She’s Gotta Have It

From Colombia to Bolivia, from Ecuador to Peru, tastemaker Marcella Echavarria forages in the hidden corners of South America for that elusive one perfect thing.

"They do not have chairs in New York?" asks the captain of the Sikuanis, an indigenous Co-lombian group residing in the Llanos valley between the Andes and the Orinoco River. We sit in a circle around the maloca (hut), men and women smoking Piel Roja cigarettes, drinking strong coffee, and singing. Trucks idle nearby, waiting to be loaded with 30 ritual stools bound for Manhattan. Surevolution, the company I founded to support South American artisans, is importing them for Donna Karan. It is the first time the Sikuanis’ work is being shown outside their community—an idea, the tribe’s younger members tell the elders, that is key to their survival. "I’m a designer, too," the captain’s wife says when I explain to the women that the stools their husbands are carving need to be ready be-cause Karan is waiting. They come to see me in their colorful floral silk dresses, very much in sync with the spring fashion runways.

I have always been obsessed with the designs that others overlook, don’t care about, or even find ugly, funny, outré: the ruffle of a Bolivian woman’s skirt peeking

They do not have chairs in New York?" asks the captain of the Sikuanis, an indigenous Co-lombian group residing in the Llanos valley between the Andes and the Orinoco River. We sit in a circle around the maloca (hut), men and women smoking Piel Roja cigarettes, drinking strong coffee, and singing. Trucks idle nearby, waiting to be loaded with 30 ritual stools bound for Manhattan. Surevolution, the company I founded to support South American artisans, is importing them for Donna Karan. It is the first time the Sikuanis’ work is being shown outside their community—an idea, the tribe’s younger members tell the elders, that is key to their survival. "I’m a designer, too," the captain’s wife says when I explain to the women that the stools their husbands are carving need to be ready be-cause Karan is waiting. They come to see me in their colorful floral silk dresses, very much in sync with the spring fashion runways.

I have always been obsessed with the designs that others overlook, don’t care about, or even find ugly, funny, outré: the ruffle of a Bolivian woman’s skirt peeking out from under her heavy wool poncho, that bag every Colombian carries to market on Sunday mornings. For ten years I’ve traveled through remote villages in South America to find those one-of-a-kind artisans who create one-of-a-kind crafts. I was only 23 when I began my journey. I had just graduated from Brown University with a degree in Latin American history and literature. What did I know about Bolivian wares or ecologically farmed crocodile? I then worked as a journalist in my native Colombia and consulted with organizations partnering with local craftsmen, advising them how to best support the artists. I ultimately grew frustrated with the lack of cooperation and decided one day, in Piura (a town in northern Peru dedicated to the most exquisite filigree work), that if I really wanted to help I would have to do it myself. So I came to New York and rang up Donna Karan. No (to an-swer the first question on everyone’s mind), I did not know her but had long admired her and believed Karan would understand what I hoped to achieve. She did. A year later my company, Surevolution, came into being.

When the Sikuanis’ stools are finally on their way, I leave the village and travel farther north, forever in search of more local creations. The border between Colombia and Venezuela is inhabited by the Wayüus, a matriarchal nomadic society with its own language and laws. I observe a group of women sitting in ceremonial hammocks and weaving a collection of mochilas. The indigenous bag forms circular shapes, a symbol of the tribe’s belief that in this world there is no before and after. The weaving only stops when a member of the clan dies. For nine days there is no work, only chanting, sharing, and bonding. The mochilas arrive late in New York; the season is over. They missed the chance to be part of Tory Burch’s collection. No matter, life continues in the desert.

I head north to Ecuador to find paja toquilla, the fiber used to make the traditional Panama hats worn by Fidel Castro and every Latin American president. It’s become an important material for the latest collections from Ralph Lauren: folded into belts that are best sellers in Palm Beach and the new Tokyo store; shaped into pillows that will be displayed on couches in Hamptons summer homes. The weavers are hard to locate. Many have abandoned their craft and returned to the coca fields, which offer a much more profitable means of making a living. My goal is to change that practice by giving the weavers a way of supporting themselves through their art, allowing their traditions to be passed down from generation to generation.

Down in Bolivia, a country I believe to be the world’s best-kept secret, there exist 300 indigenous varieties of potatoes. Here, this basic vegetable becomes an inspiration for hand-hammered silver bowls that celebrate its imperfections, irregularities, earthiness. Natives regale me with stories about the colonial splendor of the city of Potosí. Lore has it that the amount of silver taken to Spain during colonization could have built a bridge between America and Europe. The bowls are borne of a desire to unite these two worlds, so far apart yet so close in their essence and their search for meaning and means.

Back in New York, the objects I bring from these remote regions speak of another pace of life, other paradigms, and vanishing techniques. They offer a new world of possibilities and hope. And a new way of understanding what luxury really means.

Those interested in Surevolution’s work can call 212-255-6928 or visit surevolution.com. Jewelry (necklaces, from $1,200) and home products—such as silver bowls, from $815, and crocodile pillows, from $375—are sold at Donna Karan, 866-240-4700. Accessories like market bags (from $2,200) are available at Barneys, 212-826-8900, and Takashimaya, 212-350-0010.

Marcella Echavarria Wrote about the Coleccion cisneros in the October 2006 South America issue.