pay 50 percent up front to artisans so they don’t have to fund raw materials and production themselves,” he says of the company’s humane business model. “We take on a lot of risk to help the artisans and not exploit them in any way. They produce what they want at the pace they’re able to. For example, if you go beyond the Sapa Sunday Market, you’ll see that embroidering fabric is what a lot of Hmong people are doing in their free time ― when it’s raining or in between harvests… It’s a passive sourcing model because we’re taking what they want to do, not pushing them to do anything. Once they understand my intentions are pure and I’m there to help them spread the story about their culture to a wider audience which translates into more business for them, they get really excited.”
With only two salaried employees (including Jake), Ethnotek has come a long way from its humble beginnings. Just two weeks after launching, REI, a US-based outdoor retail company with more than 130 stores, called to say they wanted to carry Ethnotek products. The Ethnotek “fulfillment center” is no longer Jake’s mom’s basement. And the ETK “tribe” as Jake calls his customers, is growing stronger by the day. “Tribe implies a sense of community around the mission and the product. People feel ownership on a deeper level than just buying a bag and going away. When people send in their photos with them and their bag on social media, I get stoked, super happy. That’s instant gratification, seeing someone I don’t even know, just loving their bag. In a sense, they become cultural consultants, helping to spread the message. That’s extremely rewarding and makes all the struggle worthwhile. This is a personal, emotional business.”
While owning your own business and getting to design and travel for a living is a dream job for almost anyone, in the end, it’s about the survival of these unique, beautiful people spread across three continents. “It’s like the Latin language going extinct, but here, you see things disappearing in front of your eyes. In Cham villages, every house has two looms ― one for the older generation and one for the younger generation to learn. Sadly, I’ve seen a lot of these looms collecting dust and moved out of the house and into the yard. Helping to preserve these cultures by applying it to a product is more sustainable, like buying coffee beans directly from the person that grows it, rather than donating something where someone will take a cut and pass it on to someone else who’ll also take a cut before eventually getting to the person it’s supposed to.”
Much more than a hippy dippy, Kumbaya startup, the story behind Ethnotek is just as compelling as the one of the villages it’s helping to save, the ultimate in ‘survival’ gear.
I really wanted to like Ethnotek’s Acaat messenger. But inspiring backstory aside, the pragmatist in me needed to know whether the bag was worth the price point and wouldn’t be confused for something Sapa-inspired that I could pick up on Bui Vien. In a word, yes and yes. As a travel writer, at minimum I carry an iPad with keyboard case and a DSLR (sometimes with more than one lens) everywhere I go. On longer trips, a laptop comes along. The problem with most messenger bags for me is that the body of the bag is too slim, with little give on the sides, which makes for a very awkward fit considering the bulkiness of the camera. The acaat messenger not only has a padded sleeve for a laptop (with an unexpected textile finish and a fuzzy poly-tricot lining), there’s also a second sleeve that fits a tablet. The generous 20-liter body is large enough to house a camera and a couple of lenses with plenty of room to spare without being unwieldy to carry. There are also four slip pockets for accessories as well as a zippered pocket for documents. If you’re not using the luggage trolley pass-through on the back, zip it up and it becomes another large pocket. The ‘tech’ side of ethnotek comes through with some geek features, like removable bumper inserts (to snugly fit a 13” laptop) and a stabilizer strap, so you can cinch the bag close to your body, handy for running through airports or when riding a bike, true messenger-style.
Small touches are also well thought out, like the extra loop to hang your bag up and off the ground, or the compression straps on the bottom of the bag that double as a place to roll up your jacket or a yoga mat. Another gripe of mine is narrow straps that bite into your shoulders when the bag is fully loaded. Thankfully, ethnotek’s bag has a wide padded strap while judicious use of Velcro makes everything easily accessible, including the ability to change out your thread (the textile flap on the front of the bag). While the bag itself is solid (made in Vietnam of 840-denier water-resistant ballistic nylon) and comes with some really nice features, its uniqueness springs from the interchangeable threads. I bought an extra one (more muted and not out of place at business meetings) and love that I can carry a tangible piece of Vietnam with me wherever I travel. My one reservation with the bag is actually with the handmade textile covers wearing out with use, but at USD29-39 for a new cover, it’s a small price to pay to basically reinvent your bag.
Acaat Messenger Bag
Retail: USD139-169 (depending on the textile)
In Vietnam, email: firstname.lastname@example.org for an Oi reader discount
Images provided by Ethnotek